Podcast

Episode: 192 |
Adam Braff:
Data and Analytics:
Episode
192

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

Adam Braff

Data and Analytics

Show Notes

Our guest today is Adam Braff, a former McKinsey Partner who has held senior executive roles responsible for data and analytics, and is today an independent advisor to private equity firms, corporate senior leaders, and boards in multiple industries on how to extract more business value from their investments in data and analytics.

In this episode Adam shares several case studies of how he has helped clients get better results from their data, and he explains what roast chicken has to do with business intelligence.

I enjoy Adam’s blog posts, and you can sign up to receive his blog updates and read all about his work at https://braff.co

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will Bachman 00:00
Hello, Adam, welcome to the show. Thanks for having me. Adam, tell me one or two things about call centers that I don’t know,

Adam Braff 00:07
the people who work in call centers are a, a pretty eclectic bunch. I think what they all have in common is a lot of patience, and a lot of tolerance for dealing with difficult callers like me and my family. And also difficult systems and the swiveling across 17 different screens to answer our question, typically have a lot of consultants passing through their lives and telling them how to make things better. And they can be a little jaded when you show up as the 20th. consultant. But there are ways of getting through to their hearts and and making things work.

Will Bachman 00:39
Oh, you tweak my interest? What are some of the ways to get to their hearts?

Adam Braff 00:45
Well, a lot of what you want to do in a call center in this indirectly bears on the data and analytics work that I spend most of my time doing is helping the agent create a win win, where there’s something that’s good for the consumer who’s calling as well as good for the agent and good for the good for the company. So any tool that helps the agent answer the customer’s question and do it quickly and shorten the call and prevent another call from happening is a is one of these triple wins. And sometimes analytics can help with problems like that, such as using artificial intelligence to create a knowledge base that helps the agent understand what the customer is talking about, and to provide an answer that has historically been useful for this purpose. So those are the things that are that are really helpful.

Will Bachman 01:31
Yeah. Boy, I’m, I’m probably one of the people that it gives them a headache. It’s so frustrating sometimes. Darwin calls it Why do you call center reps always say Let me place you on a bleep brief hold what why’d Why do they not want to? Why do they want to go on mute?

Adam Braff 01:47
I didn’t know that people want to think out loud, necessarily. It’s like doing public math, it’s a little a little complicated. They also are probably trying to reach out to another person in the in the room who is able to help them on this question. And very often the person that they call their supervisor is just another peer of theirs who just happens to have expertise on the subject. But rather than make you listen to all that back and forth, I think it’s also more pleasant to be put on hold.

Will Bachman 02:12
Okay, so I got this Will Bachman on all these like, still knowing. And, you know, they’d rather put me on hold. So they can say, hey, how in the world do I do this thing? Yeah, asking for this refund or whatever.

Adam Braff 02:26
And one thing you should know is if they, if you’re not hearing hold music, they put you on mute instead of on hold. So you should do whatever you can not to insult them while while you’re sitting there not hearing anything.

Will Bachman 02:35
That is one thing that is really frustrating is you know, getting put on hold and not having like and not having a choice like you’d think now like you could they could say well plus one for know music, press two for some jazz press three for you know, you think that you’d be able to choose the hold music or or mute? It would be nice. It would be nice. It would be one day, one day we’ll get there. Alright, well, that’s my that’s my 2030 kind of goals. But let’s turn to your current work. So I mean, that was that was I think we may still do some of that. When you’re at McKinsey, I know you did a lot of work on that you started I think the customer experience practice, right? That’s correct. But today, you have your own consulting firm, and you effectively function as sort of an outsource or interim, or, you know, Chief Data Analytics officer, right. I’d love to hear about your current practice.

Adam Braff 03:27
Sure. So the thing that I do now is I help companies figure out how to make a market between the data that they have and the business problems they have matching up their supply and demand. And it’s often a question of figuring out what are the biggest business problems that they’re trying to solve, whether that’s acquiring new customers, or upselling, the customers they have, or managing credit risk, and matching that up with the data assets that they have potentially data assets they can collect from the outside or buy from the outside, and then wrapping all that up together in a well governed program, and doing all the things that a chief analytics officer and a chief data officer do for for a company

Will Bachman 04:07
explained to me those two different terms of Chief analytics officer, chief data officer, is it the same thing are those different roles,

Adam Braff 04:15
typically different roles, sometimes you’ll see them merge together or the word digital will be thrown in there. The chief analytics officer by tradition is someone who’s descended from the business and who reports into one of the business leaders or the CFO, or the CEO. And this is a person who is working from the question of how do we help this business achieve their objectives using analytics? So the chief analytics officer is doing things like using customer lifetime value frameworks, and figuring out what sort of analysis is going to be precise enough to answer questions that the business needs answered, or if we had to have a management dashboard that would inform the business on how to how to manage Different parts of the hierarchy. What would go into that? And what are the requirements, the chief data officer is traditionally someone who is reporting into the IT department, and who takes those requirements and turns them into reality, either by creating a production version of a dashboard that somebody has marked up, or by doing what I call defense, making sure that the data is well governed and well organized and well defined, well defined, and that the people who are supposed to have access to it have access to it and others do not. So the the two roles when they are different people work hand in hand. And typically the chief analytics officer is one of the big clients of the chief data officer. And you mentioned digital is I’ve also heard of Chief Digital Officer, how is that role different? Usually, that role refers to somebody who’s working in digital channels, web and mobile and focusing on transformation programs, such as digitizing operations that previously had been very manual or paper based in a company’s those channels have already been digitized. And it’s a question of making them run better. So making the website run more smoothly easier for taking orders or for doing customer service, making the mobile apps perform better, right? Those are the sorts of things that a Chief Digital Officer might do. Fantastic. I’d love to hear some case examples that you’ve worked on, you know, either currently with your current firm or in your past life at McKinsey, kind of walking us through a case example of you know, how that it can illustrates how companies are, are used using data to solve business problems, and ensure I, I was working with a consumer bank, that in the financial crisis had to figure out how to both play offense and defense. So figure out how to mine all the data from all of its customer relationships and credit cards and retail banking and mortgage and auto lending, and solve problems like Who should we be lending to now, in the financial crisis, when we’re not sure, who’s a good credit risk anymore? Who should we add into the pile of people who get mortgages and take out of that pile? At the same time? They had marketing challenges and questions which customers should we be trying to attract into the business? And what should we be targeting them rife in the wide range of products that we have available? They also had questions about fraud, often a person committing fraud against this bank, where they hit multiple products and multiple channels, that could be tied back to some single data elements such as a phone call or an address. But without linking together the systems to say what that address was, you would never be able to tell that it was it was hitting them from different angles. And they also had questions about operations and customer experience. How do we mind the complaints that we’re receiving from different customers, which are giving us a regulatory headache as well as causing business problems for us? So that project was about mapping many to many, many different data sets on many different business units against many different business problems? And how do you go about doing something like that? Like, what what

Will Bachman 08:12
kind of what are the phases or the chronology of a project like that?

Adam Braff 08:17
The first phase of a project like that is to do the listening tour and to talk to all of the different people in the business, chiefly people who run business units or staff functions, and to find out what problems they have, what problems are they trying to solve, because most of these problems are ultimately things that can be solved in part, with data and analytics, you often have to add on to that a lot of people and culture and process change as well. But very often, there are problems that lend themselves to an analytical approach. So in the example of the marketing use cases, if the bankers who are trying to figure out whether this new customer is someone who should be pitched an investment product versus just a credit card, those bankers would benefit from knowing the liquid net assets of the customer, either for prospecting purposes, or to decide how that conversation should flow. And so there’s an analytical way to give an estimate, that’s good enough to that banker and put it in front of them so that they’re able to have the right conversation with that customer and make everyone happy. So the first phase of the project is the discovery phase to figure out what are those those business problems? And how and how big are they basically, what is the combination of impact and time to value and risk to the business in pursuing them?

Will Bachman 09:40
Okay, and then what comes next?

Adam Braff 09:42
So, from that set of discussions, what I do is create a kind of a roadmap of maturity over time. So where is this business going to head over the next three years in their data analytics journey? And what is the what is the size of the prize from doing this? Right? Because it may be that the answer for Anyone business is not to pursue data and analytics as a major program, because they have other priorities to pursue. Assuming that they pass the first gate of deciding that this project is is worth pursuing as a initiative at the firm level, then you get to questions about how to how to go after it, how to tackle it. And that phase gets more into drilling into specific use cases and saying, Well, what, what is the market between data and analytics and capabilities? How do we put those things together in a way that will create something valuable in the near term? And what team do we need to have to make that happen? And what processes Do we need to have to make that happen? And how much data governance Do we need to have? And what kind of infrastructure do we need? So assessing all of that, and then putting together a plan of action

Will Bachman 10:48
to go after it? You mentioned data governance a couple times, can you describe that term for me, and what’s it look like in practice,

Adam Braff 10:55
data governance is a little bit like if you think about all of the data that’s sitting on your computer, if you dump everything into one big folder, if you just leave all your email hanging out, and you and you have a hard time searching through it, and finding the thing you need, data governance is solving that kind of a problem, but across multiple people in an organization. So it is all about putting together the structure, and the and the processes and definitions of things. And the rules around who is going to make sure that different terms are well defined and complied with all of that, all that good stuff to keep data organized in a big, complex organization. And there are tools to help you do it. There are tools that help you organize your data dictionaries in such a way that they are searchable. And they can be updated by the data owners and tools that lets you keep track of which data sets talk to other data sets. So you know, if you change one, it’s going to have effects on the others. So it’s a well developed domain that normally would sit underneath the chief data officer. And it’s an enabler of doing great things inside of complex organizations that have a ton of data.

Will Bachman 12:09
So if that element hasn’t really been involved, evolved, yet, probably one of the steps if a company’s data is all islanded, and not connected, and probably one of the early steps would be to work on putting all that governance in place, and connections and so forth, and definitions, cleaning it up a bit.

Adam Braff 12:26
Yeah, and putting data together has a ton of benefits, it enables people in different parts of the business to discover data that they wouldn’t have otherwise thought about. And it enables you to, you know, test the quality of one data set against another data set, there are lots of benefits to having all of your data in one place and typically, in the cloud, so that you can you can model these things out quickly, and you can put them into into production.

Will Bachman 12:49
So we talked about kind of the consumer bank example, can you walk us through another client example?

Adam Braff 12:56
Oh, sure. I mean, I’ve helped a number of companies set up customer retention programs, a lot of times a subscription business, has to figure out how to maximize customer lifetime value. And one of the most important levers to do that is to keep your most valuable customers from leaving you. When you analyze customer lifetime value in a mature business, you’ll often see that there’s a really big difference between your top decile valuable customers and everyone else. And so putting in place the right steps to keep those customers from leaving you is important, as some of those levers are in the call center. Some of them are about the customer experience and making sure that customers are treated well. And that you’re investing the right amount of, of time and effort in answering the phone quickly if that’s what’s important to them, or making available the solution that they’re looking for. But often, the thing that’s most important in a customer retention program is simply having a dedicated save desk, that is able to handle the customer that wants to leave with a certain amount of expertise and training as special offers and the ability to and the set of incentives that cause those agents to focus on the retention question more than other questions.

Will Bachman 14:13
And I suppose that works in cases like a cable company or Telecom, where you actually have to, it’s not that easy to cancel, right?

Adam Braff 14:24
Yeah. And if you make that a miserable experience, and that’s a downer, even though the customers leaving you, it certainly creates bad word of mouth. But often the reason why that cancellation is it is a difficult experience is that some consultant has passed through that call center, on an earlier year on has set up a very aggressive state of desperate, extremely strong incentives. And then you end up with good hearts law in effect, which is when you measure something ruthlessly, and managed to that without sensitivity around all the other aspects of that program. You can often create something that’s a little bit toxic. Yeah,

Will Bachman 14:57
yeah. And so we’re for retention. So it’s having this saved as what are some of the other elements? It’s interesting, from the consumer perspective of what companies are doing behind the scenes to keep us subscribing. What are some other things that companies some other levers that they do.

Adam Braff 15:13
But you mentioned cable companies and a big driver of attrition with cable companies is when customers are rolling off of a promotional pricing package that they’re on, suddenly, you’re paying 20 or $30 more a month than you had paid the month before. And if you happen to notice it, then that can be a real downer. So the interesting question, and this is what makes it a difficult analytical question is, to what extent should the company anticipate that figure out which customers are going to cancel or at least call up to cancel when they’re hit with that price increase, and decide whether to proactively treat those customers ahead of time by continuing the promotional pricing, it’s a real trade off, and nine times out of 10. companies make the mistake of giving away too much promotional pricing and proactively treating customers who weren’t going to call anyway. So there’s a real art and a science to testing your way into a proactive outbound customer attention program that is not going to destroy value.

Will Bachman 16:10
So one thing I’m taking away from this is that, as consumers, we should be calling up our different providers and threatening to leave, and we’re being asked to transfer to the safe desk and get our special offer.

Adam Braff 16:24
It depends on the marginal cost of your time, I think you’ve you’ve done a podcast on this question about what your time is worth. And if you are going to spend all day doing that it’s possible you can recover the cost of your time that you’re investing, but then you’re probably taking it out in other forms of happiness in your life.

Will Bachman 16:39
So if it’s worth going through, I no longer have Time Warner Cable internet, but when we did, they, they bumped me up after one of the promotional periods. And it was like, I don’t know, 30 bucks a month or something. So it was a 15 minute call. I said I am thinking about leaving. And there’s no, no, we’ll give you our original price back. So that was a 15 minute call, save $300. That was it. That was worth it.

Adam Braff 17:05
It also saved them a lot of right. If you continue a relationship with them, then the recurring contribution margin from your staying with that provider probably made it worthwhile for them to step up the call center and incur $15 worth of variable costs to handle that call. Yeah, perhaps there’s a way to avoid the entire interaction if they did secretly know that you’re the sort of person who’s going to call every 12 months and have that conversation and maybe that they can save everyone a headache, but you never know. Maybe you’ll forget one year and they’ll just pocket the difference. Yeah,

Will Bachman 17:33
I probably have I probably haven’t, I probably should make the call. Okay, so customer retention is big area. Let’s talk a little bit about your blog, which I, which I really love, you have a kind of a special kind of approach to talking about data analytics. Tell us about that.

Adam Braff 17:48
Yeah, I’ve been interested in food for a long time. I think we’re all interested in food to live. I spent a lot of time between college and law school living here in New York City. And I had a lot of free time then as any young person might. And I did a lot of cooking. At the time, there was a cookbook called the new basics by I think it was Julie Roscoe and Sheila Lukins, and it kind of had everything in it. And it was enough of a manual to teach a new college grad how to how to cook things and not starve. And from there, I found myself reading a lot more books about food, not just cookbooks, but books like the man who ate everything by Jeffrey Stein garden, and kitchen confidential by Anthony Bourdain. And I just found myself really fascinated by this. And so when I grew up and got a place to live and family and had a bunch of time on my hands to without a ton of time on my hands, by time on the weekends to buy new kitchen gadgets, that got me thinking a little bit more about food, and how it can often be a metaphor for the things that I’m doing in my professional life. So the most basic example is that raw data that you generate from your systems as a company or that you go out and buy, it’s very much like raw ingredients of food. Very often, you can’t consume it until you’ve done something, you have to transform the data, just as you would cook food. In order to make it useful useful for the business. If you think about all the examples we just gave in the call center, there are detailed records of what pricing package people are on in the cable company, but those needs to be joined up with other records that say how many dollars that’s worth and when this customer is going to roll off. So until you’ve cooked all that data up, you don’t actually have a way of making sense of it as a business. And it would be like trying to eat, you know, raw raw flour. So I found myself using food as a metaphor and all of the jobs that I’ve had in data and analytics, and often it was my way of explaining the organizational elements. Who is the though The guy who is buying the ingredients, and there’s the woman who’s doing the first batch of cooking and who’s the the guy who’s serving it up to the different customers. And it turned out to be a pretty useful way of explaining data and analytics and analytics organizations to people, I think more useful than talking about data as the new oil says many more people eat food, then work in oil refining

Will Bachman 20:26
it, yes, I can much more easily imagine needing to do something to the garlic, like take the peel off before consuming it then thinking about a barrel of oil, which actually, I’ve never seen a barrel of oil. I suppose they exist. I mean, I’ve seen I believe they exist. I think I’ve seen barrels of other stuff. Yeah. So that no, I liked that. I liked one particular that you had recently about, about kind of roast chicken. And now you can have a super complicated recipe. But you can have a very simple recipe that works great. And that’s kind of a nice metaphor for if you’re just starting out with a business intelligence program, you maybe start with something that is, you know, does a job, but does it simply before you add a bunch of bells and whistles,

Adam Braff 21:09
that’s right, there are often pressures acting on an analytics organization to do the most sophisticated things first, to work on artificial intelligence programs, or machine learning. And very often, the management of that company just needs to know the answer to questions about you know, how much our sales and what’s driving them, and how can I drill into different customer segments in different in different product segments? To get quick answers to the questions that I have. Those are not really artificial intelligence projects. But they are like Marcella Hassan’s simple lemon roast chicken, it’s a it’s a useful, that’s a useful project and useful product that that gets the job done.

Will Bachman 21:49
Tell us a little about, you know, kind of how you stay current in the field. There’s so much going on now in analytics, I imagine a different different tools out there. How do you stay up to date?

Adam Braff 22:00
Some of what I do is read the books that come out, I would say every year there’s a big book that comes out of here is somebody doing creative things with data to answer questions that you didn’t think could be answered. So yeah, one year it might be neat silver, writing the signal in the noise. And then it might be Christian Rutter, the okay Cupid guy writing his book Cataclysm, or Seth Stephens Davidowitz, the Google guy who does a lot of Google Trends, data and scraping and he writes everybody lies. These kinds of books are helpful to broaden my imagination, about all the things that my clients can do to use data and analytics to solve their problems. And then I’ll read a little bit more widely in areas like economics and philosophy just to stay aligned with the with the big picture. And to make sure that the recommendations I’m giving my clients make sense, not just within a very small local context, but more more globally. Yeah.

Will Bachman 23:00
And then how do you go about kind of the client development piece? You obviously had experience doing this as a partner at McKinsey, how do you do it now is as an independent,

Adam Braff 23:10
one of your recommendations, the book by David fields, I think is is very helpful. And that’s and I think it’s a little bit of common sense for extroverted people who are constantly talking to people anyway, and just curious and trying to find out more about what then meaning people who run businesses who might need this help, what they’re up to, I just find myself having a lot of those conversations, because I’m genuinely interested in what different businesses are like and how they make money. We were talking earlier about oil and gas, you and I don’t really know much about oil and gas. But if I found myself talking to somebody in that industry, I’d be very curious about the difference between upstream and downstream and the substitution effects of renewables and how that’s all playing out and how they use data analytics to solve their problems. A lot of those conversations I’m finding turned into questions about what other people are doing in this space and what what’s an easy way to get started, or what’s a quick way to figure out if there’s opportunity in my business, so a lot of it just flows. From there. I am experimenting a little bit with the most basic forms of of advertising as well, just because I’m curious to see how it works and to see if I ever could get a single client through a new advertising channel. So I binds on AdWords and you may try to Google around and see if you pull up any of my ads. And if you click on them, I’ll pay 76 cents for it. So but but don’t touch Don’t, don’t go

Will Bachman 24:44
Don’t go and just click on Adams ads all afternoon.

Adam Braff 24:48
I would be delighted. You know, I can click on my ads. Anyway, I would love for your listeners that check out my website. Can we can

Will Bachman 24:53
we? Well, let’s mention that before I forget what is what is your website? Where can listeners go?

Adam Braff 24:58
My website is a brand dot co. That’s it pra, f f.co. And it includes examples of impact that I’ve had across different industries. It includes a lovely picture of me. And it also has my foodie blog with, as we talk now the first five posts about different ways of transforming chickens and cooking a Sato in Argentina. And in drinking Chinese cream cheese, milk tea, and how these things actually do relate. At the end of the road to some kind of value creation and data

Will Bachman 25:36
and analytics. I got to ask what’s the asado story in Argentina.

Adam Braff 25:41
The story there is I took my daughter down there a couple of months ago to Buenos Aires into Patagonia for a graduation trip. And we found ourselves looking for a cooking class, which is something that we tend to do when we travel. And we ended up with something that was a little different from a cooking class. It was a guy named Frank, who was an American who went down to Argentina, he said he sort of followed followed a woman there and, and married her. And that’s how to have entrepreneurial businesses centering on food. And one of them is the risotto experience where you go to his house in Palermo viejo, and he takes you around the neighborhood shopping for ingredients and looking at street art. And then you go back to his beautiful house which house as an asado a barbecue in the backyard, and you cook and eat some really tasty food, and you make your own chimichurri sauce and everything else. I’m not doing the accent justice here, but I kind of want you to do. It’s really good. It’s a great, it’s a great experience, I highly recommend it. And it It reminds me that a person can start a modest sized analytics program and scale it up from there. I call it it’s like a food truck even though what this guy’s operating is not literally a food truck. But you can often start small and then scale it up. And this guy has tried lots of different size businesses. And he seems very happy doing what he’s doing now.

Will Bachman 27:07
Wow, that sounds incredible experience. By the way, we will include a link to that blog post in the show notes. For sure. It sounds amazing. We had a similar experience. We were in Mexico and we we had a class with a former chef who used to be a chef at a restaurant and now he has his own little garage thing turned into a recipe turned into a kitchen. We went out and bought ingredients and made tacos alpa store, which was incredible. And one of the most amazing things we did in Mexico. That was an Airbnb experience, which which I highly recommend.

Adam Braff 27:42
I think I think cooking classes when you’re traveling are a highly underrated experience. It’s a great way to get kids involved in what they’re doing. They’ll eat stuff that they had never eaten before. And it’s just, it’s just a really fun, memorable time for everyone.

Will Bachman 27:54
Yeah, I mean, the kids loved it. You just got to make their own tortillas was pretty amazing. Few lightly burned fingers but that is the price. flavor for quality. tagos fantastic. So you mentioned some books. You mentioned your website. Adam, this has been a fantastic conversation. Thanks so much for joining and looking forward to seeing more more posts about food and how what they can teach us about data.

Adam Braff 28:21
My pleasure, look for the ones that are coming up about growing your own herbs and using an instant pot to make bone broth fantastic.

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