Building Organizations That Scale

Have you heard of the ‘King of Murud Janjira’? Nope?

According to a Wikipedia entry:

Janjira State was a princely state in India during the British Raj, located on the Konkan coast in the present-day Raigad district of Maharashtra.

Its rulers were a Sidi dynasty of Arab Abyssinian (Habesha) descent. The state included the towns of Murud and Shrivardhan, as well as the fortified island of Murud-Janjira, just off the coastal village of Murud, which was the capital and the residence of the rulers.

How about the ‘King of India’? Still no?

Yes, I know India is now a democratic nation and has a a modern governing structure. But, what about in the days gone by? Sure, India had countless nawabs, princes and other rulers for its provinces and states. But, how did that benefit our resource-rich, culture-rich nation? History teaches us that we were repeatedly plundered by invaders across the world, and ruled by others for nearly 200 years with strategies like ‘divide-and-rule’.

Now, think about the way typical organizations are structured.

Departmental silos abound. Incentives are provided for individual achievement, or at most, a small team’s effort. If one business unit or region implements a novel idea, it is often regarded as unacceptable for others to simply copy-paste it and execute as-is. Basically, everyone agrees that  at least “some creativity” ought to be incorporated while adopting someone else’s idea in your unit, not just resorting to “shameless copying”!

In other words, every one wants to be the “King”, but of their own small kingdom.

Surely, such an organization will spend at least some of its energy fighting internal battles and motivating its employee base. Such an organization will find it difficult to standardize its operations, or achieve scale. Such an organization is likely to get overtaken by unforeseen threats, when it finds itself least prepared.

Think about that for a minute. If you are in a position of leadership or an entrepreneur, what kind of an organization are you building? If not, what kind of a leader are you following?

 

This post was inspired by a meeting with an industry leader of repute, who raised some interesting questions in a business review.

Service Standards in Public Service

I recently posted a tweet after a visit to the local post office:

A visit to the local #postoffice (to pick up a missed courier delivery) will put to rest any doubts you may have on how the #public #service machinery operates in #India in the year 2018!

I had purposely worded it in a way that did not make it too obvious if my “experience” was positive or negative. I wanted to see the kind of responses it elicits. And, it looked like my approach worked!

Here are some snippets from some of the comments that ensued…

“Similar sentiment when i went to cash out Kisan Vikas Patra”.

“Not sure if there is a sarcasm in your post. I have very good experience with Chennai Posts.”.

“… In South India, I would not trust large public hospitals, that are indeed one way ticket to hell or heaven. But I owe my life to three public hospitals in Delhi – Lohia, Safdarjung and AIIMS. BTW – private enterprises in the health care have no less horror stories to offer.”.

My own experiences with the Post Office, and the public service machinery in general, have been quite disappointing, to say the least. Of course, there are pockets of excellence in every field, and public services would not be an exception to that rule. But, public services, in general, are often characterized by poor pay and appalling work conditions (as compared to their private counterparts). The question is: Does that give them a license to lower their standards below acceptable levels?

Yes, I am also cognizant of the pathetic experiences I periodically encounter with private enterprise: The only consolation in those is that at least it is not my tax money at work. More importantly, when it comes to most private enterprise services, one has the ability to simply walk away and choose another service provider. Often, that is not an option when one encounters a public service.

As one commenter added, “Most of us in metro cities have better choices in almost every aspect of our life’s needs (education, health, food, transportation, communication, clothing, housing, etc.). Just consider the plight in hinterlands… Also, the ones which have no choice… Police, Civic Administration… May God Be With Them.”

Does it always have to be like that?

I think the key lies in understanding that the ones that need to use such services the most, are often the ones that have no other choice.

When designing a public service, bureaucrats, government officials and public servants would do well to remember that context, so that they can empathize with the “customer” needs that the service aims to ultimately address. The less privileged among us deserve a good standard of essential services. Public transport, education, healthcare and communication are all included in that list.

Enrique Peñalosa, the Mayor of Bogotá, captured it eloquently when he remarked, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.

Fostering Innovation

We spend most of our lives in an “operational” world – one that is defined by rules, routines and rationality. But Innovation requires a different skillset that includes connection making, curiosity and experimentation. So, how does one go about building a culture that fosters these values?

This week, I had the privilege of attending a workshop run by Amazon’s Innovation team on Customer Centricity and Building a culture of Innovation. And, here are some of the principles that particularly resonated with me…

  • The key is learning how to handle experiments and failure; If you already know its outcome, it doesn’t count as an experiment
  • Culture ultimately drives Innovation; Make sure your hiring, reward & recognition, performance assessment, etc. are all aligned to support it
  • If your focus is on truly improving the life of the Customer, the other business metrics are sure to follow
  • When working on a new product/service, take the MVP route: What is the smallest thing I can do to test my idea? Then, release to users. Then, iterate and improve.
  • Avoid slide decks, and instead aim for simple narratives written in customer-speak; It will provide much-needed clarity on what will really work (and what will not!)
  • When it comes to Innovation, you need to be “Stubborn on the Vision, but Flexible on the Details” ~ Jeff Bezos

Much of this may seem like common-sense, or even something you may have read elsewhere. But, try to implement any one of these (at a team or organization level), and you will truly appreciate what goes into making it happen.

It may take a while to get there, but the reward is well worth the effort.

Doing UX Right

Yes, we live in a multi-screen, always-on world. Yes, most of us agree that Design and UX matter. Then, why is it so hard for most organizations to do UX right?

There are, of course, some challenges involved. Business enterprises are trained to think of customers as belonging to various segments. And, as the business grows, it tries to tap into an ever-expanding market, reaching out to newer customer segments that eventually have little in common with the original tribe. This is especially true of large, diversified groups of companies.

In such a context, how do we establish which design approach to take? After all, what works for one customer type, may not work for the rest. More importantly, how do we institutionalize the pursuit of “good design” across the enterprise? As it turns out, it is possible to do a few things right and meet the objective of delivering a good UX…

1. Good Design is a Thing

Segmentation is important, and customers often exhibit different personalities and needs. But ultimately, we all like an elegant, friction-less experience. So get your team thinking about what constitutes “Good Design”, learning from the principles laid down by Dieter Rams, Don Norman and others. Build on those principles when you start working on aspects like Presentation, Interaction, Content, etc. and you will be a step closer to your goal.

2. Know Thy User

Understand your “user”. Walk in his/her shoes. Meet with them often to keep in touch with their needs. Find out what they want from you. Reflect on what you want from them (Hint: There can be more than one possibility). Then, align your design philosophy to those insights as closely as possible. After all, design is not just art. It is about crafting solutions to real issues.

3. Embrace Insights

Be open to insights from diverse functions – UX is a multi-disciplinary science. Ask “why” like a five-year-old would. And, don’t be afraid to split test and iterate all your ideas. As Kate Zabriskie once said, “The customer’s perception is your reality.

4. Aim for Amazing

Understand each medium or channel that your customer interacts with. Aim for a consistence experience across channels – your customer is expecting you to do so. Every design decision is a trade-off, and you can never please every one. So make sure you make the trade-offs that matter the most. Remember: Good experience + Thoughtfulness makes for an amazing experience!

Holding Customers To Ransom

What if the business that services your needs could hold you to ransom?

Think about that for a minute. There are many business firms that enjoy a monopoly in their particular industry or geography. Yes, we clamp down on the monopolistic practices of giants like Google and Microsoft, every now and then. But, for every Google, there are hundreds of thousands of businesses that operate as a monopoly, and go virtually undetected or unfazed by anti-trust settlements upheld by the European Union. And, by virtue of the disproportionate power they enjoy, they get away with things any other business would not dream of.

Let me take a hyperlocal example of a newspaper distributor. In most major cities in the India, the newspaper distribution is virtually a monopoly. Every little nook and corner of the city is carved up in such a manner that at most one newspaper agent “services” the region, free of any competition. On the face of it, most of these agents seem to belong to just a few communities, and seem to respect each other’s boundaries as if they are conforming to some unwritten law. And most of the time, the system works. You get your newspapers and magazines delivered as per your preference, each morning, at your doorstep. And the service comes to you at no extra cost – the distribution fee is built into the cost of the publication.

But, what happens when the service standards falter? What happens if you get the wrong stuff delivered each day? Or if your favorite morning daily is delivered to you after you’ve left home for work? Yes, you can call and complain to your agent, but if his processes are broken or his staff inept, or worse, he couldn’t care less – most customers have no recourse to switch to a better alternative. In short, if shoddy services are meted out to them, they will just have to stick with it, or go out of their way each day to buy a copy from the local news stand.

Take another example of your Accountant. Once again, I speak of this in the Indian context, where prevalent Tax laws are so convoluted and ever-changing that there are very real exit barriers involved. Your “accountant” – the one who maintains your books of account and helps you file your tax returns – is not only well-versed with the regulations, but also an expert in your peculiarities and how things work specifically for you. And he/she is a vital component of the system, ensuring compliance with the law and advising you on making prudent investments, as you go through various life stages and business maturity cycles.

But, what happens if there are missed deadlines and constant reminders involved (from you to your accountant, and not vice versa)? What happens if you discover that you could have saved more tax under current provisions, but you were not informed of it in time? If the service delivery is short of expectations in this department, most of us would simply grin and bear it, because it’s not that easy to change your accountant mid-stream. I should know, since I’ve successfully attempted it on more than one occasion!

Which brings me back to my original question. But, now that we’ve understood the context in more detail, let us try and examine the issue in a new light: What if it was your business that enjoyed such a disproportionate power as a monopoly, or operated in an industry with high exit barriers?

Would you use such an opportunity to improve or lower your service standards? Would you invest any more in automation or new technology than you absolutely needed to? Would you make it easier for your customers to reach you, or avoid dealing with the extra hassle and costs involved? Would you want to listen to your customers and respond to their needs, or ignore them knowing that most are in a helpless situation anyway?

I know that most of us are part of organizations and businesses that do not enjoy such monopolistic protections. But the questions I have raised apply equally to us. In fact, even more so, considering that most businesses operate in fiercely competitive environments, where the other guy (competition) may be willing to bend over backwards to take a larger share of the market from us.

Are we doing enough to keep our customers close, respond to their needs, set and meet service benchmarks and invest in a consistent, brand experience for them? And if not, what are we waiting for?

Why Most Projects Fail

Do most projects really fail?

I know, I’m starting with a bold assertion that is probably not in sync with the positive write-ups you see all around you, as you resolve to adopt a few healthy resolutions at the beginning of the New Year. But, the fact is that most new projects either fail to meet the original objectives laid out for them, or at best, see only a partial degree of success, especially in the Services context. These “projects” may take a variety of shape and form – re-designing your online presence, creating an automated sales-tool for your field force, or designing a communication plan to engage with your customers through their lifecycle – though, they share common challenges.

So, let’s try and understand why most projects fail…

 

New and Strange

When an organisation first heads down the path of a new initiative – a project – it has little experience to bank on. Yes, it knows its own business, understands the industry in which it operates, and often has the advantage of trained resources which it can deploy. But, the project itself is a “new” initiative. And, as such, the team has to contend with the discovery and management of a plethora of issues and obstacles which it will encounter along the way, fixing them one by one as it proceeds towards the finish line. This includes known unknowns, as well as unknown unknowns.

 

Reinventing the Wheel

An obvious but surprising fact to contend with is that new projects may be new to the team working on it, but are not “new” to the world at large. Of course, “moonshot” projects like the ones undertaken by SpaceX are the exception that proves the rule. In most organisations, the Project Team will often try and “figure out” a lot of the stuff along the way, including basics of Project Management, User Experience, Customer Engagement and Communication Design. Each of these sub-specialities is an art and a science, and its mastery requires experience and training. Naturally, the Project Team’s first brush with these disciplines will not always include the best way to go about it. In essence, many new projects have a dimension of “reinventing the wheel” that is completely avoidable and provides a significant obstacle to success.

 

Limits of Specialisation

The world is probably divided into those who value specialisation (the majority) and those who value the merits of taking an integrative, holistic approach that transcends domains (the minority). Even if we don’t agree on which side we align with, in most organisations, projects are (rightfully) undertaken by a cross-functional team that includes representation from various functions like Sales, Operations, Marketing and Business Strategy. This necessarily means that the project should benefit tremendously by an integrative, multi-disciplinary approach. But, most organisations hire specialists for specific roles, and then map them to respective departments that work in silos for the most part of the year. Therefore, structurally, most organisations are ill-equipped to address the unique requirements of a cross-functional project, and the project suffers as a result.

 

Is there a way out?

There is no substitute for experience and training, when it comes to addressing complex challenges. However, there are a few things organisations can do to accelerate the Learning Curve, avoid foreseeable problems and improve the chances of success of the projects it undertakes:

  1. Identify the Gaps – Map out the needs of your project and map out your resources to assess where the gaps are
  2. Foundation of Training – Train your resources in the disciplines they are weak in before the project begins
  3. External Support – Supplement your internal teams with consultants and vendors that have the experience you need, either in specific domains or to integrate the effort
  4. Internalise the Solution – Create a plan to strengthen your organisation with the skill sets needed to manage future endeavours
  5. Learning from Mistakes – Despite all this, mistakes will happen. Don’t forget to review the process at the end, and learn from the mistakes made

It goes without saying that much of the above can only be done if the organisation provides the right culture and context in which its employees can grow and thrive. If you don’t have such a culture, start building it today. After all, your success will depend on it!

Customer Service – Getting The Basics Right

Many organisations – and organisational leaders – like to talk about how they are focused on Customer Service, while merely paying lip-service to the customer’s real needs. The sad fact is that, as customers, we increasingly come across organisations and service levels that are simply deficient in their delivery. And, in today’s age of Social Media, we waste no time in airing our opinions to any one who will listen – taking to our Twitter or Facebook accounts to warn friends and strangers of the particular brand/product/service.

Here are some recent examples I grappled with, as a customer. Mind you, this is just a random sample of one month of my own experiences…

 

Example 1: I ordered some poster prints from a printing service I’ve used on many occasions – PrintVenue.com. The prints came a few days later, but I was disappointed to see that each one was printed with errors, with their margins cut off despite being intact in the files that were uploaded. Multiple emails and tweets happened in the 8 days that followed, asking me to send snapshots and wait upto 48 hours for a response after each email, including escalating the matter to a specific id in the organisation (thanks to my tweets!). I was clear in my communications with them from the start that this was a time-critical activity for me and, since I now have to choose another printing service, I would like a refund. But, at the end of more than 8 days of to and fro, I received an email response stating that at most they will be able to re print any one of the posters. No refund was possible. I had no choice but to reply to them saying they just lost a customer for life.

If PrintVenue had chosen to retain a happy customer, instead, it would do so with damages to the tune of Rs. 534/-

 

Example 2: I wanted to order some chicken biryanis from a new app/outlet in my area called Charcoal Biryani. At that particular time, their app wasn’t loading up, so I headed on to Swiggy (the food delivery app) to see if the same outlet was available there. It was, so I ordered two biryanis for the kids at home. The delivery was prompt, but we found that each pack had only one small piece of chicken in it, which was not acceptable given the price and the description. Since I always believe in feedback, I called the outlet to inform them of the incident, and was pleasantly surprised to hear that someone would get in touch with me soon to resolve the matter. Someone did call in an hour and offered to send replacements, thanking me for the feedback. I said that we were done with dinner, and would probably use their services at another time, but it would be good to get a refund for this deficiency of product. Again, to my surprise, they agreed to process the same. OK, it took some days and some messages to figure out that Charcoal will only be able to refund my Swiggy account (since my order was placed via Swiggy), after which the Swiggy team will credit it to my Swiggy wallet. If I had known what the process would entail, I would have happily taken up the offer of Charcoal sending me replacements. However, as a customer, I was happy to see that the food outlet valued my experience as a customer, instead of choosing to make numerous excuses or hide behind unfriendly processes.

In this case, Charcoal did prioritize Customer Experience and learn from constructive feedback, at a cost of approx. Rs. 512/-

 

In both cases, the amounts are not going to make a dent to these organisations. Nor would they add significantly to my monthly income or spends. But, it’s the principle of the matter.

Let’s see it from a different lens. I was speaking with a freelance professional who works in Shipping Logistics, and he was complaining about how his industry is cut-throat in pricing, and the service he offers is practically a commodity. How, then, can he improve his revenues without adding manpower and growing the amount of volume he currently handles?

I spoke with him about understanding his customers’ pain points and addressing them in any way he could. When shipping large volumes that cross the world’s oceans, what is lacking is information at every milestone for the customer in question. Can he not introduce a simple SMS system to inform his customers of the shipment’s progress at each key milestone? He replied that in his industry that would in fact constitute a “superior” service standard, as compared to his peers who don’t even do that much. If he did that consistently, continuing to add value to his customers in numerous ways, there is no doubt in my mind that he would become the preferred service provider one day.

When it comes to Customer Service, getting the basics right should not be considered optional by any organisation / brand / product / service. If you are wondering how to get started, here are five pointers to keep in mind…

  1. Know your customer and understand their needs
  2. Stay open to genuine feedback from your customer
  3. Be receptive to customer inputs, and do what you can to make every interaction a positive one
  4. Be aware of all the touchpoints that your customer interacts with, and ensure a consistent experience
  5. Especially in the Service context, keep your customer informed about progress (or delays!) at every relevant stage

The solution is not always complex, nor one that would require significant resources. All that is needed is the right mindset.

Do we really care about the customer? Are we – at each level – empowered to take decisions that affect our customers positively or negatively? And if we are, do we keep the larger context in mind or choose the penny-wise-pound-foolish option? As Jan Carlzon wrote in ‘Moments of Truth’, a brand (or product or service) is experienced by your customer across millions of “moments of truth” – each can make or break the organisation. Isn’t it time we paid heed and did the right thing?

Communication Design Essentials

ThinkShop works with many clients in the domain of Marketing Strategy. And, “marketing” comes down to Communication Design that works. It’s not really rocket science, but most folks still seem to get it wrong.

If you’re new to it, here are 7 simple but powerful tips to help you get started…

 

1. Know Your Customer – There is simply no substitute to this. Whatever your business, you need a develop a very good understanding of your target audience.

 

2. Primary Target – Every new venture can attempt to address multiple customer segments, but it pays to know your “primary” target group. Once you agree on who they are, focus maximum efforts on those.

 

3. Don’t Ramble – When designing any element of communication, it is important to keep the content clear and concise. Don’t ramble. No one wants to wade through it to find what’s relevant.

 

4. Tell A Story – Whenever possible, tell a compelling story. It’s the easiest and most engaging way to reach your audience.

 

5. Establish Credibility – New brand? New concept? Every one needs to establish credibility with the audience. Use Social Proof, if necessary.

 

6. Start With A Bang! – If you are crafting a written piece in long-form, start with your most important agenda item, instead of eventually getting down to it in the seventh paragraph (or worse, ending with it!). Most folks won’t be going through its entire length.

 

7. Call To Action – End with the action you expect your readers to take, guiding them to the results you want, instead of leaving it to them to decide.

These can go a long way in making your Marketing efforts more effective. And once you get cracking with some of these, you can always engage with a professional that can help take your initiatives to the next level.

Is The Customer Really King?

Way back in 1941, Kenneth B. Elliott, Vice President in Charge of Sales for The Studebaker Corporation, remarked in an interview:

“The customer is not an interruption of our work – he is the purpose of it.

The customer is not dependent upon us – we are dependent upon him.”

And yet, organizations all around us seem to go about their business as if the “customer” was entirely optional to their success. We may not be doing it intentionally, but many of us are guilty of this crime. Let me explain…

When we roll out bad design in a product or service, we disregard the customer. When we up-sell or cross-sell irrelevant offers to our customers, we disregard their wants. When we include a plethora of unnecessary terms and conditions hidden away in fine print, we disregard their needs. Muraleedhar Pai writes about this malady in his post on the Indian Unicorn, including offering some solutions for those who are willing to pay heed:

On what, how, when and why tell the customer, Indian e-businesses have long way to go. Most of them know content is king and do a good job – some very good. Context is built properly by one or two of them. But when it comes to relevance, they have a long long way to go. In the name of engaging the customer, most e-commerce players waste customer’s most important resource, her time.

Subroto Bagchi, in his advice column to a young (funded) entrepreneur, also found it fit to remind him of what matters most:

Since you are an internet company (well, who isn’t?), do not shift your eye from a fundamental reality: customers may interact with the business you are setting up in a virtual world, but always know, they live in the real world… spend time with your customers with religious regularity, immerse yourself in their world in which they use, not just buy, your product or service.

Put your “customer” hat on, and think back to all the times you struggled with any product or service. More often than not, it wasn’t because the organization didn’t work out the chinks in a highly complex offering, but because the fundamentals were lacking. Customer Service, Customer Engagement, Customer Delight – call it what you may; It doesn’t do much if your organizational culture is focused on internal workings and challenges, and loses sight of what they are working for.

Design matters. UX matters. So does listening to customer needs and trying your best to deliver on those needs. Finally, it helps to remember that your brand is lived, and experienced, in a hundred different moments of truth – from the payment gateway to the delivery boy.

Map out the process, and identify all the ways in which your customers interact with your brand. Then, look for the weak links and go about fixing them, one by one. It’s not that hard to do. And, the efforts will pay off significantly.

We are all human, and want similar things. Good products and services, at appropriate value, in a good experience. It’s not that hard to do.

Powerpoint vs Presentation

We live in an age where, no matter what function or department you work with, you will encounter the need to deliver a presentation on a topic of significance. And that means creating a “PPT” from scratch, and often, presenting it yourself. Now, I’ve spent two decades working with Powerpoint and know, first hand, that it’s not nearly as easy as it seems. Yes, any one with a mouse and a copy of Microsoft’s PowerPoint software can start “building slides”.  But, creating a presentation of Quality – that’s a different matter altogether.

Some argue that addressing an audience is an art, not a science. That you need charisma to make an impact. That leaders and speakers are born, not made. Others argue that they have, in fact, benefited from the countless resources on the Web (and in the real world) that offer the promise of making you a better speaker.

Be that as it may, how do you deliver a good presentation?

First of all, you need to accept that there is no substitute for “clarity of thought“. Just as knowledge of Photoshop does not make you a Van Gogh, knowing how to make a PowerPoint slide deck does not necessarily result in an impactful presentation. So take the time to study the topic before you, and jot down your thoughts (preferably on paper) on what you want to share with your audience.

Remember, presentations are about communicating an idea in the most effective manner possible – not about fancy fonts, packing your slides with a lot of data, or using animated transitions.

Here’s my list of points to keep in mind, the next time you face a Blank Slide template…
 

  • Keep it Simple : Less slides, less text, less data
  • Divide the content in the form of a story : Have a Start, a Middle and an End. (If you want to make a stronger impact, begin with the end!)
  • When you present any data, do mention its source
  • Use a lot of white-space and a large text size: Content should be readable from 20 feet away
  • While creating the presentation, don’t start each slide from scratch. Instead, take the slide with the most similar looking layout, copy-paste, and use that as the starting point. That way, all formatting will be consistent across your slide-deck.
  • Prepare for possible questions that may come up… and their answers!
  • If you display images/pictures/screenshots in your slide, post them prominently against a full-black or full-white background to make the graphic stand out without any distractions
  • If, inspite of good advice, you make a loooong presentation, summarize key points/conclusions at the end
  • If you’re going to present in a new room, get acquainted with it beforehand to reduce presentation stress
  • Check all audio-visual settings, seating arrangements, handouts, etc. well before the scheduled start
  • Lastly, keep your sense of humour!

 
Read PresentationZen’s Top 10 Slide Tips and Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule, before you even double-click on the PowerPoint icon – they both have some great tips for you to follow, regardless of the topic you’re presenting on. You can also bookmark AllTop’s rich resource on all things related to communication, here.