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.

How To Demotivate Employees

I have had the pleasure of working for organizations of nearly all size and shape, ranging from solo ventures to 3-member teams to a few hundred employees, and all the way up to 30,000+ soldiers marching to a common tune.

Since my work has revolved around Services, the one thing that has been common to these stints is People. And, having seen a wide variety of industries and functions, I’ve had a ring-side view of how organizations motivate – and demotivate – their most important resource.

Here are some of the ways I’ve encountered in my journey, that result in employees being demotivated…

  • Not providing clarity on what constitutes “success”
  • Waiting for the annual appraisal cycles to provide much-needed feedback and course-correction to team members
  • Playing favorites within the team, or hiring old favorites from your past employment, with little regard for competence
  • Not creating a strong Reward & Recognition program to encourage performance achievement
  • Hiring outsiders at senior levels (and at commensurate pay hikes), at the cost of ignoring equally-competent loyal employees
  • Offices offering no transportation options / no cafetarias (especially relevant for large enterprises and those having poor access)
  • Managers promoting unqualified resources for positions that require technical competence, without including the necessary checks and balances (this one is especially demotivating for those who are competent!)

Needless to add, any one who is reading this and cares about doing it right, should do the exact opposite.

If you are an entrepreneur, build your organization the right way, and don’t compromise by hiving off “people management” to some trainee or junior resource. If you are a mid-level manager, watch out for such danger signals in your own enterprise, and try to compensate for what you see around you. If you are in a position of leadership, you can take measures to undo the damage this causes to your staff.

Remember, no matter how long you’ve traveled in the wrong direction, you can always take a u-turn.

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 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.

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.

Richard Branson: Two Gems

The typical commute in Mumbai is harsh, to say the least. And, listening to insightful podcasts is a great way to make the most of your drive time.

One such talk I really enjoyed was a conversation with Richard Branson, founder of the international conglomerate the Virgin Group. Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics fame, spoke with Branson as a part of the series: “The Secret Life of a C.E.O.

While the entire series – including this episode – is worth its weight in gold, here are two takeaways that really made me stop and take notice.

1. When asked if he is actually the CEO of any of his companies, Branson had this to say:

… I’ve delegated pretty well all the C.E.O. roles. And I actually believe that people should delegate early on in their businesses, so they can start thinking about the bigger picture.

 

If I’m ever giving a talk to a group of young businesspeople, I will tell them, you know, go and take a week out to find somebody as good or better than yourself. Put yourself out of business, and let them get on and run your business day to day, and then you can start dealing with the bigger issues, and you can take the company forward into bigger areas, and you can — maybe if you’re an entrepreneur, you can start your second business or your third business.

 

And so I think too many young entrepreneurs want to cling on to everything, and they’re not good delegators.

I can’t tell you the number of people I know – personally – who need to hear this and truly internalize it. An “entrepreneur” and a “CEO” are two distinctly different mindsets. Some folks may be able to traverse the two worlds – fleetingly. But doing both simultaneously, and over a sustained period of time, is nearly impossible. The sooner an entrepreneur makes peace with that fact, the sooner he/she will be on the path to growth and success.

2. When asked about his famed approach to motivating people via employee-friendly policies across the Virgin group of companies, Branson replied:

… Let’s just look at this business of forcing people to come to an office.

 

First of all, you’ve got maybe an hour or an hour and a half of travel time in the morning, another hour and a half of travel time in the evening. And, you know, when you’re at the office, it’s important that you say hello to everybody and that you’re friendly with everybody, so you use up another hour or two, you know, socializing with people. Then, because you’re not at home, you need to communicate with your family. So you spend another bit of time communicating with your family. And so the day carries on and you might get a couple hours of work done.

 

If you’re at home, you know, you wake up. You can spend a bit of time with your family. And be a proper father, which is perhaps the most important — or mother — most important things that we can do in our life. But you can also find the time to get whatever your job is done, because you’ve got another four or five hours free to do it. And you know, we’ve never been let down by people that we’ve given that trust to.

Think about that. How many CEOs or business leaders do we know who are sensitive to the realities of day to day Life, the way the average employee perceives them? And, how many organizations can we speak about that actually “trust” their people to this degree? Work-from-home is just one dimension of this thinking; Branson also talks about a ‘prisoner program’ that Virgin runs to employ current and ex prisoners across roles, including in Security!

In my view, there has never been a better time to access the world’s riches. Insights are all around us, and conversations with folks who have done it all, are just a few clicks away. Some of us will make the most of it and learn from these experiences, while some of us will spend our time watching cute cat videos.

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.

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!

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?!