Connections

A friend proudly posted on an online forum that he was able to fit in multiple activities in his life (including running a startup!), thanks to no cable TV, no YouTube, no tea breaks, no FB and no What’s App groups. His argument was that we all have a finite amount of time, and hence, need to ‘make time’ for what matters by giving up something else.

I agree with that last part, and have lived with that belief for as long as I can remember. Defining your priorities, and making time for them, is the only way this works. I’d also recommend improving efficiencies to get more return on investment for the time you do spend on your chosen pursuits. But I also fear that my friend, like many others, is missing out on a vital part of life.

There is a case to be made for widening your horizons and interacting with perspectives that are not like your own.

Most of today’s online technologies are designed to give you more of what you’ve already liked, or interacted with. But, it helps to push yourself out of your comfort zone and understand Life from the eyes of those who don’t think like you. And, that’s where ‘mass media’ can help.

The way things like newspapers and TV work is that someone else decides what constitutes “good content” for the large majority of us. That may not coincide with what we would like, or agree with, but that can be a good thing… at times.

Today, more than ever, we need to embrace diversity of thought in all spheres, from politics to society to technology. We need to seek out views that are significantly different from our own, whether through a thought-provoking Netflix documentary (on a subject we may know little of), or a feature in the local daily that proposes a view contrary to our own (closely-held) beliefs.

That’s how new connections will form. That’s how we will someday go past our predispositions. That’s how we will eventually stop judging or fearing those that do not resemble us, and truly begin to understand each other.

There are 7 billion of us, and every one has a unique world view, shaped by diverse, multi-cultural experiences. Let’s not allow easy access to the Internet to dumb it all down.

Engaging Smarter with AI

Last month, in suburban London, a delivery of a parcel was attempted by Amazon Prime.

The homeowner was out on a school run, but had a video doorbell from Nest Hello (Google) installed in the home. An Apple iPhone X received a live feed from the doorbell, and a 2–way chat soon transpired. It turned out that the homeowner’s Tesla was parked right outside, and was accessed via the Tesla app – thanks to its permanent cloud connectivity. The boot was remotely opened by the homeowner, who could see it live on the video stream. The delivery guy was able to leave the package inside, after which the car was remotely locked via the app, resulting in a successful delivery.

What is noteworthy about this story is that it involved four distinct services – Amazon, Google (Nest), Apple and Tesla – all of which were digital, but none were specifically designed to work together.

Yet, in many ways, we are probably in the first hour of the evolution of AI (think before the Internet happened).

Futurists like Kevin Kelly (Founding Editor of Wired) speak of a rapid “cognification” of the machines around us, giving them the ability to harness superhuman powers – minus the (human) distractions. But, they also augur that the most popular AI product that will be in use 20 years from now, hasn’t even been invented yet!

What is (or isn’t) AI?

The Merriam-Webster defines Artificial Intelligence as: “The capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior.”

We humans possess a number of cognitive abilities that help us learn new concepts, apply logic & reason, recognize patterns, comprehend ideas, solve problems, make decisions, and use language to communicate. We call this intelligence.

This “intelligence” enables us humans to think, to be self-aware, to experience Life.

And, human intelligence is not just linear and one-dimensional.

Howard Gardner in his ‘Theory of Multiple Intelligences’ argued that there were a wide range of different abilities operating in the human mind. – ones that did not necessarily correlate with each other.

Gardner proposed that these distinct types of intelligences – including logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, musical and interpersonal – are what enabled people to become a plumber, farmer, physicist or teacher.

Modern machine capabilities typically classified as “AI” include successfully understanding human speech (as in voice-recognition), competing at the highest level in strategic game systems (such as Chess), and intelligent routing (as in Content Delivery networks or Military simulations).

But the scope of AI is disputed: As machines become increasingly capable, tasks considered as requiring “intelligence” are often removed from the definition, a phenomenon known as the AI effect. As a result, routine technologies like Optical Character Recognition (OCR) are frequently excluded from the definition.

In fact, we tend to think of AI as whatever hasn’t been done yet!

The fact is, AI is not just embedded inside Netflix algorithms or voice controlled ‘smart assistants’, it’s embedded in our lives.

The decades-old autopilot systems that fly our commercial airplanes is just one example of that. The humble “calculator” is already smarter than most of us in arithmetic, and the GPS chip in our phones is already better at spatial navigation than the average human – both being examples of machines exhibiting intelligence.

Growing significance of AI

Clearly, AI is relevant to any task requiring intelligence.

High-profile examples of AI include autonomous vehicles (such as drones and self-driving cars), powering search engines (such as Google), and improving spam filtering or targeted advertisements.

In Medicine, AI is being applied to numerous high-cost problems, with initial findings suggesting that AI could save as much as $16 Billion. In 2016, a ground breaking study in California found that a mathematical formula, developed with the help of AI, correctly determined the accurate dose of immunosuppressant drugs to give to organ patients.

In Financial Services too, there are several use cases for AI. Banks use artificial intelligence systems to organize operations, maintain book-keeping, and invest in stocks. AI-based tools help read documents, process cheque payments and respond to customer requests. AI has also reduced fraud and financial crimes by monitoring behavioural patterns of users for any anomalies.

Today, AI can even analyze “silence patterns” on Customer Service calls to infer insights from excessive hold-times about system delays, outdated CRMs, etc.

Engaging smarter with AI

However, in our quest for providing more bells and whistles, we may sometimes lose sight of what truly matters. We need to connect the dots… across devices, channels and teams. We need to listen to our customers, our distributors, our employees. We need to move from proposition to purpose.

Does Customers + AI have to equal chatbots?! Or can we use AI-based tools to actually improve outcomes for our customers?

Here are just a few examples where intelligent use of AI can help improve Customer Experience, regardless of the underlying business:

  • Design more relevant products and services for your customers by listening to your customers and putting those insights to work
  • Continue conversation threads in CRM systems, regardless of their initial entry point, so you can provide contextual help
  • Predict a lapse or termination, and intervene with appropriate measures, before you lose the customer

Technologists argue that in the not-so-distant future, if a task needs to be done efficiently, it will most likely be done by robots (as in AI with bodies), while humans will focus on activities that are typically inefficient – think exploration, innovation, science and art.

Ultimately, our ability to deal with what comes next will depend on our willingness to embrace a co-existence with machines and their intelligence. Only then will they become our partners, not just tools.

This post first appeared on YourStory.

CX vs Hyper Customization

Intuitively, we believe that all customers expect personalization and customization in the products or services they buy. Marketers are told they need to be more ‘relevant’ to the target consumer. Product Managers are taught to map out customer needs, and then address those needs through the products they design. Business folks understand that the revenue numbers they chase will grow as more and more customers see ‘value’ in their offerings. So much so, that n=1 is now the mantra of success – the ultimate segmentation goal is a segment of just one!

But, does hyper-customization always lead to an improved Customer Experience?

It’s a question worth asking, since considerable dollars are being diverted to the pursuit of providing customers with the tools they need, to tailor their experiences to their unique needs.

Take the example of a leading food-delivery app. Its initial mandate was to induce trial among hungry customers by offering them the ability to order food from their favorite local restaurants. As more and more restaurants (and customers) signed up, the app may have attracted bigger rounds of funding. And with it, came even better “features” in the app.

One such feature is the ability to add a “special instruction” along with the order placed. Of course, the app makes it clear that they merely promise to do their best to pass on these instructions to the restaurant. But, what happens if you are allergic to a substance, make a mention of strictly avoiding that substance in your order, and take delivery of a dish that includes said ingredient?

The customization feature in the app offered you the means to specify your needs, but the restaurant did not pay heed to it while preparing your order. By the time the app’s delivery boy arrived, it was too late to re-do the whole order. In such a scenario, who should take responsibility for the end product? Who is accountable for the ultimate customer experience?

Take another example of a leading five-star hotel chain that aims to make a guest’s stay as comfortable as possible. While signing up for its loyalty program some years ago, a friend of mine specified his preference as “smoking room/floor”, and this info was promptly relayed to the reservation systems for all future bookings.

Now, for the past few months, this friend has been working on quitting his smoking habit. Since his office does his bookings, he was not surprised when he discovered during a recent check-in, that he was assigned a room on the smoking floor. However, on requesting a change to a non-smoking floor, he was told that since he is a member of the loyalty program, the system would not allow this change until he logged in to his membership and updated his preference!

Imagine the plight of a weary traveler, at the end of a long working day in another town, made to recall a password to login to a system he hasn’t used in over a year – just to get a non-smoking room! Of course, it is possible to design the system such that this requirement is not mandatory. But, that’s not the point.

In our quest for providing more bells and whistles, more personalization and more customization, we may sometimes lose sight of what truly matters to our customers…

More does not always mean better. Technology does not always enable. And, let’s not forget that CX is how the customer ultimately experiences the product or service.

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!

Design Thinking and Innovation

Having spent more than twenty years (as an internal or external consultant) addressing a variety of business problems for both clients and employers, I do know a thing or two about “Design Thinking”. In fact, my consulting outfit – ThinkShop.in – regularly works with clients across industries on a range of business/technology/marketing solutions, including organizing custom boot camps on topics that include Digital Strategy, Design Thinking and Customer Engagement.

But even Teachers can become Students, and there is no limit to the learning one can assimilate. So, when the opportunity arose a few months ago, to attend a workshop on the subject of ‘Design Thinking‘, I looked up the profile of the coach, and realized this was an opportunity not to be missed!

The workshop was being conducted by Prof. Srikant M. Datar – the Arthur Lowes Dickinson Professor of Business Administration, Faculty Chair of the Harvard Innovation Lab, HBS One Harvard Faculty Fellow, and Senior Associate Dean for University Affairs at Harvard Business School. A Chartered Accountant by training and a gold medalist from IIM (A), Prof. Datar holds two masters degrees and a Ph.D. from Stanford University, and brings decades of experience working with leading Fortune 500 companies as a consultant.

Though no single post can capture the depth of this subject, if you are just starting off on your journey, here are some key learnings you may find useful:

Innovation can be a breakthrough or even incremental change at a product, process or business-model level

Innovation ultimately depends on the quality of observation and insight, how we frame the problem, and quality & quantity of ideation

‘Breaking Fixedness’ – our fixed ways of thinking that help us in our day to day life, our hard-wiring – is the key to Innovation

The risks of not innovating are even greater than the risks involved in innovating

Most of us spend most of our lives in the “operational” world defined by rules, routines and rationality, while Design Thinking requires skillsets that include connection making, curiosity and experimentation

‘Status Quo Bias’ is a real thing that adversely impacts the pursuit of Innovation in any field

Techniques like multiplication, division, rapid prototyping, etc. can be used to overcome prevalent cognitive biases, when it comes to designing a relevant solution

Of course, if you are serious about building an Innovation practice, you will need to do a whole lot more, including equipping your team members with the skills they will need to make a dent.

‘Design Thinking’ matters, and investments (of time and money) made in building a strong foundation will surely reap rich rewards for your organization, when it starts impacting the Customer Experience positively. As an added bonus, you will find that it also ingrains in you a new, refreshing way to look at the world.

Did I mention, ThinkShop can help?!

Startup India: Taking Stock

Last month, Mint did a feature on Hits and Misses in the Indian Startup universe. It was a great opportunity to take stock of reality, since most of what we read about in the mainstream media is a function of “survivorship bias”. Here are some interesting statistics from that story…

  • The E-commerce sector alone has raised over $11 billion over the past decade – roughly 75% of the funds that have been raised by Indian start-ups during that period
  • Of the $11 billion, Flipkart Internet Pvt. Ltd has raised more than $4.5 billion, and is now India’s most valuable Internet company at $11.6 billion
  • The top five most-funded start-ups in E-commerce to have shut down had raised $51.1 million in total, which doesn’t include the distress sales of companies such as Letsbuy and SherSingh
  • $3.1 billion (including debt) was raised by Digital Payment startups, making Paytm – now valued at $7 billion – India’s second-most valuable Internet company
  • Of the 192 companies founded in the Cab Hailing category since 2007, 76 have shut shop; Ola is currently valued at $3.5 billion
  • Nearly 310 start-ups in Healthcare, of 2,678 founded since 2007, have shut shop; Practo, 1MG, Portea are the top startups in this segment
  • As many as 2,460 ventures in the Edu-tech / Education space incorporated since 2007; about 224 have shut down
  • Of the 2,420 start-ups founded in Hyperlocal (home services+food tech+delivery) since 2007, 780 have shut shop
  • As many as 514 ventures tried group buying model one way or the other, but at least 221 shut shop

Think about those statistics for a moment; There are plenty of lessons to learn from. Here are some of my personal takeaways…

  1. A healthy dose of funding was available to those who ventured out and attempted to create an organization of value
  2. The best known in each segment typically finds it a bit easier to gain preferred access to investors, markets and customers, simply by virtue of their size and brand salience
  3. Path-breaking, innovative ideas executed well are not the only recipe for success; Addressing a customer gap with great execution at a profitable price point can work wonders too!
  4. Despite significant resources at their disposal, and addressing a real customer need, countless startups did not survive the past decade

For some of you dreaming of launching a startup, posts like these may signify doom and gloom. For others, it will probably provide the inspiration to soldier through.

The fact is, not every venture is meant to succeed and not every startup will fail. “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly“, said R. Buckminster Fuller. For me, the biggest lesson buried in these statistics is that building a successful organization takes decades, not years. There is simply no shortcut to it.

Crystal Gazing: 2018

We are almost at the halfway mark of 2017, and I thought it would be a good idea to capture some emerging trends, and explore how business will be impacted in the coming months…

Trend #1 – Chatbots

Bots seem to be everywhere these days. And, cutting-edge organizations are rushing to deploy them. Bots today are kind of what Apps were like, just a few years ago – it sounds like every one should have one. Surely, bots offer some real advantages, and chief among them is the ability to automate repeated tasks at a fraction of the cost (of a human/manual alternative). That’s a great use case for organizations that are in scale-up mode.

What role, if any, will bots play in your organization? How can your business leverage this emerging technology to reduce operational costs or improve responsiveness? How will that impact the team?

Trend #2 – Sinking Data Costs

Intuitively, we all know that data costs are significantly lower than they used to be. In India, disruptive players like Reliance Jio have already upset the apple-cart and eroded market share (and profits) of the established telcos. Worldwide, voice and messaging is rapidly being replaced by VoIP/VoLTE and web-based messaging, with data now being the primary use of a mobile phone. Broadband Data costs inside the home are also more affordable than ever.

What will this do to Internet and Mobile penetration in emerging markets? How will customer behavior change? Will users go beyond chat and e-commerce? Is your organization ready for the next phase of evolution?

Trend #3 – Aadhaar, Everywhere

In the India context, we are witnessing no less than a revolution in terms of data linkages and availability. 1 Billion+ users have already registered for an Aadhaar id, with 93%+ coverage among adults. This, naturally, establishes a strong foundation for payments via financial inclusion, but that’s not all there is to it. Increasingly, services like filing IT returns and booking air tickets are being linked to Aadhaar. The IndiaStack APIs already offer a robust platform comprising Aadhaar + eKYC + eSign + Digital Locker, reducing Customer Onboarding time from days to hours, and we have only just begun.

How will this ever-connected universe of data impact privacy and consumer protection? What will it to to service levels? How will customer expectations evolve over time? What is your organization doing to stay ahead of the curve, or keep up with the changing dynamics?

The answers will not be easy to come by, and may differ for each one of us. As we head into these winds of change, here’s hoping we ask the right questions… and embrace Change.

Building a Personal Brand

Last month, I had the pleasure of addressing a bunch of entrepreneurs at a conference called “Breaking Barriers” on ‘Building a Personal Brand’. It’s a topic that is relevant not just to entrepreneurs, but also to owners of small-medium organizations and key executives in any large enterprise.

Here are some of the key lessons shared in my slide deck, if you are looking for a primer on How to Build a Personal Brand…

 

Step 1 – Online Presence

If you are in business, you probably have a domain name booked already. If not, get one today. Then figure out how to host a basic page about what you are with relevant contact info. Then deploy an email service that maps your domain name to your mailbox so you can send/receive emails from your own domain e.g. yourname@yourdomain.com. In terms of building an online brand, there is no comparison between this and using a free email service like GMail. So, if you don’t know how to do this, seek help. But get it done.

Step 2 – LinkedIn

The minimum expected of an online presence for your professional self or your business is to have an active profile on LinkedIn – the most popular business social network today. That means including a professional-looking profile Picture, an appropriate Headline that captures what you do, a Summary paragraph of your current role and a short description of relevant Past Roles you may have experience with. Don’t start sending out LinkedIn invites to others before you get this going – it’s just unprofessional. Have a look at others’ LI profiles to get a sense of what’s good and what’s not.

Step 3 – Marketing

When you’re an entrepreneur, “Marketing” is not the name of a department. It refers to creating a basic set of collateral which captures your credentials plus describes the product/service you offer. If you are an executive (not a business), this means having an updated CV, an active LinkedIn profile, recommendations from others, etc. in place. Create templates from this material so that you are ready to respond to any requests for information in a professional, timely manner.

Step 4 – Sales

Again, entrepreneurs shouldn’t mistake “Sales” as a label or a person. If you are in business, you are in Sales. Create a system to respond to leads or prospects, and follow it religiously. Use social media to research what your customers and competitors are up to, so you can reach out to relevant folks with information that they will value, instead of simply sending out a standard note. Who should you target in an organization? Who do you know already in play? What conversations are already happening? You will need to invest time and effort in an ongoing manner to make this work.

Bonus Tip – Get Productive

The more efficiently you manage your time, the more you will be able to do what’s important (but not always urgent) to make your personal brand a success.

 

Do remember that brand reputations take years to build and seconds to destroy. Keep at it, and you will see results.

The IndiaStack Framework

Typically, when we think of government-run initiatives in India, a certain image comes to mind – one that leaves a lot to be desired. But, India is changing. And, changing fast. Yes, most of us know about initiatives like Aadhaar. But, that’s not all there is to it.

A few months ago, I wrote about India’s Digital Divide in a post that covered my visit to some Community Information Resource Centers (CIRCs) that were empanelled with the National Digital Literacy Mission. In it, I captured my experience of interacting with the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEFIndia.org), and with the fine folks that work at the grassroot level, ensuring that underprivileged communities in semi-urban and rural India get access to Information Technology and to the essentials skills needed to make it work.

As it turns out, there is lot more where that came from. While leading dailies are busy covering Karan Johar’s adoption on their front pages, the government – yes, the government! – has been quietly working on a digital framework over the past several years, to enable a variety of “digital services” for its citizens.

The “IndiaStack“, as it is now known, is a collection of APIs that “allows governments, businesses, startups and developers to utilise a unique digital Infrastructure to solve problems towards presence-less, paperless, and cashless service delivery”. The seeds were sown way back in 2009 with the creation of UIDAI (Aadhaar), but the form it takes today is a robust, interoperable framework that works across devices and service providers. The IndiaStack APIs include Aadhaar, eSign, eKYC, Digital Locker, Unified Payment Interface and a host of other services ranging from Electronic Toll Collection to Bharat Bill Payment System – all designed to make it easier for the common man to go about their business. It even includes a specification for Electronic Consent that puts the user at the center of the data flow as well as content flow. Imagine, a government initiative doing all this!

The benefits of adopting such a framework are immense for the urban as well as rural masses. To take an example, a large bank can use a combination of Aadhaar + eKYC + eSign + Digital Locker to reduce Customer Onboarding time from days to hours, thereby reducing drop-offs, minimizing branch operation costs and practically eliminating the need for a backoffice. Reliance Jio used such a setup recently to onboard 100 Mn+ customers in less than 3 months, with less than 10 minutes per customer (vs 1 day or more for other telcos), and at a cost of less than Rs. 3 per new customer (vs Rs. 40 or more for other telcos). “Walk Out Working” is the new benchmark for the user journey, and it’s great news for all customers.

The technology is not just for the mass affluent customers in Top 10 metros, though. As more and more service providers build services around these APIs, the unbanked and underserved communities of India will be able to use elements of the IndiaStack to push & pull payments (UPI), share their own data (e.g. prepaid recharge history) with relevant entities, and access lending credit (e.g. a one-day or one-month loan) that was unavailable to them until now.

Aadhaar is not just another identity card – it offers a platform that can verify more than 100 Mn transactions a day, in real-time. UPI is not just a fun way to build a virtual payment address – it can enable push/pull transactions from any stored value account to any other store value account. And, Digital Locker is not just another storage service – it is a full-fledged data exchange platform to offer secure access to users in a multi-provider ecosystem. Finally, many of these tools work across devices, not just on smartphones- making them available to the audiences they were designed for.

If understood correctly, and used efficiently, this digital framework has the power to transform lives at the grassroot level, bringing hundreds of millions of people within the ecosystem, and offering them the tools they need to improve their socio-economic reality. And, the technology is available today, in the form of interoperable, scalable APIs, ready to plug-and-play.

After all, India is more than a tony suburb in Mumbai or a startup hotspot in Koramangala. India does not always speak English or get 24×7 electricity. But, India is eager to learn… hungry to grow. And thankfully, these new tools are a step in the right direction, in making India data-rich and well-connected.