Change Is The Only Constant

The idea of ThinkShop was born way back in 1999, when I first started a web-design studio called UncommonWisdom to work on Internet-based Communication Design. My boutique consulting firm was way ahead of its time, but we were able to deliver some interesting work in the digital space, including digital strategy, website design and UX for enterprise-grade applications.

In its second avatar, ThinkShop began life in 2013, helping its clientele bridge the gap between Idea and Execution, until the end of 2017.

As an independent consultant at the helm of ThinkShop, I was fortunate to work with some of the leading players in Financial Services, Insurance and Education, on projects that included developing Customer Engagement strategy and Marketing Communication frameworks, User Experience Design across multiple platforms, and architecture for a 100,000+ page web presence.

With the beginning of 2018, I have decided to take up an assignment that, once again, offers me the opportunity to apply my skills to problems of scale. With it, I commence a new chapter in my professional life, as ‘Group Head – Customer Experience’ at the Edelweiss Group – one of India’s leading Financial Services conglomerates.

A big Thank You for all the support you’ve shown to ThinkShop and me.

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!

Knowing It All

As we get older, most of us assume that we get wiser. This is seen to be true for both individuals and organizations. We may call it different names – learning, experience, insight, etc. Some of us may accelerate the process by learning from others’ experiences (through books and training), or by exposing themselves to changing environments (think travel or shifting industries). Others may see themselves as a “lifelong student”, constantly seeking out ways to add to their knowledge base, or challenging themselves to step outside their comfort zone.

But, what does this “wisdom” really mean? Why do we assume that being wiser means having all the answers? Why do we take it for granted that while we are doing the right thing, others (those whose actions are not in sync with our’s) are on the wrong path? Again, this is often true for both individuals and organizations.

Let’s take a look at some of the issues that business enterprises face today: Should it be scarce or abundant? Should it be free or expensive? Should it be about what used to matter or what really matters today? What should we do when our hunches don’t match the data that’s pouring in?

We live in a complex, interconnected world. And, organizations of all shapes and sizes struggle with questions to which they do not have the answers – even if they bring all their experience to bear on the issue. So, why pretend that we know it all?!

The way I see it, knowing what you don’t know is an essential attribute of being wiser. And, working on filling those gaps only means that we are on our way to becoming a better version of ourselves. To me, continuous learning means having the humility to ask a lot of questions, being receptive to other (dissimilar) perspectives, and developing the ability to synthesize them suitably.

We’ve all heard of IBM predicting a world market of “maybe five personal computers”. We know that Kodak missed the bus with digital photography standards, even after inventing the digital camera! And yes, “uberization” is a word now. In other words, just because someone (including your competitor) is on a different path, it doesn’t mean they are wrong.

Believe it or not, organizations can admit – to their employees, customers, stakeholders – that they don’t know every thing, but that they have learned a few things along the way about what works (and doesn’t work) in their unique context. And, so can individuals. Yes, even those in “leadership” positions!

Let me end with the words of a wise Economist who once remarked: “When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?”

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?

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.

Is Digital a Mindset or a Skillset?

I recently attended the AWS re:Invent 2016 event online, which offered some fascinating insights into the world of Technology by folks who manage business (in the cloud) on an enviable scale. One such insight was: “Software is a mindset, not a skillset.” That got me thinking about how the same truth applies to Digital as well.

ThinkShop works with clients that need help in translating their business vision into reality, through the design and delivery of Technology-based initiatives. However, the challenges we most often encounter are rarely “technical” in nature. More often than not, an organisation struggles to bridge the gap between the “old way” of doing things and the “new way” it wants to so keenly embrace.

Its constituents – its people – who are often said to be its biggest asset, are the ones who are at the frontline of various functions, be it Sales, Operations or Customer Service. And, it is human nature that we humans find it difficult to accept change. That’s what the struggle is really about. That’s why we end up with a less-than-optimal Customer Experience. That’s why customers take to social media to warn their friends and family about their unpleasant experiences, so that they may not suffer the same fate. That’s why we have returns, and refunds and complaints, and all the costs that come with it.

Yes, modern Technology has made it all easier than it has ever been. We are no longer confined to our city, region or country – the world is our playground. We no longer have limited choices – the options are infinite. We no longer need to silently suffer a bad product/service – we can shout out our message to millions in the online world through the megaphone of our social networks. And this has significant implications for Business, regardless of the industry in which you operate – make no mistake about it.

Imagine you are shopping online for a gift. Your budget is about five thousand bucks, so you don’t mind signing up on a new website that specializes in that category (say, jewellery), if it means a better product range to choose from. You register on the site after finding one that seems well-designed, and has the funky designs you were looking for. Then, you zone in on a specific product, and are delighted to find that it even offers some options to choose from. Finally, you select the variant options you really want, hit the Buy Now button and proceed to the payment page… Transaction error!

What?! You entered your credit card details correctly. It was a valid card. Must be a website issue. Hey, there’s a chat window? A few minutes and chat messages later, the Support team says they will look into it and call you back in a few minutes, since there is no apparent error at the site’s end. 30 minutes later, you get a call from the Support team that informs you that the product you had chosen is out of stock, but can be sourced and sent in 10 days. They have no clue that you’re awaiting a call-back on the failed payment, nor do they seem to know anything about the variant choices you had made. You try for a few minutes to explain the problem, but they respond by saying they can email you a link for payment if you’d so like. To which product? What about the variants? Never mind…

What’s going on, here? Does this e-commerce enabled business inspire confidence in you? Does it seem like they have processes that actually work? Is there a probability you will land up with no product or the wrong product or one that comes in too late? Would you do business with such an enterprise again? I’ll tell you what I did – I cancelled my order and asked them to delete my account. Turns out that needed Tech Support intervention too, since there was no easy way for a customer to delete their own account. I’m still awaiting a call back on that. Sigh.

Today’s business enterprise needs to operate on the assumption that its customers know what global standards mean, when it comes to Design and Quality. Today’s business enterprise needs to acknowledge that its customers have the means to easily compare its product with that of its competitors, and therefore can cut through all the Marketing propaganda it puts out. Today’s business enterprise needs to understand that the always-on tribe it calls its customer is now part of a community that talks to each other – through reviews and ratings, by voting a thumbs up or down, by sharing relevant insights with others on your product/service. Finally, today’s business enterprise needs to embrace this world as the new world order, instead of resisting its tools and devices, pretending that they won’t talk about you if you don’t have an official Twitter channel.

Digital is a mindset, not a skillset. And this mindset needs to permeate down from the very top – the leadership of the organisation – all the way down to its foot soldiers. And I do mean, the foot soldier in every function. Yes, Legal & Compliance included! Only then will the enterprise truly be able to serve its customers in a world-class way, and compete with a sustainable advantage.

Let me end with another AWS insight for perspective – “You no longer get points for using servers, you only get points for serving users.”