Creating amazing experiences for your customers through powerful combinations of devices and software

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… and why “what if” are two words you should care about

Today’s consumers increasingly focus on their experience of your products.

I’m not talking about UI (how cool your interface is), or what functionality you provide. Good UX design is a factor, but what I’m talking about is something that arguably goes beyond your app, beyond the device I use it on, and shapes and colours the overall experience I have of your company both now, and into the future.

You can think of it as your digital first impression (an ‘experience fingerprint’) – and it lasts.

To understand what I mean, we need think more about what technology enables us to achieve in our professional and personal lives today, shifting our focus away to supporting our business and in turn, focusing on what we’ve always done.

Think more ‘sci-fi’!

Five years ago some of the crazy things we can do today were simply impossible, or way too expensive to be viable. Failing that, the tooling or backend services weren’t there to truly help us realise those visions.

We take IT for granted today, and we forgot that it was always meant to be an enabler and instead we often treat it is a servant that we gradually just ask and expect more and more of.

Take Bob, for example. Bob wants to email a report to Sharon in Finance, after he’s reviewed it now that Jane added the sales figures Bill pulled out of the sales order system earlier.

“Machine! Here’s some data, munge it into a report for me and email it to Sharon in Finance”.

We ‘innovate’ today by making that processing activity faster, or by supporting more simultaneous processing. And that’s great and it has a place – but what have we achieved there for Bob? Does he care that we’ve put the collective IT advancement of the past few years (probably at considerable cost) to such good use that he gets his report 2 seconds quicker than before? Maybe not…

What if we offered to read Bob just the changes since he last saw it, because he’s driving home from the office and wanted to set off early to avoid the traffic because Cortana warned him he’d not make it on time to pick-up his kids from school? Boom. We just transformed (a small, but impactful) part of Bob’s life.

So we start to see that great devices play into our experiences – they’re portals that can be our proverbial best friends, or the mother-in-law you have to invite to the party but don’t really want to. Do you want your business to be that mother-in-law, or my best friend? Because I can tell you for sure that I’m less likely to ditch my best friend than someone who isn’t when push comes to shove I’m making my purchasing decisions.

And therefore, we introduce the notion of connection, more specifically, emotional connection. Great devices amplify the kinetic experience (and therefore the emotional bond) I make with your products, but only if yours ‘feels’ at home on that device. How your product feels to me suddenly becomes less about what it looks like and how it operates but how it ‘feels’ to fling files around on, between devices both in your ecosystem and out. How I can consume and produce on that device matters equally to what I can consume, or produce.

In tomorrow’s world, the end-to-end experience of your product should be a first class citizen on your product backlog because in order to win the battle for market share we shouldn’t be competing based on tick-the-box features alone. Ever wondered sometimes why the ‘inferior’ (feature-wise) alternatives seem to do better than yours? Sure, it could simply be they did a better job of marketing. But what’s marketing if it’s not the attempt to influence a purchasing decision by painting a picture of what it could be like to own that product? That’s emotional. And you need me to feel good about your product before I buy it or recommend it to others. Isn’t that customer experience?

You see, consumers make choices with their hearts and much less so with their minds (ask any car dealer), and we’d be foolish to think that our ‘consumer mindset’ isn’t following us to the workplace, where we tend to make larger more financially impactful decisions, than when we’re at home. We think less about consequence of making the wrong decision when we’re in the consumer mindset because we’re more focused on the promise of having it. Companies that have a great ecosystem and offer amazing experiences to their customers (their consumers) are therefore in a much better position to exploit the consumer mindset. And we can’t do that if we’re stuck in what I call the ‘business software mentality’ of 1995, which really isn’t that uncommon: we just use new tools to knock-out similar stuff (competing on similar levels but through new channels) and with more polish and speed. Is that innovation?

What is ‘business software’*, anyway? Is it software that I use at work, or that I use on my device that I take home? Is it still business software then, when I’m lying on my couch at home trying to approve that report?

Check it out, the results aren’t breath-taking…

Stop. Take a look around you. Outside your office maybe, or in your car. There are a million everyday things (or processes) you could improve with the incredible array of devices and software products at your disposal, inexpensively today. Do you honestly lever the full power and spectrum of both hardware and software available to you to create immersive experiences that I can connect with, and you can use to connect me to my information?

We’re right on the forefront of something incredible and all it takes for someone to revolutionise our connection with IT now is a truly ambitious interconnection of services (software) accessible in innovative ways through our devices.

And this, dear reader, is why I think you should care: because you’ve no doubt arrived at a similar conclusion; the concept of a union between devices and software isn’t really new. IT has always been about enabling people to do things we cannot do more easily alone or person-to-person.

You need to think about creating those end-to-end experiences, and take a 100,000ft view at the devices and services landscape to figure out what you could do to blow people’s minds. Innovate over a small business process, or transform an industry: I don’t care! Just innovate! Because when you’re in that mind set, you are your most creative, and you’re more likely to succeed.

And whether you agree or not with anything I’ve said, consider this:

You need your thinkers to be asking more “what if?”, not “what next”.

What If asks for innovation. What Next just begs for iteration.

Create, amaze, inspire; it’s easier today than it was just a few years ago.

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Brand vs. Identity: who are we?

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I did something apparently controversial today. I sent a mail out to our team asking if I could spend some time with each of them over the next month to learn how they sell our service to our customers; how they describe it to others and how they evangelise it. And that was my mistake. I framed it wrong.

You see, our service is many things to many people. It has to be – it’s part of the value we bring to the table. For example, consultants are traditionally either technical or non-technical. It’s rare to find someone who is a good blend of both, and at the right times. Rarer still is to find a whole team of them together and arm them with the some of the best technologies and the right kind of ethos.

I was actually a little shocked at some of the responses I got back. Most were positive, but some are clearly designed to probe deeper: why do I want to know this? Is it aligned to other activities? How does it relate to those – does it replace them? The tone is defensive and it saddens me (perhaps though, I have misunderstood) that people may not see the value in defining something more clearly – if not to the outside world but at least to ourselves.

We all do fantastic work and I want to make sure that we do, each of us, share the best bits of what we do and capture those. I suspect we’ll see many common themes occurring but I hope we’ll be pleasantly surprised at some of the ‘secret ingenuity’ that I’m sure goes on.

Our identity

Whenever we are engaged in conversations internally or externally about what it is we do, we invariably start off by listening. We try to understand what is important to our audience and figure out if we have something that we can offer along those needs. Sounds sensible, right? And I think it absolutely is.

What I’m interested in, though, is how those folks who are not on my team – folks who we task with making initial introductions – how do those guys view us? What do they think we do? How much do they understand? Are they good evangelists for our service?

And that, right there, is our identity. Not what we want it to be. Well, if we are lucky – it might be! But ultimately I think another team member actually summed it up beautifully:

Your brand is what you want. Your identity is determined by others.

And this ties in neatly with my belief that there is actually a stark difference between ‘brand’ and ‘identity’ and the two are not to be confused with ‘brand identity’ which is an altogether separate beast invented by marketing people.

So we need to work on our identity – and if it is given to us by others, I’d like to influence them in the most positive way possible to align that identity with our brand.

And that’s why I believe a conversation, with everyone on the team, is absolutely critical to defining what that is. Every one of us will have a perspective and a view on what it is we do and what the magic of our service actually is. And although I’m driving this activity, I’m certainly not arrogant enough to believe I can answer such a complex question myself.

Diversity

Part of the problem is our diversity and flexibility to work across the key stakeholders both vertically and horizontally.

But there’s strength in our diversity: we cover a range of technologies, and we have a broad range of expertise, each of us bringing our own unique experiences from our careers and hobbies and interests into the mix. There’s also strength in the team – nobody knows everything, but between us we are very likely have some of the best subject matter experts in the field and importantly, we network with other areas of the business to find the answers if we don’t have them.

So the question I am asking is, what is our brand and identity and more importantly, how do we communicate the value of something which is so many things to so many people? It might be that the output of this exercise is actually the discussion itself – the conversation and the thoughts and the emotion that goes into it will in and of itself, I think, be a valuable task. But it might also be true that the results can be fed back into all these existing activities to enhance and complement them – double win!

First impressions

We obviously do a good job of this today. Our business is growing. Our team is strong and getting stronger. But I wonder how much of this is ‘by default’ or ‘by design’? We rely a lot on a member of our team to ‘get in through the door’ and then start making headway to scope out requirements. I think that’s absolutely fine, and of course it is a requirement when discussions start to progress. But is it enough to expect someone to be able to do a decent job of promoting what we do and recognising if there’s potential by simply telling them that they should ‘call us in at the first sign’? No, I don’t think it is.

And here’s why I think that.

At that moment – at that very first introduction to the notion of working with us, a potential customer is forming an opinion. They’re forming a first impression. And most of that first impression is going to come to them from someone who doesn’t, in all probability, understand our diverse and complex service well enough to be able to communicate it’s benefits clearly and succinctly.

So we lose momentum at that very point. And I want everyone to know that we work in a great team; we have some fantastic people and I know, having worked on this team, that we deliver brilliant and lasting change into the customers we work with. I am excited about that. It drives me to get out of bed every day because I love my job.

And I just don’t think that other resources perhaps ‘get that’ – and maybe they can’t. Maybe they never will. And if that’s the case, I still don’t think there’s any harm in doing what I suggested which is taking a good look at how we ourselves describe our service. What is our key message?

I know our team has done a lot of great work defining cornerstones and pillars and guidelines and processes and what not. There’s even, I’m sure, some brilliant marketing collateral. But there’s no substitute for watching someone enthusiastic describe something to you because you catch a bit of that. And the best introductions for potential are when a customer sees that enthusiasm, understands what might be doable and are inspired to come talk to you about it.

Because in my mind, that’s a win – and that’s where the real value conversation starts.

Where next?

‘Sales’ and ‘pre-sales’ is one such obvious application for a better, cleaner and neater description of what it is we do. Of course it is – clear communication is key. But it is not the only purpose for having such a discussion and I shudder at the thought that it becomes labelled as a sales-related activity.

It’s actually a business development activity, I think. And that’s where I went wrong in my email – or at least, one of the places Smile

Some of my team have – rightly – focused on the output, but unfortunately immediately; asking what are the deliverables? Where do they apply? What is the delivery mechanism? These are great questions – but for me, at this point, the value of this exercise is in the conversation and the understanding. This is arguably such a fundamental task that to focus on the output would skew the discussion; the fact of observation altering the outcome.

If we can’t talk to each other – or explain to a colleague in passing what it is we do – then perhaps we have a little more work to do!

Why customers don’t care about your business processes

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Pick up the phone and call almost any large corporation, and it is likely you’re going to have to wrestle with more than just the issue that prompted you to call in the first place. What’s worse, though, is to tell your customers that – after they’ve spent 30 minutes on hold – they need to ‘go online’ to raise a support ticket, or email them instead.

If that seems odd to you, then you’re very lucky you’ve never had to deal with companies that operate in this manner (yes, they exist).  Just last week though, I had encountered a problem with some of the servers at our hosting company that we couldn’t fix (network issues). This meant I had to make a support call. That call went something along these lines:

  • Good afternoon, [Acme] support. How may I help you?
  • Yes, hello – I’d like to talk to someone about [the issue].
  • Sure, can I take your account number?
  • [I give the account number]
  • Ok, what’s the problem?
  • [I describe the problem…]
  • I see. Have you tried [this]?
  • Yes, that didn’t work. It’s a network issue, we can’t resolve this ourselves.
  • Ok, sir, I’m afraid you’re going to have to raise a ticket in your online control panel so that we can direct our engineers to take a look at it.”

Now, at this point, if you’re that someone at Acme who decided that’s what needed to happen, you should be sacked. Or at least beaten a few times with a printed version of Wikipedia (yes, that would be a lot of paper, and yes – that would sting). Let’s review the reasons why:

  • The person calling you is a customer – which means, they’ve given your company some money
  • The product or service they’ve bought isn’t working as it should, or they need some help getting it to work
  • They’ve made the decision to phone you, on a number you’ve listed as a support line, rather than email you, probably because they need or want a speedy resolution
  • They’ve waited on hold – probably patiently – and even put up with your repetitive music loops and reminders of how important we are to you
  • And they’ve described their problem to your agent on the telephone
  • Your agent made some suggestions, but they didn’t help

So when you ask them to hang up the phone and repeat everything they just said but in writing, you’re wasting their time. More importantly, however, you’re telling the customer that you [as the agent on the phone] just don’t care enough about the problem – and by extension the customer – to raise the ticket internally to get it dealt with.

Ultimately, the customer doesn’t care – and shouldn’t have to care – about whatever processes you have to go through internally in order to get a result. As far as they are concerned, they’ve reported a problem to an agent of the company. If that person does not have the ability internally to take whatever steps are necessary to get a resolution to the customer, then I’m sorry, but the management of Acme is failing its customers. Every person in your company should have the customers at the forefront of their minds. If they don’t, you don’t want them working for you. That’s not some wishy-washy mantra, either: it’s based on a rather solid principle:

“You will get more customers, and keep the existing ones happy, if you make them feel valued.”

‘Value’ is a relative term, agreed. I think most people would agree, though, that ‘value’ in this context during a typical conversation between them and you is:

  • Quick reply
  • Informative reply
  • Speedy resolution
  • .. and I’m not even talking about ‘going the extra mile’ here, this is just the standard stuff.

Every time you tell the customer that they need to do something else to satisfy your own requirements, you’re just putting up barriers. Do it for them, or, better still – remove the barrier, because you probably don’t need it. If your own support processes are so inflexible that an agent on the phone can’t walk over to, or call, the 2nd level support guys, change your support processes.

Human beings live connected lives. We are social creatures. As individuals, we don’t see the point in lengthy processes or bureaucracy because we should just be able to explain a problem to someone and have them deal with it – and get us the response we need. But ‘business analysts’, and those who go to ‘customer service school’, believe that a flowchart is a much better way to provide a service. And they’d be wrong, simply because your customers can never follow your own ‘critical path’ – they don’t know it. And they shouldn’t need to.

The bottom line is, there should only be one critical path when a customer calls you. It goes something like this:

  • Receive call/email/fax/letter/visit in person
  • Take the time to understand what they’re saying and what their concerns are
  • If you can’t deal with it there and then, hand over to the person that can and inform the customer what is happening, then, crucially:
  • FOLLOW IT UP

This process can of course only work if every person in your company is dedicated to putting the customer at the heart of what they do. If you don’t think that’s something you can achieve, then you should be looking at your work force and firing those that don’t think your customers are important, because your customers are who pays your salaries. Happy customers = more customers = fat paychecks, bonuses and a less stressful environment for everyone.

The problem is that common sense seems to have gone on holiday in some organisations

I don’t think management books are required, here. If you’re that company with the problem, all you need is to stand back and take a common-sense approach to structuring your teams. Better still, common sense says that if you have a bunch of people who all share the same principles, they’ll organise themselves to get the job done.

Customer service oriented process diagrams only exist because companies are frightened that the service they provide to a customer will be inconsistent between employees.

Providing the quality of interactions remains high, then surely it doesn’t matter what route the employees take to get the job done? At the end of the day, if all the employees subscribe to some of the basic principles of good customer service, they’ll all reach the same goal – and this leaves you the task of managing quality, learning more about your customers and how you can improve your products.

And let’s face it, spending your time improving your products is probably much more rewarding than ruining your customer’s day while you drag them ass-first through your ugly, bloated processes. Scrap them. Keep it simple, and remember:

  • Customers are important (they pay the company, who pay me)
  • Their concerns are my concerns (if they have a problem, I want to fix it)
  • Time is of the essence (I want to fix it quickly)
  • Information is key (if I can’t fix it quickly, tell them why, and what I’m doing about it)
  • That’s the end of my rant, feel free to leave a comment. If you’re looking for more inspiration, head over to http://www.ccpact.com/ and learn more about the Company-Customer Pact. It’s a great starting place to improve your relationships with your customers.