97% Fat Free and Confusing Statistics

A recent discussion with a customer reminded me of the misunderstood and misleading nature of statistics.  The customer ran a test with a changed configuration and came back with the response "it only improved by 3%".  I asked for more details, and he said "before the change, we were at 6%, and now we are at 9%… a 3% improvement".  After a little more discussion, he understood the potential confusion in how he stated his results:

  • Going from 6% to 9% is an increase of 3%
  • Going from 6% to 9% is an improvement of 50% (3% is 50% of 6%)

I wanted to make sure this guy reported to his management that the metric had "improved by 50%" and not just 3%.

Confusion caused by statistics is all over the place in our world.  Often, as with my customer above, it is merely misstating or misunderstanding, and other times it is intentional.  As Mark Twain wrote "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics". 

  • In the outbound contact center world, there’s the "98% answering machine detection accuracy" confusion/myth/lie.
  • In the everyday world, how about the "Fat-Free" fiasco? It’s shocking when you realize what "97% Fat-Free" really means and that the FDA allows it.
  • In financial terms, people often have little concept of the difference between a million dollars and a billion dollars (a million seconds = 11 days… a billion seconds = 32 years) let alone a trillion dollars (here’s an interesting way to visualize large numbers using pennies). John Paulos wrote the well-known book "Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and It’s Consequences" in which he lamented the impact of not understanding math in an age when statistics and math are the lingua franca of business and technology.
  • And just for fun, how many people do you need in a room to have a 50/50 chance that 2 of them have the same birthday? Would you guess only 23?

Statistics are all over the place in our world and in the contact center – abandon rates, average handle times, transfer rates, etc, etc – and confusion or miscommunication can follow.

What’s your "3% improvement" story?

Matt Taylor