{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Asking for Numbers That Don't Exist

{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Asking for Numbers That Don’t Exist

In this episode of In-Ear Insights, Katie and Chris tackle a listener question: what do you do when a key stakeholder asks for numbers that don’t exist? How do you come up with answers that satisfy the intent of the question, and how do you present to the stakeholder when something just isn’t possible? Tune in to find out!


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{PODCAST} In-Ear Insights: Asking for Numbers That Don't Exist

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Machine-Generated Transcript

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Christopher Penn 0:02

This is In-Ear Insights, the Trust Insights podcast.

In this week’s in In-Ear Insights, Lee asks the very interesting question, how do you answer a business leader, when they ask for numbers that don’t exist? This was a conversation we were having a while back.

And he had said, you know, a marketing leader, like your cmo or CSM might say, Katie, I need the ROI of our marketing.

And we know there’s a lot that goes into that seemingly simple computation, or what’s the, what’s the value of our brand, you know, give me a number for the value of our brand.

And again, these are things that are knowable, but they’re not things that you necessarily will have on hand without doing a lot of work and spending a decent amount of budget to get them.

So Katie, when you as a business leader, you this question, how would you answer these questions? How do you answer when they ask for numbers? You don’t have they don’t exist?

Katie Robbert 1:05

Well, I would say the first thing to not do is to respond to your business leader and go, Yeah, no, that doesn’t exist.

Try again, like so that’s probably a bad move.

Because theoretically, someone who’s in that leadership position should have some awareness of what goes into that.

And so I think, you know, if, you know, Chris, I were asking you, you know, what is the ROI of our marketing? My expectation would be okay, let’s get a better understanding of that customer lifetime value, and sort of what all of those metrics are that go into, you know, basically getting people in the door to buy something.

So really, the question that I’m trying to answer is, how much does it cost? From our marketing? Like, how much does our marketing cost to get someone to buy something? And that’s really customer lifetime value? What is the value of our brand? Well, that starts to get into, you know, awareness? And how much does it cost? You know, soft and hard dollars to get people to our website? And so what is the value of the traffic? And so again, to me, those two questions come down to breaking down that customer lifetime value formula, of, you know, the different stages of your sales funnel of you know, what is how much is traffic worth? How much are prospects worth and leads and qualified leads and sort of breaking it down that way? My assumption is that that’s really what somebody wants to know, so that they can sort of see how much does each stage of my sales funnel cost? What is the value of it? If what is one single person coming to my website worth? Is it worth $100? Is it worth 10 $10? million? Like, that’s a great thing to know.

So you want to get more awareness? So that’s sort of where my brain goes, What do you I know, you’ve been asked this question a lot, you know, in your career as well, what is your initial reaction to it?

Christopher Penn 3:05

Today, I actually bought a page from your book, which is okay, what decisions you’re going to make with this? Like, what, what, how does this fit into the process and the strategy because if you’re just asking for information, just out of curiosity, then sure we can find that information.

But it’s going to go at the bottom of the list.

And I know that you’re going to forget about it in 15 days, and ask you a couple of some other odd requests that we can safely ignore.

It’s kind of like parenting, like, in some ways, when your kid asks for, you know, I want this to eat like, Well, are you going to actually eat that I just because it looks cool on you know, the little smart screen that’s, you know, always flashing in the kitchen.

are you actually going to eat that I make it what gives us know what I’m like, Okay, I’m not gonna make it for you.

Because it’s a waste of everybody’s time.

You know, you remember as a kid saw, like, zucchini, something, something cakes, you know, some, like, another recipe to hide vegetables for your kids.

Like, I want to try that.

Like, are you actually gonna eat that up? I make that because it’s filled with zucchini and you don’t like zucchini? Like, no, but it looks cool.

Like, well, cool.

When you have your own house someday, you can cook.

And I think that’s when you hear something like brand equity, or ROI.

That’s essentially that person saying, here’s the recipe I want you to cook, right.

So we have to ask ourselves, do we have the ingredients? Do we have the skills and the people? Do we have the tools? Right? Because it’s great to say yeah, I want this recipe but if we don’t have the ingredients without the tools, we don’t know how to cook it then you we’re gonna serve you something that might look a little bit like what you intended but isn’t like yeah, we made this cake.

It’s made of sand because that’s all we had.

Katie Robbert 4:47

Really, in cake.

Christopher Penn 4:49

Very, very disappointing cake get really clean, though.

And so that’s what the two part approaches that I would take is okay, what decisions you’re going to make because If you’re just trying to make a decision about, like, Hey, we’re dumping a lot of money into Facebook ads, and is it worth it, you might not necessarily need ROI for that you might be able to just use return on adspend as a copy to say, like, yeah, this guy’s terrible, the trauma ads.

But on the other hand, if you’re trying to do an apples to apples between Facebook and your email marketing, then yeah, you’re probably gonna have to do return on investment, because email marketing has a lot more soft dollars that go into it, then then Facebook ads to so that’s that, I guess the the approach that we take now, we have been in situations, you know, working in a past companies where an executive has said, Yeah, I want this.

And you can ask those questions, the executives, like, Hey, I still want it.

And at that point, then you have to start going, Okay, well, how are we going to come up with steam that they want that? We know, they’re probably not gonna use that even understand, but the boss?

Katie Robbert 5:54

Right? Well, and you know, so as you’re describing, you know, this process that you would go through, I think it’s, you know, it’s, it’s funny, because you’re describing the story with your son of, you know, are you going to eat it? And your son says, No, I, that’s a heck of a lot of self awareness for your son to have at a very young age.

And we’re sort of making the leap to say that a lot of people asking these questions, have that self awareness and that confidence to say, No, I’m not actually going to use it.

I just want to know what it is.

I don’t see that happening a lot.

Because then it will then do you even really know what you’re talking about? Or do you really know what you’re asking? You know, that’s sort of the, you know, unsaid part of the conversation.

And so when someone asks you something like, you know, what is the ROI of our marketing, make sure you’re, if you’re the person be asked, make sure you proach it, you know, tactfully and respectfully and say, things like, can you please be a little bit more specific? Do you mean, you know, a specific channel of our marketing or our marketing overall, trying to pull out some of that clarity, because the person asking may not really, to your point, Chris may not really know what they’re asking, and may say, but I want it or it may even be something, you know, from above them, you know, maybe the shareholders want to know, what’s the ROI of your marketing, so they weren’t clear, you know, clear on the thing, it’s the opportunity to have that conversation of, you know, can you clarify what it is that you’re asking? I think these are the following things that you’re looking for, provide solutions and say, I’m able to get you the return on adspend.

From our Facebook account, I’m able to get you some of the return on investment from our email marketing, is that what you’re looking for? And so, you know, if you’re talking with someone who you don’t think even really knows what they’re asking, start there, ask for more specifics, offer them some solutions, give them options to pick from, and if it’s still not quite right, then you know, you can start to dig in a little bit deeper.

But remember, you know, the person just may not know, and pointing that out to them is definitely not going to go a long way to getting what you need to answer that question.

Christopher Penn 8:09

I think your self awareness point is really important, because I think there’s also a component of that that is missing for us, too, as marketers, you know, do do we understand the difference between ROI and Rojas? And you know, not just the mathematical distinction.

But when do you use this thing? Like, what is this thing used for? ROI is effectively, what is the cost of profit? Right? How much does it cost to make profit? Where’s return on adspend? is a much simpler computation, which is just how efficient is our ad spend.

So they have very different applications.

And it may not be one of those things where you might understand the implementation, how you calculate ROI, but not necessarily what you use it for? Or how it works or why it exists.

How, like, you don’t really question why there’s a blender in your kitchen.

It’s just kind of there, it’s you know, it’s it’s one of those appliances that we all seem to buy.

But think about what exactly what, what functions does it serve, and you spend some time with it go, Oh, actually, it can do all these other things, too.

So it’s, it’s kind of a handy thing to have around.

So in your conversations with other marketers and things, do you feel like they have a good sense of awareness of what all the different metrics and tools are available to them what they do?

Katie Robbert 9:31

Not necessarily, and it’s not for lack of trying? I think that, you know, there’s no universal set of metrics in the digital marketing space.

And that’s, you know, unfortunate it really comes down to what platforms and you know, what tools and systems and what goals, you know, the most universal you can get are the ones we’re talking about of like, what’s the return on adspend? What’s the ROI, what’s the click through rate, what’s the engagement number, but even then, when you break Down platform by platform, it’s going to be a little bit different.

There’s general calculations, I actually think we as marketers spend too much time being concerned about what other people are doing, instead of just focusing on what’s important to us.

And I think, Chris, we were having this conversation on a recent podcast, I don’t remember the exact context, but basically, oh, it was around, you know, industry trends.

And being a little bit too concerned about well, what’s what’s the benchmark for the industry, you know, if the, you know, B2B industry, if their return on adspend of marketing is, you know, 20% that I want 20% return on, you know, return on investment for my marketing? Well, there’s a lot of factors that go into that.

And I think that that’s also part of the conversation, if you’re being asked to pull these numbers out, you know, trying to understand, well, did you see a number somewhere that said that there’s a benchmark, you know, What, are you trying to measure this against, like, you know, those kinds of questions, I at least, I would find it to be super helpful to understand the, you know, where the conversation started.

Um, you know, but back to your original question, Chris, you know, do we, as marketers know, all of the different things that are available? Absolutely not, because new things are being built on a regular basis.

I mean, we just went through the whole clubhouse era, you know, when people were locked down in the pandemic, but I don’t know that there was anything measurable from that.

But a lot of companies said, I need to get in on that.

And the question was, Why, and then how do you measure that? And it’s just this constant chasing of new software?

Christopher Penn 11:40

Yeah, I think a lot of the time when folks ask me for numbers that don’t exist, I think industry benchmarks one is a great example.

Because a lot of the time people say like, Yeah, what’s the industry average for Facebook ads? What industry? And there’s so many problems with that statement.

Like we’re in consulting.

It would be absolutely ridiculous for us to be comparing ourselves to say Accenture.


Accenture is cream cheese budgets, probably larger than our overall revenue as a company, right? It’s, it’s just a massive institution.

And so even an industry average, there is not going to be particularly meaningful.

However, if you have an executive is saying I need you know, get me this number.

Clearly, the worst thing you can do is just make something up.

By the second worst thing is to Google for two seconds, find the first number that comes up in the results is copy paste that to a presentation and hope nobody notices, which I know a lot of people have done.

But what do we do? Like what? In the case of a board member or a CEO that is maybe a little more resistant to to change or to digging in themselves? How do you handle somebody like that? It’s like, no, I need this number.

Give me this number.

Katie Robbert 12:54

Well, you’re describing like the first 15 years of my career.

I had some tricky stakeholders, but I eventually won them over.

By so what you do is you set realistic expectations, and you ask very specific questions.

When do you need this by what is the timeline, okay, you need this tomorrow.

What I can do for you tomorrow is I can put together a plan of how I’m going to approach this, and here’s why it needs a plan.

And so just not in a way that you’re speaking down or being condescending, but just being realistic, like, okay, you want to know the return on investment of our marketing, and you want to know what it is by tomorrow, here’s what I need to do.

First of all, I need to let my teams know that I can no longer help them manage the clients, because I need to focus on this because it sounds like this is your top priority.

The second thing is I need to collect information around what we have access to in terms of our different software systems, and I can list those out for you and tell you what metrics are available.

That’s the best that I can do for you by tomorrow.

Is that acceptable? If they say no, be like, okay, you know, let’s talk about some other solutions and really try to go into problem solving mode instead of defensive, well, that’s unrealistic, I can’t do that for you, because that’s not going to make anyone feel better.

So that was how I used to and still do approach those kinds of questions.

When I feel like the person who’s asking me is being unrealistic.

I really try to break it down into those milestones like, Okay, if I can put a plan together, and then you can commit to being available to read and accept and give me feedback on the plan by this date, then I can move on to the next phase of the thing, which is to actually pull the data and start doing the calculations and that’s likely going to take me a couple of days, you know, but I can have you a draft of that by the end of the week, if you can then commit to you by the end of the week, taking a look at my draft and so making sure that there’s accountability on both sides, not just okay, I you need this by tomorrow.

I’m gonna deliver it by tomorrow and then peace out because what’s going to happen In that situation is you will pull an all nighter, you’ll drop everything else, you’ll pull this thing together, and then it’s gonna sit in someone’s inbox for the next 15 days.

And then they’re gonna say, where’s that thing? No, this is all wrong.

No, I need you to do it again, set yourself up for success and try to avoid some of that headache by making sure whatever the thing is being asked is a two way street that the person asking is also responsible for the success of the question being answered.

Christopher Penn 15:28

It almost sounds like you’re intentionally putting a few speed bumps in the process, so that they have to slow down and think about what it is that they’re asking for

Katie Robbert 15:38

a little bit, I wouldn’t necessarily phrase it that way.

Because you’re not? Well, I guess No, you’re right you are you are trying to get them to slow down and think about it a bit.

But also, by getting them engaged and participating in the process, you are more likely going to get them to the answer that they’re actually looking for, other than something that they just arbitrarily drop on you, you kind of fudge your way through it, and then give them something and they say, Well, no, that wasn’t what I was looking forward at all.

And there was never that conversation of well, what are you looking for? You know, you might even say, Okay, I hear what you’re asking, Can I schedule some time with you a little bit later on today to sort of walk through some more in depth questions, some business requirements, gather more information, because I want to make sure that I’m handing you back exactly what it is that you’re looking for, and that neither of us feel like our time is being wasted.

And so really, again, it’s sort of holding the other person accountable to give you more information, if they ask is not clear.

Christopher Penn 16:42

Right, so that when they inevitably ask you for something that does not exist, and you crap, something they’ve signed off on its existence.

Katie Robbert 16:50


And so that’s sort of the other piece of it is when you get sign off, and this was actually I was notorious for this and my old stakeholders, I wouldn’t say they hated me, but they really resented me a lot of times, because I would actually go around and get physical sign off.

And obviously, with everyone being remote, that’s a little bit more tricky.

But I would get people to physically sign the sign off sheet of the thing that they were asking and say, This is what you’ve asked for, here’s what I’m going to deliver.

And I would get them to physically sign it and date it.

So when we got to the next meeting, and I presented the thing, and someone said, well, that’s not what I wanted, in a respectful manner, I would throw that piece of paper back in their face and say, actually, you signed off on this right here on this date at this time.

And so if this is not what you want it then you should not have signed off on this thing.

So the trains already moving.

We have to stop what we’re doing.

This is going to cost us money.

This is going to cost us time.

If you want to make this change.

Is it worth it to you to make this change and make the other six stakeholders have to wait.

And so obviously, like I’m, I’m paraphrasing, it was never like a Sunday that was that brutal.

But it was never really disrespectful, it was done in a way to not only protect myself and my team, but also to protect them, the stakeholders, their budgets, their time.

And to remind them, here’s what you said you asked for.

Because, Chris, to your point, a lot of times, you might get asked a question.

And then you know, as soon as they’ve asked it, they move on to the next thing and forgotten that they’ve asked for the thing.

But they’ve made it seem like to you that this is the biggest priority that they absolutely have right this second.

And so getting that extra clarity helps make sure that you know everybody’s on the same page about when it’s going to get done.

And how important is it really?

Christopher Penn 18:38


I like the opportunity cost angle too, because it makes it very clear.

If you do this, then you can’t have that.

Right now, we’ve had a number of discussions with clients saying yes, we can do that.

And this is it will cost you X number of dollars.

Right? And in this case, it’s a hard dollar cost.

And it’s amazing how quickly allow those requests go away? What’s the upside that? Yes, we can do that? It will cost you $75,000 to have that? Is it worth $75,000? Occasionally, the client says Yes, it is.

I’ll money appears and and we do the thing, most of the time people like I didn’t realize it was that expensive.

And they say okay, you know, maybe maybe maybe we can wait.

And I think that’s a really good way for people, especially inside of an organization to be able to say like, yes, it’s going to cost you, you know, if you know, for example, on average marketing generates, you know, $5 million of business for the company a year.

You figure out, you know what that works at an hourly rate as a department knows $1,000 an hour or $5,000 an hour, say this project is going to cost 10 hours a time.

Is it worth $50,000 of revenue to you? Because if we spend 10 hours of time on this, we can’t be working on the thing that makes the money.

So internally, is it worth that cost? I like that because it it’s it’s not a no and right it’s a you decide

Katie Robbert 20:00

Yep, we did that a lot.

When I was managing the engineering team, the development team, that was often a conversation we would need to have.

And so if you know about software engineering, you know that it’s really tricky.

When they’ve already started a project, to back it out and start something else, there’s obviously ways to do it, you know, you branch off the code, you merge it back in.

But that still takes time.

And it still takes QA resources.

And it still takes some planning.

And so that was a conversation that I think I was having with the stakeholders on a daily basis on behalf of my engineering team, because they would change their mind on a daily basis about the thing that they wanted, and the team would already be working on something.

And so that was part of, you know, our agile planning, our sprint planning was sort of those two week sprints so that there was something, you know, deliverable at the end of those two weeks, and that stakeholders felt like they weren’t waiting months and months and months to get their thing in.

But, Chris, to your point, it was always a trade off, like Okay, so now we’re doing the sprint planning for the next set of things that we’re going to build, you want your thing? So your thing is estimated to take about four hours, here are the other things that are also going to take four hours, what of this list? Do you not want to see get done in order to get your thing in? And that’s exactly it, you don’t say? No, you present them with options, and you help them decide, okay, my thing is not that important, we actually really need to do fix the website, because it’s broken, and nobody can buy anything.

But me changing the button from green to blue probably isn’t as important as that other thing.

And so helping people also see sort of the big picture of where their assets in so that they can help give that sense of priority.

And you’re also you know, by making them that decision maker, again, they’re engaged, they’re part of the process, and you’re not taking the power away from them by just making the decision for them be like, No, I can’t do that, like, keep the power with them, let them make the decision.

And they’ll feel more engaged with the process as a whole.

Christopher Penn 22:12

What about this rare situation where this what the person is asked for simply does not exist and will not exist? Like it is literally impossible for that thing to hear the set.

If someone comes and says, I would like a car that flies with the marketing level? How do you handle someone who has just thoroughly unrealistic expectations? Or has absolutely no idea what it is they’re asking for?

Katie Robbert 22:36

I, you know, it happens, and I’ve been in that situation a lot.

And I think that you take that same approach, like, okay, let’s talk through some of your business requirements of what it is that you’re actually after, like, don’t like, it’s not helpful to just go ahead and say, No, that doesn’t exist, because for all we know, a flying car is possible.

We just don’t have the resources and helping someone understand the limitations of you and your team.

And what you would need to accomplish that ask is actually a very powerful conversation, because they might say, Okay, well, I’ve been sitting on this million dollars, and I’m going to unlock it for you to go ahead and do the thing.

Like, oh, okay, so you’re really passionate about a flying car.

So let’s go ahead and build the thing.

And then your responsibilities start to outline, here’s what I need.

In order to get this thing done.

I need a whole team of engineers that we currently don’t have, because we sell cupcakes, but Okay, let’s go ahead and find those people.

You know, and so just again, sort of making sure that you’re having that conversation, being curious, asking them more questions, getting clarity.

And so if you already know, in the back of your mind, the thing doesn’t exist.

So let’s say I said to you, Chris, this is going to be a terrible example.


Christopher Penn 23:54

equity, equity is a very popular question.

Katie Robbert 23:56


Let’s say I said to you, what is the brand equity, my expectation in the context of this conversation is you would come to me and say, Okay, I understand you want to understand the, you know, how aware is our audience of our brand? Is that correct? So starting to break down the question and phrase it different ways that you can find numbers for? And they meet like, Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s what I meant, or no, I want to know the brand equity like, Okay, so, typically, brand equity means this, we do not currently have the data to pull that, however, this is what we need to do to get the data and this is how long pulling that data or collecting that data would take.

Do you want to go down that route? So again, not straight out, saying no, but helping the person who’s asking the question, understand the limitations you currently have.

And so, you know, if I asked you, you know, what’s our brand equity, you can say, well, we don’t currently have any of that information.

Here’s the information.

We would need in order to understand the answer to that question, do you still want to proceed?

Christopher Penn 25:05

Right? Yeah, that’s, that’s good.

Because it also helps to clarify, do you want to know brand equity just as a marketplace benchmark? Or do you want to know brand equity for Acquisition purposes? Do you want to the company to get acquired? And there’s a bunch of different ways to do that computation? So, right.

I guess to wrap up? Lee’s question, yeah.

It comes down to does it exist? If you’re being asked for a number that does it? Does it doesn’t exist? Does it exist? And you just don’t have access to the data? Or do you need to get the data? Or does it flat out not exist period into something that you might have to create, get your stakeholder buy in, preferably in writing, with all the requirements and and get them to make the decisions about what the what the cost is going to be? What you’re going to have to give up in order to pursue the thing that they want? Because sometimes they may say, Yes, I absolutely, positively want this.

The board has authorized this and has authorized X number of dollars to do it.

And you might be surprised it might lead to some of the most interesting work you’ve done in your career.

Any final thoughts, Katie?

Katie Robbert 26:10

Yeah, so just remember, a verbal agreement does not hold up in court or a marketing meeting.

Christopher Penn 26:17

Wise words, if you got questions on anything we’ve talked about in today’s episode, hop on over to our free slack who go to Trust insights.ai slash analytics for markers we can have this discussion many more with our community over 1900 marketers and wherever it is that you are watching or listening to the show.

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