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?!

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.