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Statistical Dreams

The Setting

Jack and Jill were co-chairing the annual planning meeting. They had invited representatives from Sales, Marketing, Production, Accounts, Finance and IT. The idea was to talk about the 'Big Picture'.

"Welcome, All!", Jack started. "We are missing opportunities in the market and Jill and I want for us to talk about that. We know it is not for want of trying. It is clear that everyone is busy at their posts. So, we want to keep the meeting in a positive spirit and see where we can go and how!", he finished. "Jill, would you take it from here?"

The Warning

"Thanks, Jack", she said. "I have been going through the sales figures from last year and found them good. Just for good measure, I pulled out the sales stats for the two years prior - I had wanted a full five-year set, but could not find them in the office, anyone know where they are?", she interjected herself, "I also pulled out our management accounts for the same periods in order to compare".

"I am happy to report that the trends seem fine. We have had a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 8% in sales over the last three years, matched by a similar increase in the cost of production. Profits, at the end of the day, have been acceptable for our shareholders. We mostly know this by an absence of tough talk from the Board!", she finished.

"But, when I took a look at our industry statistics, something struck me! The average growth rate in the industry is 12% for the same period and our main competitor had a whopping 20% increase in sales. To me this means two things: We have lost opportunities, there for the having, and we have lost market share!" Jill was expressing this with some annoyance. "Back to you, Jack".

"OK, Team!", he continued. "Let's open up a round of comments and suggestions from everyone. Joe, what is the situation in Sales?"

The Wip

Always Sales first when we have to find solutions, Joe thought to himself. "Well", he coughed as he started, "We have just heard the news about our sales growth and I can add that the results are broadly based. A few customers have bought 10-15% more than last year, but the trend overall is broad-based. Our Internet sales volume has grown faster than that coming from our sales team, but not by much. Roughly 20% of our turnover now come from Internet sales". Joe was quietly pleased that he had won the battle to keep the Internet sales under his wing. Far too many companies had set up separate Internet sales desks with the excuse that success on the Internet required insight into IT and technology. He was glad he had taken several IT courses and he had for some time been able to conduct insightful discussions with the IT desk.

"The thing is", he continued, "We've got all hands on deck. Every sales person on the team has a full set of active accounts and are busy filling the order book. We are planning for a 20% increase in sales personnel this year, which should let us visit new accounts as well. On the Internet front we have not had any major hiccups - the IT backup has worked flawlessly. There were two outages over the last year, but IT put the servers back online after 6 and 10 minutes respectively. The thing we are missing more than anything is an inspired marketing campaign", he said with a smile and a look at Mark from Marketing.

Mark spluttered in his coffee at that remark and sat the cup down again. "We have a very creative team, but we too have to live within a budget and we just cannot do more than two campaigns per year", he complained. Having become a recent Dad, he had not had time to take the same IT courses Joe had, so he was not quite up to speed with click-through rates, server logs and the like. Most of his team were Old School and the budget went on print advertising in trade journals.

"In any case", Tim from Production broke in, "We are operating at 95% of capacity and I am not sure we could accommodate a spike in volume that easily!"

"Well, we are on good terms with our bankers", said Finn from Finance, "and given our good trading record, I am sure we could increase our borrowing facility if you need to increase your production capacity".

"And we could use some funding if we have to go out with a third campaign", Mark said, suddenly hopeful.

"I don't know if it is of any interest", continued Harry from Accounts, "but our new accounting system can actually export a great deal of data in tabular format. Maybe we could analyse the sales, marketing and production figures. Then we could gain some insights into sales/advertising and sales/production cost ratios and such?"

"We could contribute with number of sales calls per account and geographical distribution of accounts", added Joe, "but I do not have the click-through rates from the marketing department".

Mark blushed, but said nothing.

The Saviour

"Maybe I can be helpful here", said Salit from IT. She hesitated, "You know management has asked us to keep our web-server log files for three months for compliance purposes and then delete them? Well, we followed the directive and have them auto-deleted on a rolling basis after 90 days, but we had a team meeting where we agreed that they could be so useful if someone should ever decide to mine the data in them. We have everything in these files: IP and geographical address of each visitor, which pages were clicked on our site, how long the visitor stayed on each page, how many orders were cancelled on the payment page, how many were completed and so on. We decided to keep a backup copy, just in case someone asked. Don't be mad, Jack, the files are just stored on a spare hard drive we had lying around. I think this is needed here, though." Salit was visibly nervous.

"Far from being angry", Jack responded thoughtfully, "I think we need a rethink of what we need to do with our business data. Ideally, we need to capture this data in a central location and then crunch the creepers out of it. But, with the economy the way it is management has hinted that a hiring freeze may be around the corner and I do not think we have the resources - or skills - to do this job in any of your departments?" This question was directed at the meeting in general. Some people shook their head, but most just looked down at their notepads.

"You know what this means", he continued managerially, "This means we have to rent a business consultant. Someone who can run sophisticated statistical analysis on our numbers and maybe enhance them with some of his own. We would then want him to report back in two months with a global picture. What do you say?"

The Relief

Sighs of relief around the table suggested everyone agreed and were happy not to have to take on this difficult task.

"OK, Team!", said Jill, "That's it. Many thanks for your contributions and special merit to Salit for keeping the interests of the business in mind, even in the face of orders to the contrary! See you in two months!"


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