Andrew Wiseman explores the obsession about one-number scores and the risks to business success

One of the juggernauts of the insight world over the last quarter-century has been a move towards having a one-number score to highlight current business performance – in customer experience, in brand measurement, in product development. One number scores are great in many ways – in that they give organisations a focal point to think about, and certainly in some cases, are simple to communicate to non-technical audiences.

Much of the blame for this obsession with one-number scores is often put at the door of Fred Reichheld. Reichheld published his now seminal 2003 paper “The One Number You Need to Grow” in the Harvard Business Review, which most of us now know as the genesis of the Net Promoter Score approach to measuring customer loyalty. However, those of us with careers that pre-date 2003 know that NPS was just another one-number score to add to the myriad others already being used in organisations – the likes of customer satisfaction indices (CSIs) and brand equity scores (BESs) already being well established. NPS came to prominence due to its ease of understanding, being a simple subtraction of detractors from promoters, rather than a complex index consisting of numerous different measures.

But what does this fixation with ‘the number’ mean for actually improving brand perceptions or customer experiences? And what about action planning?

Single number scores have become a currency for measuring the overall performance of many organisations. The danger with this is that in isolation, these scores are blunt instruments.  Without qualitative or statistical diagnosis of the score, it becomes impossible to effectively plan programmes of activity to improve performance. Rather, what businesses tend to do are twofold: First, those organisations focusing on the next monthly data instalment fall into panic mode based on non-significant moves in often highly volatile scores and second, there is a disincentive to take action as another data point is around the corner.  We, as agency experts in these fields, should argue for less fieldwork and use those savings to conduct more intelligent analysis.

Fundamentally, one number scores are outcome measures. Rather than focusing on these, organisations should focus on better diagnostic measurement: qualitative deep-dives, advanced sentiment/text analysis, identifying the key drivers of the score for their business, and fusing this data with behavioural data to really understand which levers to pull. For organisations, following this approach, the one number will look after itself. For those who fail to do so, the continued hamster-wheel of small movements month-to-month will continue to be the norm.