Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Personal and Professional Goals: How Our Quest for ROI Destroys ROI

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

I just reached a personal milestone, and the experience has caused me to think a bit about the measurement of ROI and how we use KPIS, goals, metrics, and OKRs in business.

This past weekend, I achieved something I would've thought impossible: I've completed a high-intensity workout every single day for two straight years. It's not a long exercise regimen--it started as 7.5 minutes and has grown to 15 minutes each day--but it kicks my butt every morning. I feel great--fitter and healthier than I have in decades. I've also lost about 45 pounds (20 kg) in those two years. It's the “also” in that last sentence that is worthy of exploration in a discussion of personal and professional goals and ROI.

The Differences Between the Personal Goals You Control and the Outcomes You Influence (and Some Advice for Your New Year's Resolutions)

I didn't set out to lose weight. I hoped I would, of course. But I really started this daily regimen to be healthier. I was turning 60 soon, my doctor was voicing a few health concerns, and in the first winter of COVID, I worried isolation and diminished social behaviors would decrease my already sedentary level of activity.

So, I set my goal to work out every day--not to look better or lose weight, just to work out. I goaled my activity, not the outcome, because I control the activity but only influence the outcome. If I failed to do my workout every day, that's on me and only me. But if I worked out every day and failed to lose weight, that is not. (Or, at least, it's a much more complex and chaotic question, dependent on activity, caloric intake, metabolism, and other factors.)

The vital question is this: If I exercised every single day but didn't lose any weight, would that render the exercise valueless? Of course not. Had I not lost a single pound, I'd still be stronger, firmer, and healthier. Is there any doubt that working out regularly is good for us?

Had I set my goal on weight loss, I would've given up. After four months, I had gained three pounds. That could've been a decision point, but it was not, because losing weight was an outcome, not the objective. If it gave me any pause, it was to wonder how much more I might have gained had I failed to achieve my activity goal.

Some of you are about to embark on a New Year's resolution, and I cannot recommend strongly enough that you set your goal on the activity, not the outcome. It's okay to hope for or be confident in the impact, but your goal--the only thing you really control--must be to run five times a week, get to the gym three times a week, or exercise every day.

(This works just as well for other New Year's resolutions: Want to learn a language? That's just the outcome; the goal is to complete an online language lesson four times a week. Which, coincidentally, is another goal of mine. Aprendo espaƱol. Completo cuatro lecciones cada semana en Babbel.)

The Difference Between the Business Goals You Control and the Outcomes You Influence

Which brings me to how we conduct business. I work in Customer Experience, and every single week, someone asks me to specify the ROI of CX. The discipline of CX requires organizations to listen more to customers, gather data about customer perception and experiences, and act on that information to strengthen relationships.

Is there any doubt that doing those activities is good for our businesses? Is there any conceivable advantage to ignoring customers' wants, needs, and perceptions? And if you constantly committed to those CX activities and improved customer satisfaction but were unable to calculate the ROI, would that make that effort wasted?

Of course, these questions pertain to more than just CX. Another question my peers and I are asked every single week is the ROI of digital transformation. What is the alternative? We live in a world with the Internet, mobile phones, and smart devices. The average US household owns over ten connected devices, and the average number of connected devices per employee has risen to 4.9. Does your organization believe there may be financial rewards to returning to typewriters, landlines, file cabinets, and interoffice envelopes?!

I understand there's an important and valuable query hiding behind these ROI questions: It's not, “Is there ROI?” Or even, “What's the ROI?” The question is, “How will I know I'm making the right investments?” That's a reasonable question, but we must realize that the benefits won't be expressed in just dollars, just as the value of exercising isn't merely measured in pounds. We must understand the worth of the activity and not just the demonstrable, attributable return on investment we can measure.

If I stopped working out after four months because I gained weight, we can all agree I would be less healthy and feel worse today. And, I hope, we would all concur that if an organization stopped listening and acting on customer feedback or ceased their efforts to transform for our digital world, that would be very damaging to the company. Yet, how many companies will cut budget for CX in 2023 or invest half what they should in technology because they are unable to quantify the ROI?

Start With Why

The secret to tackling these personal and professional challenges is to start with why we need or want them in the first place. If we do so, we'll stop treating every investment of time and money as if it's an ROI decision and start recognizing unique and necessary ways of measuring impact.

Decisions that are short-term in nature and made to derive financial outcomes should be driven by ROI. If you can invest $500,000 to save $1,500,000 of costs over three years, that's a good investment. If an e-commerce company can invest $250,000 in a direct-response ad campaign to generate $1.5 million of sales and $500,000 of gross margin, that's a good investment.

But the “why” behind the most complex corporate decisions is not simply to return an immediate and measurable profit. Why invest in CX? Because poor experience degrades your reputation, harms loyalty, increases churn, raises costs to serve, harms inbound traffic and conversion rate, and lowers lifetime value. Very few of those costs (or benefits) will be directly attributable, nor will be they be immediate. That means we can seek the ROI business case of CX, but we shouldn't be limited by it because we recognize much of the benefit accrues over time and is not ascribable to any single project or investment.

Why invest in digital transformation? Because it's how business is conducted today, and the pace of change is only accelerating. Companies that fail to secure and use essential tech lower productivity, provide poor customer experiences, miss sales and service opportunities, collaborate badly, frustrate and churn employees, diminish reputation, and raise costs. Again, some of those things can be measured in dollars and cents, but trying to attach a short-term, traceable ROI to every digital investment is the road to madness.

Every leader wants their company to be Apple and Amazon, but no leader wants to risk being Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, or Steve Jobs. Those leaders did not make every decision based on a spreadsheet. They made big bets on CX and digital transformation knowing some would fail and the ROI was neither immediate nor attributable.

In 2013, Jeff Bezos said, “We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.” Tim Cook reportedly told an analyst, “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.” In 1997, Steve Jobs said, “As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with what incredible benefits could we give to the customer? Where could we take the customers?”

Those are leaders who knew they needed to make investments for the future, regardless of the ROI of each decision along the journey. They knew focusing on the customer and investing in the right tech was essential, not because they could calculate the return, but because there was no other way to realize their vision.

Must someone prove to you there is ROI to listening to customers and improving their experiences? Do you need a spreadsheet to tell you the return of using the tech you need to run your business, be responsive to customers, and keep up with competitors? What if, instead, you took the lead of the most successful leaders of the past three decades and made your goal doing right by customers? Then, much like my weight loss, you may find the financial rewards were never really the goal, but merely the expected consequence of doing the right thing.

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