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Issue Date: Vol. 56, No. 12, December 2016, Posted On: 1/5/2017

Hard Data Vs. Gut Instinct

Hank Schlesinger
TAGS: bulk vending, coin machine, coin-op machine, coin-op industry, vending machine, bulk vendor, coin-op business, small business, vending, vending operating, Vending Times editorial, Hank Schlesinger

Businesspeople today are faced with a quandary that is proving particularly frustrating for even the best and brightest. How do you weigh rapidly increasing quantifiable data against the instinctual and anecdotal when making business decisions? Numbers do not lie, but they can shade the truth in funny ways. Conversely, instinct and anecdote can be notoriously unreliable when planning a strategy for the future.

Although not new, these issues are particularly treacherous for small businessmen, such as those in coin-op amusements and bulk vending. Take, for instance, a midlevel employee in a large corporation. Managing by the numbers can prove highly effective in building a career. Numbers are easy to sell to C-level big shots with corner offices and just as easy to use to justify less than resounding successes or even failure. In this regard, data are both an offensive and defensive weapon in the corporate jungle.

For the coin-op businessperson with no corner office superior to please, the situation can become particularly tricky. Coin-op, whether it is merchandise vending or entertainment, is particularly close to the consumer in a way that other businesses are not. While hard data remain numbers on a page, an operator's intuition can have significant depth. Decidedly less quantifiable, an operator's intuitive skill set can include the sum total of dozens of past successes, failures and near misses. Years of experience can reside instinctively in a "gut," along with last night's pot roast.

Both hard data and intuition are byproducts of doing business, and woe to the businessperson who doesn't take advantage of both.

In some happy cases the hard data neatly and joyfully align with instincts. The numbers match what the gut is telling the savvy operator. However, in many cases the gut and the numbers can seem stubbornly at odds. Not only do they not match up, but very often point in exactly the opposite directions. One example of this may be whether to focus attention on route expansion or increasing equipment density within existing locations. This is not as easy a choice as it might seem. And the situation is not made any simpler when you consider that small to midsize businesses have more available data at their fingertips than ever before.

That said, it would be unwise for the small businessperson to abandon either hard data or hard-earned insights. It is here that we enter the uncomfortable and perpetual gray area of finding the proper balance for the two in any given situation. This is even more difficult than it seems. Habits formed over a lengthy career can reflexively give more weight to one over the other. Even worse, ego-driven tendencies will almost always seek out the kind of very specific hard data that supports gut instincts without proper analysis.

Some businesspeople with whom I've discussed this issue insisted they treat their instincts as a working theory they then seek to prove or disprove with hard data, before drawing a firm conclusion and a plan -- while many of their contemporaries prefer to fiddle with data hoping to trigger inspiration by taking in more information. I cannot claim that one method is superior to the other.

There are no easy solutions to the hard data versus gut instinct conundrum, but recognizing the risks associated with them is a good first step to making better decisions down the road. For better or worse, amusement and vending operators have to own every decision they make.

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