It’s A Nerd, It’s A Plane…

Jul 07, 2017


One of the advantages of my job as a consultant is my ability to collect rewards miles and points with various airlines and hotels. I recently switched my loyalties from American Airlines to Alaska Airlines; the reasoning behind this was merely a numbers game. I get more miles for my dollar with Alaska and it costs fewer miles to redeem a flight.

Before I made the switch I did a lot of research on each of the loyalty programs to get a sense of how my perks might change. One item in the Alaska Air literature really stuck out to me, “Mileage Plan MVP Gold (this is me) and above are upgraded to First or Premium Class 75% of the time…” Whoa! But all good benefits always have a caveat, which in this case is, “…based on average historic system wide rates of upgrade.”

75% chance of upgrade?! This was pretty exciting to me, especially with the amount of business travel I do. However, after eight flights with Alaska Airlines, I began to question where that statistic came from as I’ve only been upgraded once since I switched my loyalties. I expressed my grief to a colleague who said, “Oh, you have to book through their website directly in order to get the upgrade.” Aha! Due to habit, I have always booked through Expedia since I get a good rundown of the most cost effective flights in just one search.

But my curious mind kept questioning whether my problem was as simple as not booking through Alaska’s website. So I conducted my own experiment. Since I changed my behavior and began booking directly through Alaska, I have had 12 Alaska flights, all of which I have been upgraded to premium class immediately and even first class on two occasions.

Let’s go back to the statistic quoted in the marketing material by Alaska. Based on a historical average, elite members are given upgrades 75% of the time. My personal ratio is currently at 65%, but that’s taking into account the first eight flights that I failed to book through their website. Since I have a new booking strategy, I suspect that ratio will continue to climb.

While this metric is nice and juicy, I’m writing about this because it bothers me as a Nerd and I think it’s a result of a miscommunication between Nerds and Suits. For reference, here’s a quick rundown of what we at Elicit mean when we say “Nerd” and “Suit” (and “Geek”).

While the metric appears to be accurate, the experience of getting there is misleading. When I read, “upgraded to premium or first class,” there is an expectation on my side that Alaska Airlines will upgrade me and that I wouldn’t have to make the effort to purchase my ticket in a certain way.

This makes me wonder if in this case the Alaska Airlines Nerds informed their Suits about the caveat of this metric. It also makes me wonder if there was a more compelling metric like “99% of Gold or higher members are upgraded to first or premium class when they book through our website!” This could also be a situation where there is a standing report that was built years ago that shows upgrades as a percentage of flights flown and no Nerds were even involved (eek!).

As Nerds, we have a responsibility to provide the Suits with metrics that are easily digestible and also meet the need of the Suit. I could imagine in this case the Suits came to the Nerds and said, “Hey, how many of our elite passengers get upgraded on flights?” The Nerds then went off and did exactly what they were asked to do and handed this very specific metric back to the Suits. However, if the Nerds would have understood the purpose of the metric they were producing, to show the upgrade advantages of Elite membership, they may have been able to find a more appropriate—and marketable—metric.

Based on my experiences, here are a few steps that I encourage all of Elicit’s Nerds and Suits to run through as they begin collaborating in projects and data requests.

For the Nerds
  • Curiosity: If a Suit comes to you and asks for a specific metric, take an interest in why they are asking the question. In fact, we have a rule of thumb at Elicit, to always consider at least three options. Why not challenge the Suits to come up with alternative metrics?
  • Peel the Onion: Embrace your inner 4-year-old and continually ask, “why?” Often the first answer you get from the Suit is simply the beginning of a long list of dominoes that will eventually land them at your doorstep.
  • Don’t Accept the “Gut Feel”: It is human nature to make assumptions about particular behavior, but in the big data age, a lot of these assumptions can be answered with data. Don’t necessarily let these assumptions get in the way of the end goal, but be sure to understand what they are and their potential impact on your analysis.
For the Suits
  • The Full Story: I know you are often in a hurry and simply need a quick answer, but you’ll often be surprised by what Nerds know about the data (and how it connects to the business), right off the top of their heads. We’re here to help so bring us along for the ride.
  • Seek Validation: If you have an existing report built by an analyst, circle back with them to ensure you have interpreted the data correctly. This validation step can often uncover hidden assumptions that were tribal knowledge in the analyst department.
  • Push Back: Just because an analyst says it is so does not mean it is so. Push back on Nerds when a metric doesn’t feel right. Obviously getting into the data isn’t always an option, but asking for specific examples of the average customer can often force the analyst to look at the raw data in a way they aren’t used to.

I hope these tips help you upgrade the communication between Nerds and Suits in your business. Not only will this help facilitate better working relationships, but the Suits might just learn something from the Nerds (and vice versa).