Research is used for many valid reasons—gaining a better understanding of brands, customers, staff, and products being some of the most common and worthwhile. However, it is also used for more “human” reasons, which may have a less direct relationship with improving performance through insight; key among these is making comparisons.
We all like benchmarks, of course, because they give us context and allow us to see how we’re doing more clearly. If you’re managing a brand or a service, it’s (normally) perfectly valid to ask how this period’s results compare with those in the past to answer the question, ‘are we progressing as we should be?’. Other comparisons are less valid. For example, how reasonable is it to compare your products or services with competitors’?
I ask this question after coming across newly-released data about fleet vehicles’ first-time MOT pass rates. (For readers outside the UK, the MOT is an annual roadworthiness test that vehicles have to pass once they reach 3 years old.) The data was interesting and, if you look at pass rates over the past few decades, it’s encouraging to see that higher percentages of vehicles are passing the first time. I was going to say, “it’s encouraging to see that manufacturers’ claims for better quality have been substantiated,” but thought better of it. I think that’s almost certainly true, but before making such a statement it would be wise to look at other factors.
It’s these factors which come to mind when looking at this new fleet survey. Some brands are where you would expect them to be (both high and lower rankings); others are not. More strangely, vehicles that share much common technology or platforms perform very differently. This is odd unless there are other factors—types of use, different maintenance regimes, etc—in play.
If something as seemingly straightforward as trying to determine whether one vehicle may be better built than another is open to possibly quite complex interpretation, what does this mean when you introduce infinitely more complex human elements into the equation? Specifically, is it valid to compare customer experiences between one brand and another? For example, owners of luxury sports cars often rate their vehicles and the service they receive very highly, while those who run the cheapest vehicles always seem more likely to give generally lower ratings.
One could say that customers who have paid tens or even hundreds of thousands for a vehicle will be very demanding, and that’s true. However, it appears that those who buy cheaper vehicles don’t compensate the other way, so much—they still have relatively high expectation levels. I guess that’s logical, as such customers may be spending proportionately more of their income on buying a cheaper car and will have presumably been made quite a few promises by their brand (although I’m not sure customers would consciously justify their ratings in that way).
Is it worth comparing one brand against another? I think the answer is that so long as you know what you’re looking at, and don’t read too much into the data, then, yes. Beyond that, I say no—you’d be better at focusing on attracting and retaining customers, full-stop, worrying less about whether Competitor X or Brand Y have done comparatively less well than they did in previous years.
One final thought: I appreciate that comparisons are a good way of motivating people—”Let’s beat our competitors.” Just make sure those comparisons are worth making. If people in your business make great progress but look as if they are failing based on false comparisons, and thus become demotivated, then you’ve really got problems.