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.

Big Data: The New, World Order

This post first appeared in the CIOReview magazine in Nov 2015…


On Monday, 24 Aug 2015, 1 in 7 people on Earth used Facebook to connect with their friends and family. That’s billion with a “b”. Just on one day.

Every 60 seconds, we send or post 168 million emails, 11 million instant messages, 98,000 tweets and 695,000 Facebook updates. Every minute, more than 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube alone.

What does this mean for individuals and organizations? How does “Big Data” shape the world around us? How can we use it to our advantage?


What is “Big Data”?

The term “Big Data” refers to an exponential growth and availability of data, both structured and unstructured, that is difficult to process using traditional (database and software) techniques. Such data, when captured and analysed, can help an organization gain useful insights, ranging from customer retention to increasing revenues.

In a research report in 2001, industry analyst Doug Laney articulated three defining characteristics of Big Data: 1. Volume, 2. Velocity and 3. Variety…


Volume refers to the fact that Big Data does not sample; it merely observes and tracks what happens. Think of it as N=all.
Wikipedia asserts that “Big Data size is a constantly moving target, ranging from a few dozen terabytes to many petabytes of data”. And it will only continue to grow as we adopt more modes of communication and connectivity.

Velocity implies that Big Data is available in real time, and not after all the action is over.

When scientists first decoded the human genome in 2003, it took them nearly a decade to sequence all the three billion pairs – a task that can now be done in a day. The pace at which data is being generated is increasing exponentially. So, it follows, that the pace at which it can be used must also be in sync.

Variety means that Big Data is available in a variety of formats – structured and unstructured.

Maps are data, and so are GPS coordinates. Tweets are data, so are likes on your friend’s Facebook post. The photos you share on Instagram are data, and so are the sentiments of your fans and followers.


Experts estimate that over 90% of world’s data was generated over the last two years; More data has been created in the last couple of years than in the entire history of the human race. Some folks like to think of Big Data as data that cannot be handled by an Excel worksheet, while others argue that it’s not so much the actual size of the data, as what you do with it.

Whichever way you look at it, Big Data implies a vast quantity of data that we now have the ability to process in real-time.


“Big Data” Thinking

“Big Data” thinking allows you to do things at a large scale that simply cannot be done at a smaller one.

Let’s take the example of Retailing. While brick-and-mortar stores could always keep track of their inventory and know what was selling (and what was not), an online storefront enables the business to not only track what customers are buying, but also what else was considered during the buying process (cookies and server logs), what promotions influenced the outcome (ad impressions and banner optimization) and how other customers’ opinions helped or hurt the purchase (social media and comment analytics). A traditional business could not access such a vast repertoire of information, let alone act on it in a timely manner.

Access to large volumes of data also impacts how we work with it.

Until recently, most of our experiences were based on “small data” thinking, wherein we developed elaborate techniques (like sampling methods) to use as little data as possible. In fact, the need for sampling is a relic of the analogue era – a time when information was too scarce and too expensive to collate. Think census, for instance. By definition, a census is a complex exercise, and one that involves considerable cost and resources. Therefore, it is conducted only rarely.

But, when all of the data is available at hand, our reliance on ‘exactitude’ can take a back seat. More data often means it’s ok for it to be more messy, as long as we get a sense of general direction, with more accurate insights at the macro level.


The Enterprise Challenge

In enterprise, traditional notions of using data have often involved concepts like data warehouses, management information systems, and extract- transform-load (ETL) operations to make the data more usable for decision making. But, that approach does not help Amazon offer recommendations to customers, based on what they (and other customer groups) are adding to their shopping carts, in near real-time.

The fact is that data doesn’t just reside in neat tables inside the enterprise. Mobile devices, sensors, scanners, microphones, GPS devices, programs, software, social media, cameras – almost every electronic device or service around you generates data. There are already more than 4.6 billion mobile-phone users across the globe, with Cisco estimating that there will be 50 Billion+ devices and objects (IoT) connected to the cloud by 2020.

That’s why organizations will need to understand their customers in all their dimensions, and learn how to work with the vast amount of data being generated every day.

Consider the example of a website revamp or a new mobile app being developed on behalf of a large enterprise. When organizations start taking their first steps towards gathering data, it is typically in response to a very specific need, and often based on the assumption that building processes and mechanisms to collect, store and analyse data on a large set of parameters will be resource-intensive. Accordingly, they may conclude that it is better to stick to a few parameters that are high priority and of immediate value, rather than build the means to track every thing.

But, “Big Data” thinking shows us that the opposite is true – patterns can emerge from large data sets of seemingly trivial information, if only we had enough data along with the means to track and analyse it. And today, we do.

In a “Big Data” world, ‘more’ trumps ‘better’, messiness (in a very, very large data set) trumps high accuracy (from a small sample), and tags yield better insights than taxonomies.


A New, World Order

We may just be at the beginning of a revolution that will shape every one of us, for years to come.

Google Flu Trends already uses search terms, combined with mathematical models, to predict the spread of the flu virus long before the CDC is able to spot it. In Finance, two-thirds of the US equity market is already traded by computer algorithms that crunch enormous amounts of data to predict gains and reduce risk. As more and more organizations gain a better understanding of how the world of Big Data works, they will be in a better position to put it to work.

The digital age has already given us the means to collect, store and analyse enormous quantities of data, with ease. We now live in a society that shares more content, from more sources, with more people, more often and more quickly. Cloud computing is now available at our fingertips, offering us access to highly-scalable infrastructure at affordable costs.

What’s needed is a change in our thinking. What’s needed is for us to embrace the new, world order.

ECommerce in India

ECommerce is booming. And India is where the action is. When stories of “unicorns” (startups with a valuation of more than 1 Bn) are all around us, it helps to take stock of where the industry is at, and where it’s headed.

Here are some statistics from a recent story in the Economic Times on how far the ECommerce industry has come… (I’m skipping valuation and VC money figures, and focusing on customer stats instead)


Pregnancy, Birth & Childhood: Online baby care represents <10% of the $10 Bn market, growing at 17% a year; Currently clocks approx. 2,500 daily shipments across three major players


Education & Learning: $100 Bn market and booming; Student population rose 28% to 315 Mn in the last decade; However, lack of significant success stories in this arena


Grocery: Of the $500 Bn retail market in India, $290 Bn is grocery; Largest player – BigBasket – processes approx. 20,000 orders a day; 1 Mn people order groceries via apps every day, growing at 30% every month


Home Services: About 100 services on offer, with 20,000 daily users across the top 5 metros; $100 Mn market size, but challenging in terms of trained manpower and timely delivery


Shopping: Top players are diversified managed marketplaces mostly; Less than 2% of the $500 Bn retail market is online – plenty of room for growth; Hyper competition has resulted in heavy discounting and companies are unable to make profits currently; Top players clock >100k shipments a day to about 25k pincodes across India


Furniture & Home Decor: Offers high margins (60-70%) and not very susceptible to discounting; Market is pegged at $32 Bn and posied to grow to $70 Bn by 2020; Less than 1% is currently online; Average ticket size is Rs. 18,000; By 2018, online furniture sales is expected to reach $1 Bn


Taxi Booking: $10 Bn market size with brutal competition among two leading, disruptive players; Now expanding into courier and delivery services as well; Approx. 1 Mn users book cabs every day via apps in 100+ cities


Eating Out: Food ordering is a $15 Bn a year business, with Zomato now operational in 22 countries; Indian players service upto 10,000 orders daily via their apps with a few key players in fierce competition akin to Taxi aggregators


Travel & Entertainment: E-Ticketing is one of the most penetrated with 40% of rail tickets via IRCTC; Hotels and airline tickets are increasingly booked online; Huge opportunity to connect with wallet and other partners to add value


Assets, Properties & Cars: Tata Housing sold flats worth Rs. 50 crores online; Property is an overcrowded space, and used cars is a booming opportunity; New car sales still happen mostly through showrooms


Wallet & Bill Payment: New licences issued by RBI to 11 banks recently; Market size for mobile wallet is Rs. 350 crores, expected to grow to Rs. 1,200 crores by 2019; PayTM – the largest player – has 100 Mn users with an average wallet size of Rs. 350


Refurbished & Used Goods: Market estimated at $15 Bn; Platforms enable about 2 Mn transactions a month with an approx. GMV of $4 Bn


Social Networking & Jobs: India has the second-largest user base for almost all key social platforms; At 350 Mn internet users, India still has a long way to go for 100% penetration; Facebook has >110 Mn users in India; LinkedIn has become an alternate to job portals


Healthcare: Diagnostics alone is a $15 Bn market, and the overall healthcare opportunity is $100 Bn; Every month 20 Mn users book 20,000+ appointments via apps, but presence remains mostly limited to large cities


Insurance & Retirement Planning: Online term products cheaper by almost 35%, but only 2% of the business has gone online; PolicyBazaar sells about 40,000 policies every month


Others: Lingerie worth nearly $30 Mn is sold online; Lenskart ships >1,000 spectacles a day; The domestic gems & jewellery market is Rs. 1.2 lakh crore, while the lingerie market is approx. Rs. 4,000 crore, but less than 1% has gone online

Here are some more statistics from Mint…

Power: $68 Bn – GDP loss estimated due to electricity shortage across India

Infrastructure: $10 Bn – Traffic congestion costs per year

Healthcare: 1 doctor per 1,700 people currently

Financial Inclusion: 120 Mn households without a bank account


Startup Statistics:

  • Approx. 80-85k currently employed’ 3-4 startups born each day
  • $4.9 Bn investments made in 2015
  • 65+ M&A deals; 110+ incubators/accelerators; 290+ active angels; 155+ active VCs/PEs
  • 4,200-4,400 startups currently in India – 3rd highest after US & UK
  • $2.5-2.7 Mn is the average valuation of startups of which 13-15% are in ecommerce
  • 28 is the average age of startup founders

For some of you, these numbers may prove that the market is already saturated, while others may see an opportunity for growth. Whichever way you look at it, exciting times are afoot!

Note: Source of data – Various industry estimates as reported in Economic Times and Mint.

Human Side of Innovation

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion on the ‘Human Side of Innovation’ at NHRD Mumbai. It was a spirited discussion, thanks to the diversity of views on the panel including members from academia, industry and consulting. While no set of bullet points can do justice to the interactivity and experience, here are some key takeaways from the evening…


  • Innovation may begin in the corner office, or the shop floor, or just about anywhere Creativity has the opportunity to flourish
  • Sometimes, organizations may need to resort to “formal” systems of innovation – or establish an “Innovation Cell” – to facilitate a sense of urgency among its team members
  • Some organizations focus on ideas that they would otherwise reject, examining them more closely, to ensure that significant business opportunities are not missed
  • One way of looking at “Innovation” may be to see it as “problem solving on a large scale” e.g. No easy way to book bus tickets online for an individual can be the motivation for the birth of RedBus
  • Gen Y is more in touch with the ever-changing dynamics of the modern world, potentially giving them an advantage to spot trends, if they can assimilate these inputs and work towards identifying opportunities for Innovation
  • Reverse Mentorship – the idea of learning from younger members in the organization (typically half your age) – may just be an idea whose time has come
  • Since our ability to “predict” events is in any case limited, one way to pursue the Innovation agenda is to use Analytics, deep dive into data, and look for outliers as the opportunity itself, rather than something to be discarded
  • Finally, Innovation thrives where there is an opportunity to learn, experiment, iterate and fail; It is incumbent on the business leaders (and managers) of today to enable a culture that allows this to happen – a culture that rewards new ideas instead of ones that maintain status quo