Metrics Gone Wild at GNC


7058609_sAfter a working lunch with Mike Russell, we decided to both walk over to the nearby GNC. Mike wanted to restock his supply of protein bars which have turned into a staple portion of his diet. We walked into the store together talking about all things Agile and he began collecting box after box of the delicious nutritious protein super food.

Inspired by Mike’s enthusiasm, I decided to purchase a few bars myself. I put them on the counter expecting to be quickly cashed out while Mike continued to hunt around the store.

They asked me if it was OK to run the two purchases together, saying we would still pay separately. I found the request strange, but trying to be amenable, agreed. So, instead of cashing out, I waited a few more minutes for Mike to empty the store of its supplies of various flavored bars.

Once he was done, the employee at the cash register went to work. A mad typist at the keyboard was entering in all of our purchases and then carefully dividing them in two, so we could each pay for one purchase with two credit cards. Inside my head a phrase echoed, “Thank you for turning a simple interaction into a bizarre ritual.”

There were two employees at the cash register and they worked in tandem to get our order straight, even writing down by hand the two subtotals on an available scrap of paper. I did the mental math on my order and it seemed close enough that I didn’t sweat it.

After another 30 seconds pounding keys madly at the cash register, they finally produced a joint receipt, spit across our two credit cards. We both dutifully signed.

They thanked us profusely for letting them process the transaction this way. Finally I had to ask, “So why did you want to put them on one receipt?”

They happily responded “They measure the average sale.”

“Say no more,” I said. “We get it—we are both methodologists.”

Okay. Probably a weird thing to say to them, as in their whole lives they have likely never met anyone who self-identified themselves as methodologists—much less two together in a protein bar buying frenzy. But Mike and I are methodologists, and we both instantly knew exactly what was going on.

Some “higher power” in GNC thought it would be a good incentive for employees to upsell. The approach they used was to reward growing the average bill at the GNC. I am sure the goal was well intentioned, but it is a stupid metric full of potentially negative side effects, one of which we just experienced. Create a metric and the employees will jump through hoops to make the metric—even if it inconveniences and confuses the customer!

I immediately flashed back to a recent purchase at another GNC. I went in and bought only one nutrition bar. The guy behind the counter did not seem particularly enthusiastic about my purchase. No wonder! My purchase blew away his average for the morning.

A good definition of a stupid metric is a metric that:

  1. Causes bizarre and confusing behavior in front of the customer
  2. Makes you not actually want to make more purchases
  3. Makes the customer feel in some way unwanted

The GNC metric delivers all of these in spades. Of course, we see hundreds of metrics like this in almost every company we visit. Metrics that drive the wrong behavior. GNC should be happy to have 100 new customers visiting its store everyday to buy just a single protein bar. Why? Because the habit you really want is them thinking they should be visiting you every day. The workers should be out on the sidewalk hustling to get 100 new $2 sales.

This is the problem with almost all metrics. They actually work against the real goals of the organization. Most likely somebody at corporate headquarters think this metric is working great.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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