Friday, December 28, 2012

Think Twice

I recently read Michael Mauboussin's book that explores common flaws in decision-making processes: how otherwise intelligent people can make catastrophic decisions because they fall into patterns of thinking that defy common sense.   It's all to common, and I do wonder if a single book, especially one as random and disparate as this one, is a solution to the problem - but it is at the least a good start.

In general, the problem is decision-makers rush headlong into making the decision, without a moment's pause to consider how the decision will be made.  Solving problems and making decisions are handled in the same manner as most activities, they immediately fall into the pattern that has succeeded in the past, without considering whether the techniques are appropriate to the situation at hand.   As such, they set to work with the wrong tools, and the results are unsatisfactory.

Aside of that, there are problems with information-gathering: it is much more selective than most would care to admit.   We have certain expectations and are keen on information that is in line with what we anticipate, but dismiss anything that doesn't fit as being irrelevant, or focus or scope so tightly that we a fail to consider the breadth of relevant factors and possible outcomes.

Last are the logical processes themselves - practices such as inductive reasoning, reductive bias, pattern bias, and social influences that lead us to apply (and justify the application of) entirely irrational decision-making processes.

The author's solution to the problem can be distilled into a simple process of pausing to consider each of these factors, not merely in making a decision, but in deciding what steps to take and which tactics to employ in the decision-making process.  It sounds simple, perhaps simplistic, but also quite reasonable, and it seems worthwhile to  consider as an option for improving the overall process and outcome.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Choosing Your Customers

Choosing to serve certain customers often requires a firm to choose not to serve others. It may be difficult for a firm that wishes to serve every consumer to accept, but it is utterly inevitable that chasing one rabbit means not chasing any other. The struggle for firms is that, in attempting to grow their business to serve more customers, it diminishes the fitness of its service to their existing customers: a dilemma that persists against all efforts to overcome it.

The notion that firms choose customers seems a bit awkward, but it is a natural consequence of the decision to pursue a certain mission and undertake a certain set of activities, given a limited amount of resources. To manufacture shampoo is a choice to manufacture nothing else. To manufacture a shampoo for women is to choose not to consider the needs of men. To sell it for $20 a pint is to choose to ignore those who are unwilling to pay that price. To sell it in the northeastern US is to withhold it from those who live in other areas.  

That feels a bit like a logical fallacy - the negative consequences of a choice are not the primary intent - but at the same time I don't think firms are as reckless as people and are well aware that what they choose to do with their resources means not choosing to do other things.  It's called "opportunity cost" in economics classrooms, and a thorough and sound decision will have considered all alternatives and chosen the best course.   You're not culpable for murdering a person because two were drowning at once and you only had the time to save one of them - which is a bit melodramatic but well explains that a firm must choose to pursue one course of action because it does not have the resources to pursue them all.

Even so, it is nonetheless true that a decision to do one thing results in neglecting others, and this is not always bad.   You can't do everything well, but must and should focus on accomplishing what you can.   The problem is in accepting the opportunity costs of action.  To return to the metaphor of saving two drowning people implies that you can save one but not both - that is, you cannot half-save each of them, it's one or the other.   But when it comes to serving customers, you can indeed attempt to serve two at once, or feel that you have achieved success by half-serving each of them - though their perspective is that they have each been poorly served.   It seems a very bad decision.

What I am implicitly advocating is that to be effective, you must not only acknowledge the opportunity cost, but embrace it.    Choose to serve one market segment exceptionally well, rather that attempting to serve multiple segments poorly.   In effect, trying to serve more customers is to diminish quality of the customers you would otherwise have been able to serve well.

Returning to the earlier examples: To add more product lines is to neglect your flagship product. To rebrand or retool the shampoo as a unisex product after years as a women's brand will attract some men, but lose some women. To raise or lower the price will attract customers who think differently about their willingness to pay a given price for a given quality. To expand the geographic domain is to focus less attention on the territory you once commanded.

In general, I am left with the sense that firms face a choice, the extremes of which are to provide a limited selection of high-quality products to a well defined market segment, or to attempt to sell a broad array of low-quality products to a poorly defined market segment. It seems to boil down to the omnipresent argument of quality and price, but it touches on a larger concept of the market a firm chooses to serve, and that quality/price is merely one of many consequences of making such a choice.

Ultimately, it becomes a strategic decision: to determine how much you can do well - better, in fact, than anyone who might seek to compete with you - and accept those limitations. Obviously, a firm that imagines it can be everything to everyone is wrong. But the same problem expresses itself in more subtle ways when firms attempt to stretch even a little: to offer a new product line that has affinity to an existing one, to expand your market by one demographic factor, to make minor adjustments in price, or to make modest increases in territory.

Moreover, it is not as dramatic as saving one and leaving the rest to drown, but serving whom you can leaves the rest for others to serve.  You're not the only lifeguard on the beach.   Or more directly, you are not the only firm that provides service, and in most instances attempting to serve everyone means serving no-one particularly well.   Better to leave the other markets to other suppliers until you have the resources to pursue them yourself.

The success or failure is small, and one counterbalances the other in minor ways. A firm may not collapse overnight, but may experience a minute loss in profitability (even if revenue may seem to be increasing) over the course of many years, as the result of a bad decision - and pile of additional bad decisions as a way to make the original bad decision work out for the better.

It all comes back to the basic strategy: the importance of choosing your customers wisely, playing to your strengths, and making sure that your reach does not exceed your grasp. It's likely easier said than done, and likely easier to recognize in arrears when a mistake has been made.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Social Media Double Standard

The suggestion that the vast majority of businesses and nonprofit organizations don't get social media "right" seems to be based on the criterion of interactivity.   That is, they do not use it in an interactive manner, but as a one-way broadcast channel to pump out sales promotions and image marketing material, and otherwise have no interest in the community.   They are, in effect, scavengers and parasites of the social media rather than participants.

Advocates of social media must search long and hard to dredge up an example of a post that was made by an organization that is of genuine value to the audience.   At best, they can find a series of posts in a campaign that might qualify, if you are willing to suspend disbelief or ignore the hooks - but IO have yet to see an example of an organization, commercial or nonprofit, that consistently demonstrates audience-oriented behavior.  As a methodology, consider at the last 100 posts that have been made (hopefully, this would be three months or more, not a few weeks) and count the number that are anything but broadcast messages overtly promoting product or soliciting donations - it's likely far less than half.

However, I wonder if it's entirely fair to use interactivity as a sole criterion.  We don't apply the same standard to the behavior of people in social media - and while most don't seem to have an overt mercenary agenda (hire me, date me, give me something I want from you), the majority of things that people post are self-centered and superficial.    Strictly speaking, to participate at all is to presume that other people care what's going on in your life and want to hear about it, which is inherently egocentric.  And so it follows that people post are all about themselves, mostly for image purposes (showing others they are are clever, cool, and interesting) rather than any direct or specific motive to influence others to do something to benefit them (other than acknowledge how clever, cool, and interesting they are).

One ostensible reason that people engage in social media is to maintain a sense of connectedness to one another - such that when they "friend" or "follow" a you, it's because they want to know what's on your mind, and what's going on in your life, even if they are not directly included or impact it.   But even if you wish to disclaim that it gratifies your ego, it likely does, and that is why you are willing to feed their interest.   As a consequence, social conversation can be characterized by people blabbering about themselves, then listening to other people do the same - and in most instances the thread of a conversation, online or offline, is simply people taking turns speaking and listening.

It occurs to me that there's likely a way to assess this balance by comparing the ratio of original posts to the number of comments on other posts ... but that would be a stilted outcome: people do not comment on everything they read, and in many instances a post doesn't require a response.   So while it might seem to measure the level of interactivity, it is merely a measure of loquaciousness - unless you can track the number of things actually read (even if a they do not comment or respond) and not scrolled past, it's not an accurate estimation.

But that's a digression from the consideration of the behavior of organizations in social media.  The point I was staggering toward is that, when you consider their core motivation, companies and nonprofits don't behave all that much differently to the way that individuals behave.   Just like people, organizations post things that are aggrandize themselves, little interested in what others have to say except as a potential opportunity to make a self-serving comment.

The irony is, that's what they are encouraged to do, even by those who paradoxically suggest they should not do so.   Most (and possibly all) advice to businesses for approaching social media includes with particular emphasis the suggestion to conform to the rules and norms of the community.  Given that "normal" behavior for people in social media is self-centered, then most organizations are playing by the rules and behaving by the norms.

It begs the question as to whether this is worthwhile advice.   There are different rules and norms for marketing letters than there are for personal ones, and it would seem to follow that there would be different rules and norms for organizational behavior in social media, because we understand that it is carefully crafted (rather than extemporaneous) and overtly supportive of a mercenary agenda (rather than covertly or unintentionally so).

Ultimately, it begs the question as to whether it is fair to hold organizations to a separate set of standards in social media - if they behave just as people behave, are they really doing it wrong?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Service, Smothered in Arrogance

Firms in the US market seem to be evolving (or, arguably, returning)  to customer orientation.  There is slow and painstaking progress toward customer service rather than operational efficiency, long-term objectives rather than short-term, innovation rather than governance, and the like.   But throughout them all there is the subtle sense of something pernicious: a spirit of arrogance that slows and subverts progress toward the goal.

In a general sense, people seem to recognize, almost instinctively, the arrogance of the opposing argument, but that same sense is less attuned to that of their own.   That is to say: there is a great deal of arrogance on the part of those who argue in favor of customer service, long-term objectives, and innovation that, objectively considered, accounts for the lack of progress and the resolution of those who are resistant to it.

In more specific terms: even firms who seem to be growing the right culture are simultaneously smothering it with their own arrogance.  Every employee may be focused on customer service, but each has a different idea about what constitutes great service as well as the way in which it might be achieved and is far more fond of his own ideas than anything that someone else might suggest for achieving the very same goal - that much is inevitable and quite natural - but the winnowing process in which the various ideas are considered is infected with a virulent strain of narcissism, that is so widespread that it has gone beyond a psychological defect on the part of a few misguided individuals to a cultural one that has become typical of a depressing many.

In a culture of arrogance, ideas are not considered, but dismissed. There is a preference for the first idea, regardless of whether it has any merit, which is vigorously defended against any suggestion of an alternate course or objective.   Any culture or any individual that maintains that there can only be one right answer is smothered in arrogance, and will smother better ideas to avoid even considering that the first-blush conclusion or knee-jerk reaction may have been entirely wrong.

In a culture of arrogance, everyone may be encouraged to speak freely, but no-one will be heard.  The first mover has an advantage, to the disadvantage of ultimately achieving the best results, and it's the person who speaks longest and loudest rather than the one who has the most well-reasoned ideas that holds sway.   The notion of scholarly humility - which encourages us to accept the possibility we're wrong especially when we're at our most certain - is utterly unheard of.

In a culture of arrogance, information is solicited so that it may be dismissed.   The first mover's argument may not be based on facts, secondary research is chosen carefully to support a foregone conclusion, and primary research is rigged or subverted to gather evidence for a hypothesis rather than explore its veracity.

In a culture of arrogance, the quality of an idea is far less compelling than its popularity or the approval of those in positions of authority.  While lip-service is paid to innovation, tradition typically wins out when a decision is ratified by a ranking authority or relegated to the consensus of the irrational and uninformed.  Two plus two equals five when a person with an impressive job title says so, or when it is supported by the vote of lesser mortals who do not know the fundamentals of mathematics.

I could likely go on for a while, but sense I am already belaboring the point: that one of the greatest obstacles to progress is the arrogance of those who claim, and might even genuinely wish, to support progress.   And while there are far more immediate objectives to achieve toward the goal of evolving organizations to survive an increasingly competitive marketplace, it's likely that this merits some consideration before it becomes epidemic.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Misinformation Age

An article I read presented a study that suggested about 70% of customers are misinformed - such that the task of helping them select a product that is likely to meet their actual needs is made more difficult because the customers have done research on the internet and have been misled by inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading information.

I won't link to the article or the study because I find it to be specious, stilted, and unscientific. It was an informal survey done of salesman - whom I suspect to be strongly biased (to say the least) to dismiss any information that gives the customer the idea they don't need what the salesman wants to sell them. While I regard the survey as invalid, that's not to say it doesn't raise a very good point that would likely be supported by a less questionable investigation.

It speaks to the problem of half-wittedness, which I sense to be one of the major issues of the present age: a person who knows nothing is able to learn, but a person who knows something acts boldly and with confidence, even if the information he has is insufficient or wrong. Such people do a great deal of damage to themselves, and in some situation do a great deal of damage to others.

To better concretize the problem, consider the issue of medical information on the Internet: a person becomes very certain of his condition and the treatment he requires because of the incomplete and inaccurate information he is able to find online, even to the point that he becomes confrontational with a medical professional who is attempting to treat him.

If a doctor's diagnosis disagrees with what the patient has found online, he is likely to disregard the advice and regard the doctor as incompetent. The same problem is evident in a variety of situations: the misinformed patient, the misinformed customer, the misinformed executive, etc. In virtually any situation where information is taken into account when a decision is made, it has the potential to be poisoned by incomplete and inaccurate data - and given the degree to which people turn to the Internet as a tool for gathering information to make decisions, the potential is being fulfilled.

From what I have seen, social media is making the problem worse rather than better. When information from alternative sources disagrees with information from traditional sources, some people seem to believe that they have discovered something new or a truth that the establishment is attempting to prevent from leaking out, and they leverage social media to spread the disinformation.

Not only does this person spread misinformation, but social media metrics are based on the number of people who express an opinion, rather than the validity of the opinion itself. Therefor, a bad opinion that is widely discussed is given more prominence and, by some measures, more creditability that valid information.

This likely leads my meditation in a different direction than I had intended, so to drag it back on track ... the point I intended to work toward was that the amount of misinformation and the level of faith that is being placed in it makes it extremely difficult to provide good customer service. Where customers are misinformed, yet staunch in their belief that they have valid information, it is difficult to un-poison their minds and get them to recognize valid information.

The problem is so difficult that many firms seem to have given up even on trying: they give the customer exactly what the customer demands in order to please them immediately, but later find themselves in confrontations with dissatisfied customers because the product or service they specifically demanded did not achieve the outcome they had hoped for.

What results, in disturbingly many instances, is service providers that must defend their products against customers who found them to be unsatisfactory - by the wording of the contract, the print on the label, and the disclaimers on the Web site, the service provider has delivered as promised. This is generally a valid defense against consumer lawsuits, but it is also highly effective in preventing customer satisfaction.

There doesn't seem to be a singular solution to what has become a widespread problem - but it is a frequent, widespread, and persistent issue with which companies and brands must contend in the (mis)information age.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Customer Experience Fad

In one of the forums I frequent, someone issued a lengthy diatribe against customer experience - suggesting it was just snake oil and didn't do firms any good, and that many corporate bigwigs feel the same way.   I'm copying my response (a little different to what was posted to the forum because character limits compelled me to shorten it) here, as I think this attitude is worth considering  when making any suggestion to the contrary...


The concept of "customer experience" is fairly new and I cannot disagree that it has the distinct aroma of a fad.   Some practitioners are dishonest, and use CX as a label on the very same bunkum they sold as "intercompetitive synergistics" or whatever the popular thing happened to be called last year, and clients who don't understand what it means but want to buy some anyway, hand buckets of cash to anyone who promises to deliver - and are disappointed when the magic doesn't happen overnight.

You can't expect a C-level officer to admit he was mesmerized by buzzwords and failed to practice due diligence, disregarded the advice he paid for, or rolled up a program prematurely to admit he got fast-talked, willfully disregarded expertise, or lost his nerve too soon ... such an executive would seem incompetent.   He must let on that he made a sound decision and that CX just doesn't work.

The core principles that drive CX are difficult to refute: all income is given to a firm by customers, who assess their willingness to do business with the firm according to the experience they had - and whose word-of-mouth is the most credible source of information for others who are assessing whether engaging with the firm is worthwhile.   If customers have a positive experience of interacting with the firm and using the product, they will buy again and encourage others to do the same.   If they have a poor experience, they will take their business elsewhere and encourage others to do the same.   I don't think you can disagree with any of that that.

The problem within CX is that it is still very young.   Practitioners seek to understand what causes the customer to have a positive experience, and those who are intelligent and humble will readily admit customer satisfaction derives from a number of sources - the functional benefits of the product, the full price (which is more than the nominal money-price), the way they are treated by the firm in each interaction, what other people think of them for using the product, etc.    There is no single, simple answer, and many are clutching at straws.  Even the few who do research find there are factors they fail to identify, often revealed only when their plans are being executed.

Some of the factors that impact customer experience are not fully understood - and the reasons they are not understood are likely 20% that more study is needed to understand the factors, and 80% that the firm needs to understand how reasonable and well-researched theories can be put into practice, given the idiosyncrasies of their own customer base.   If their desire is genuine, it's likely that the firm was unwilling to invest the time and budget in doing sufficient research - to understand, before planing, before acting.

The more common problem in the business world is much more fundamental: the customer isn't sufficiently valued in the first place, which is why firms are unwilling to spend the time and money on understanding how to serve them better.   There's a great deal of navel-gazing and a desire to keep things the way they are, longing for the good old days when the customer would accept what ever was offered and kowtow to the provider because a single seller was the only source from which customers could get a specific product or service they needed ... and if they didn't like it, they would have to do without the product and suffer from unfulfilled needs because there was no other source.   That has changed and businesses must change, or cede the market to competitors who will.

However, some firms cherish business-as-usual so much that, when there is an opportunity to change their business processes to better serve the customers, they decide would rather keep their business processes than their customers.   So they reject the notion of customer experience, or compromise based on what little they are willing to do in order to avoid changing the business processes.   It's not until the customers leave in sufficient number that they realize that the firm does not exist by preserving its business practices, but by serving its customers.

What all of this implies is this: customer experience isn't something a firm can pay a consultant to do for them.   It has to start within, with a company that recognizes the customers are the source of all its revenue - and it must seek to understand the reasons customers are willing to do business with them, and be willing in turn to make the changes necessary to genuinely serve those needs and desires better than anyone else can.

Said another way: a business that doesn't understand and value its customers will likely hire consultants that don't understand or value them either - and the only good that will come of it is that the executives will have someone else to blame.

If you want to achieve real results, put real effort into it.   Hiring a consultant and letting them do what they will is tantamount to abdicating your own responsibility to discover and deliver the value your organization provides to the market.   Instead, seek to hire the help you need to understand what customers value, then hire the help you need to make the changes necessary to deliver an experience that achieves that end.   You must be very closely involved throughout, and not merely hand over the keys.

If you fail to be careful and deliberate, understanding what you're buying into, you will not achieve much except by accident ... but don't make out it's someone else's fault when that happens.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Scientific Selling

I've recently added reading notes for Scientific Selling, which discuses the value of applied psychology to the sales process - or more aptly, its application to the management of sales staff - largely stilted to promote the authors' own consulting services, but which nevertheless provides some insight into the possible application of valid science to the selling process.

It's an interesting read, as many books on the topic of sales are based on folksy wisdom and self-aggrandizing tall tales, neither of which contributes to an understanding of the topic or a sense of practical application that would be beneficial outside the idiosyncratic case-studies presented.

Aside of the obvious topic (selling and sales management), there are some valuable insights into the selection, hiring, training, and coaching of employees that might be valuable in any context.

There's also excellent food for thought that can be put to practical use when designing user interfaces that are intended to serve as a substitute for a "live" salesman or customer support representative. It's definitely worth taking into account when designing user experiences related to prospecting and selling.

I have the sense that this note is more in the nature of a book report than a meditation - just too many topics to reflect upon at the moment, and it's more of a reminder of myself to dig back through the book and explore some of them in future notes.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Compromising Experience

I noticed an off-brand of tomato sauce at the supermarket - it caught my eye because it was sold in a slightly larger can than the other brands between which it was shelved, and it struck me as an interesting and effective packaging gimmick - but on closer inspection, it led my thoughts in a different direction: to the way in which customer experience is compromised for other goals.

Specifically, the "large" off-brand can contained 16 ounces of product - an even pint - whereas the leading brands were sold in odd quantities, 15 ounces or 14.5 ounces.   Quite some time ago, most products were packaged in more or less even quantities (a 16-ounce pint, an 8-ounce cup, or a 4-ounce half-cup) and that today, most brands seem to offer slightly less (14 ounces, 7.5 ounces, 11 ounces) that don't even come out to an even quantity in metric units.

This is a common observation, and the knee-jerk reaction among people who notice is along the lines of "they are cheating me."  There's some argument that firms were faced with increasing ingredient costs and made a compromise: to keep the unit cost to the customer the same, they would reduce quantity per unit, so it's for the economic benefit of the customer that package sizes were reduced so the package price could stay the same.  I don't think this dismisses the complaint, especially since the producers who short their content during a crisis never seem to size their products back up to the previous standard when ingredient costs normalize.  Also, when you consider price-per-ounce, the customer is still paying more, and the producer is hoping they don't notice.

But more to the point, companies that make such decisions have clearly failed to consider the impact to customer experience.   That is to say that the producer didn't consider the consequences of downsizing their product after the financial exchange - specifically to the experience of the consumer who will be using the product after it has been purchased.

Obviously, a shopper buys tomato sauce because it is an ingredient in a recipe (I'm not aware people heat the stuff up and eat it like soup) - and the recipe calls for a pint of tomato sauce.   So in a situation where 16 ounces is needed and the product is sold in 14-ounce increments, the ultimate outcome is negative:

  • Compromise: the customer can buy one can and accept that the meal they make will taste slightly off due to the imbalance.   The conclusion: "Brand X makes my recipes taste worse"
  • Complexity: the customer can buy one can and adjust the remaining ingredients proportionally, doing the calculations to consider that if they use 14 ounces of tomato sauce rather than a pint, they would have to add 1.75 tablespoons of basil instead of two.  The conclusion: "Brand X makes cooking more complicated."
  • Dissatisfaction: Another consequence of the previous solution, downsizing the recipe to accommodate a smaller package, also means having less benefit (food) than is needed.  It's just a little less, bit it leads to the conclusion: "Brand X does not fully satisfy my needs."
  • Guilt: the customer can buy two cans, use 16 ounces, and throw the other twelve ounces away because it is not needed.   The conclusion "Brand X is wasteful."
  • Obligation: the customer who buys two cans and has leftover, and can't bear the guilt of throwing away perfectly good food, could find another use for the leftover 12 ounces.  The conclusion: "Brand X burdens me with additional tasks"
  • Disgust: the customer who has leftover and fails to make use of it quickly will eventually notice a smell of rotten tomato in his refrigerator, emanating from a container of leftover sauce that has turned foul.  The conclusion: "Brand X is disgusting"

I don't think that any of these conclusions are attributes a firm would like to be associated to its brand - nor do I think that if the full range of outcomes were considered, producers would have been so hasty to make this compromise.   All that was considered is that reducing package volume would enable the firm to maintain profit, and maybe get people to buy an extra unit once in a while.   And if customer experience were really considered, it would be clear that all of these problems are not worth saving a nickel or a dime on the purchase price.

It's worth noting that all of this is speculation - that customers have largely accepted the compromises above, though likely not because they had a choice: all a customer can do is decide whether to accept what is offered or undertake the effort to find other alternatives, and when their preferred brands and close competitors all made the same operational decision, the customer has to accept as fact that tomato sauce now comes in 15-ounce cans (for all brands) and to ratify the decision with their dollars.

It would be interesting to see if the emergence of a competitor (the off-brand that caught my eye) will lead the remaining brands to upsize their packages, but I don't expect that to be so.   People have strong loyalty to the brands they buy habitually and accept disappointment as a matter of course, and its likely that recipes that call for "a can" of product are used by the people whose palates are not that discerning to begin with.   It's a bit depressing, and very counterproductive to the general welfare ... but such is the way of things.

I recognize that I am lapsing in a cynical state of mind and meditating on this topic urther will likely not be productive - but to end with a quick summary of the points: decisions made for reasons of economy and efficiency can easily achieve their primary goals, but often at the cost of customer experience - and that it's worthwhile, and perhaps even critical in the long run, to pause for a moment to consider the full breadth of the consequences.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Broken But Usable

A site I use to track investments was still broken this morning - though I suspect that it wasn't the site itself, but one of the gateways, proxies, or whatnot that constitute the labyrinthine firewall at work was preventing the stylesheet from loading, so what I saw was a bit ugly - here's a screenshot of the "broken" and "normal" views of part of the screen:

What struck me as worth mentioning is that the broken site was still entirely usable.  For my immediate purposes, I still had an at-a-glance view of all the securities I was tracking (though I had to guess what the second symbol was and squint to see the first, third, and fourth), I could still click links to ancillary information such as the chart and board.   Within about ten minutes, the situation was rectified and back to normal, so I didn't get the chance to fiddle around with the other links and utilities - but by that point, I had all the information I originally wanted and was done with it.

I tried the same experiment with a different finance site I occasionally use - went into the browser settings and told it to ignore the stylesheet.  Not only did the display render in a completely unreadable manner, but none of the buttons worked, and most of them had disappeared.   It was completely hosed, useful for nothing at all.

I would very much like to give credit to the designers of the first site for making sure that it was usable even when conditions weren't perfect ... though I don't know for a fact that they even thought about it, and the way that the left column overlays the first column of the table suggests that the result is a lucky accident.   But I was nonetheless impressed by the fact that the site, while broken, was still completely usable, insofar as I needed it to be at the time.

This calls to mind some of the incidents I've had with my vehicle, as opposed to my wife's experience with hers.   I ran over rather a large piece of rebar, but the "self-healing tires" enabled me to get through my day just fine and have the tire replaced after work; another time, my transmission broke (I'm not mechanically inclined enough to be more specific than that) and the vehicle went into "limp-home" mode and enabled me to drive it, albeit very slowly, to a repair facility a few miles away.   Meanwhile, my wife once went out to her car to find it wouldn't start at all - the battery was fine, but the starter would not engage.  Why was this?  Because the parking brake sensor, which has absolutely nothing to do with the vehicle's ability to run (and safely), had failed and the onboard computer, noticing this picayune issue, went completely limp.  German engineering at its finest.

The point I'm getting at is that I expect, and feel I am right to expect, that the things I own will still work even when there is a minor defect and conditions are less than perfect.   Certainly, there are catastrophic errors that, when they occur, should cause the entire system to shut down and prevent any kind of interaction at all to prevent serious damage.   If my wife's brakes had failed, not just a parking brake sensor, shutting the system down and not letting her drive at all could prevent serious property damage, injury, and even death.   And I would be grateful that the designers had the foresight to prevent the vehicle from being driven.   But again, I can't give them credit for that - they had a system that stopped working altogether, likely by happenstance rather than intention, when a minor and inconsequential part failed.

Ultimately, this brings me to the notion that a site, product, or system of any kind that will operate only under perfect conditions and will break down completely when even something relatively minor goes wrong cannot be described as being well designed.   And given the way in which many products become entirely unusable when something small goes wrong (and especially that they are cheaper to replace entirely than repair, but that's a different rant entirely), I'm led to the sense that many of the products available today are, in spite of great effort, very poorly designed.   They just don't make them like they used to.

Friday, November 30, 2012

De-badging, De-branding, Punk, and Existentialism

I saw something interesting in traffic: a de-badged Mercedes S-class.  Normally, when I see a vehicle from which the external labels have been removed, it's a crappy little import, and the assumption is the person driving it is somewhat ashamed of tooling around in one of the cheapest cars in production, what with the automobile-obsessed culture that is America.   But this guy, he got my attention and instant respect for having removed the badging of a luxury brand automobile, normally driven around by shallow egomaniacs who crave respect because of their possessions.   He even replaced the entire grill to get rid of the logo on the front.   That's hardcore.

It struck me as ironic that I would have such a reaction.  A bourgeois suburban meat-puppet with an MBA and a career of pimping brands really ought to hate the guy who has demonstrated contempt for the very thing that I spend the majority of my waking hours working to perpetuate.  But I felt, and still feel, this odd sense of respect even to the level of admiration of someone who appreciated the functional qualities of a luxury brand and yet felt no need to feed off of the brand for self-esteem.  There's a certain quiet strength in shunning the fake respect that comes from having expensive things.   That speaks to my soul.

Or more aptly, it speaks to the soul I once possessed - not the middle-aged corporate drone I am today, but the young man I was in 1980s America during the early punk movement, back when music, fashion, art, and other trappings were external tokens expressing of a body of philosophy and not just mindless conformity (it seems the cranky-old-man soul that I am growing into has put in an appearance as well).   Specifically, the core philosophy of punk, underlying the superficial trappings of music and fashion, was anti-image, anti-obsequiousness, anti-brand.

The height of punk fashion involved doing the same thing to expensive clothing that this fellow had done to an expensive automobile: ripping off the tags and emblems to demonstrate contempt for a manufactured culture that promulgated admiration for the ability to consume, rather than the ability to produce.   Of course, it could be argued that leaving the holes where the tags once were became a kind of tag unto itself - the label was gone, but the hole where the label used to be was, itself, a label representing a "brand" of a different kind.  It had meaning and it was there to be seen, conspicuously absent what would otherwise have been conspicuously present.   It's not so different after all, or at best an identical tactic for an opposing message.

It's also the very thing that signaled the end of the punk movement in America.  When the mass market of poseurs with silly-putty for brains adopted the superficial tokens, bought expensive shoes that resembled cheap ones, and pre-ripped clothing that was available for sale at considerable markup in the suburban shopping malls, those who believed in something that was more than skin-deep (or cloth-deep) found ourselves lost in a sea of mimics, who were merely conforming to a nonconformist stereotype without any clue of the ideas in the minds beneath the bad haircuts, and shortly afterward the philosophical movement beneath it all died of embarrassment.

All of this is far more autobiographical and self-obsessed than I'd care to be, in this blog-that-isn't-blog.  Or maybe I'm still trying to be conspicuously inconspicuous in my behavior.   Whatever the case, I've wandered a bit off the path and need to make an abrupt turn.  And so ...

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre discusses a couple of concepts that are germane to this rant about brands and consumerism.
  • First, he has the notion of "the look of the other," in which we recognize that other people are perceiving and making judgments about us, shocking us out of our un-self-consciousness that is the normal state in which we bumble mindlessly through life and bringing us to the realization that hell is other people (which sounds flippant, but he was dead serious). 
  • Second, he transitions this to the notion of "bad faith," in which our recognition of the fact that we are being perceived causes us to alter our behavior in response to improve or at least change the perception of ourselves.   The waiter who straightens his tie and acts more "waiterly" because customers are watching.
Whether it is conspicuous consumption or conspicuously inconspicuous consumption, being held in the look of the other causes us to live in bad faith.  As consumers, it leads us to adopt one brand and reject another - or in extreme cases of nihilistic angst, to reject all brands as an attempt to reject the very concept of brand.   But this is nonetheless the same bad faith, one of the cardinal sins of existentialism.

At yet, the point remains that bad faith is likely an inevitable facet of the human condition.  Which brings me back to branding and conspicuous consumerism: while inevitable, bad faith can at least be put to good use by consciously and willfully adapting to the look of the other.  It doesn't change the disreputable nature of living in bad faith, but reclaims some sense of integrity by making it a proactive and purposeful choice rather than reacting accidentally.

And that brings me back to where I began: it's likely not the consequences, or even the motivation, of de-badging that arouses within me this sense of profound admiration - that is to say that branding and de-branding represent different goals to which the same means are applied, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

I may be repeating myself, or perhaps deconstructing myself, so I'll knock it off and go upstairs to cut all the labels out of my suits to demonstrate my contempt for demonstrating things.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Complex Ordering

I went with a group of about sixteen people to a local restaurant for an end-of-project luncheon, and I noticed how tedious the process of ordering a meal has become.  If it were just two or four diners, it might not have as obvious, but hearing the waiter go through the process with a large group each in turn, taking over twenty minutes just to gather orders (no exaggeration - I was watching the time), the complexity of the ordering process stood out.

Aside of explaining the specials and answering questions multiple times, the process of ordering was a gantlet of questions even when it went quickly.   It took two or three iterations for me to notice this, and I started keeping count of the number of questions asked per person: it was between twelve and eighteen. Here's how my own order went ...
  1. What would you like to drink?
    Iced tea.
  2. Would you like plain, mango, raspberry, or peach tea?
  3. Sweetened or Unsweetened?
  4. Would you like sugar, equal, sweet-n-low, or splenda?
    None of the above.  (Though it's a fair question - people will order unsweetened and add sweetener themselves)
  5. What would you like?
    A New York Strip.
  6. The lunch special or the regular menu?
    The lunch special.
  7. How would you like it cooked?
    Medium Rare.
  8. That's going to have a warm red center, Is that OK?  
  9. What is your side items?
    Asparagus and a baked potato.
  10. What toppings do you want on your potato?
    Sour Cream and Chives.
  11. Would you like soup or salad?
  12. Ceasars, Wedge, Mixed Green, or Garden?
  13. What kind of dressing would you like?
    Blue Cheese.
  14. Regular or low-fat dressing?
I think this is accurate - I counted fourteen questions at the time, so if I've confabulated, it's a substitution rather than exaggeration.   I've also left out a few of the spots where I added complexity by asking questions (she asked me "what kind of tea?" and I begged her pardon, and I asked the difference between the lunch-special steak and the regular-menu one).  If ordering quickly was my primary objective, I'd have asked for a glass of water (though they can still gum that up by asking tap or bottled, then what brand of bottled) and a side order that had no options to it.

The point is, this is quite an onerous gantlet of questions for something as simple as ordering a meal.   I've designed applications for insurance products that ask fewer questions.  Granted, I'm thinking of the simpler policies, but even at that, the fact that you'd have to answer more questions to order lunch than purchase an insurance policy of any kind is totally outrageous.

And yes, I could have streamlined the process by stating "I want unsweetened iced tea, a new your strip cooked medium-rare, asparagus, a baked potato with sour cream and chives, and a garden salad with regular blue cheese dressing."   Even that seems quite a long sentence.     But I've tried that before, and it doesn't often work out: the waiter either forgets something I said or stops me mid-sentence ... or worse yet, gets something wrong.  As a customer, the best way to get what I want is to let the waiter go through the process, tedious and time-consuming as it is.

The lunch-ordering inquisition seems very clumsy and onerous from a customer experience perspective, but at the same time inevitable.   The customer is ultimately better served by getting what he wants rather than having a streamlined ordering process that might result in a less-than-satisfactory meal.  

I could likely nitpick some of the questions to effect a minor improvement.  For example, #4 could be eliminated altogether by providing a variety of sweeteners on the table (or, if the reason for not setting them out is to reduce clutter, bring them with any order of coffee or tea); #13 and #14 could be largely removed by having a default dressing on the menu and expecting customers who want something unusual to speak up; and #9 and #10 can be removed by having the chef choose sides, again trusting the customer to speak.

But by and large, complex ordering is a natural consequence of a customizable product - you don't find many restaurants that offer a single menu that will be served to all diners.  When they do, it's the chef's tasting menu or the special of the day (both of which are often used to push items for motives other than customer satisfaction, such as maximizing profit or pushing items that have been over-ordered and are about to expire).

As such, there doesn't seem to be a way to get around it.  Where customers demand a highly personalized product or service, it becomes necessary to add a question (or several) for each element for which they have a choice, resulting in an ordering process that is lengthy and complex.  I'm not keen on that at all, but for now at least I have the sense that it's just something I have to accept ... or more likely, it's something about which I will take notes and think more about it later.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Competitive Advantage and the Product Life Cycle

As a user experience practitioner, I'm gratified and flattered by the suggestion that experience has become a source of competitive advantage; but as a rational individual, I can't accept that this is always so.  It seems to me that the competitive value of experience depends heavily upon the position of a given product in the product life cycle - specifically, that experience is a source of competitive advantage for a mature product in a mature market, but it is not necessarily an advantage at other stages.

Introduction: Availability

When a new product is minted, competitive advantage goes to the firm that makes it available. The choice customers have is to buy from the only firm that supplies it or do without because there is no other source from which it is available.

That may seem simple, but the challenge to getting customers to adopt the product is to convince them that "or do without" is a problem they really need to solve. There are many products that are aggressively promoted on late-night infomercials and home shopping channels that customers can do without.

Insofar as competitive advantage is concerned, there is no pressure on the supplier to do anything more - except the concern that other firms will enter the market and begin offering the same product, which transitions to the next phase.

Growth: Features

As demand for a product grows and more suppliers enter the market to offer it, competitive advantage often comes down to added features: you can get an alarm clock from a number of firms, but only our firm offers a combination clock-radio. When other firms add the radio feature, competitive advantage goes to the firm that offers a snooze alarm.

In essence, the nature of competition is still availability - but it's the availability of a product that has certain features that others lack. And having those features make it unique, until a competitor adds them as well. It becomes a war of ongoing escalation.

Some firms seek competitive advantage for a niche market - by adding features that are geared toward a specific purpose or need - but many simply aggregate features with a desire to accommodate every possible need and maintain as broad a market as possible.

This practice leads to feature-bloat: a product has so many unnecessary bells and whistles that it becomes difficult to use for any specific purpose, and customers get the sense they are paying extra for a lot of features they do not need.

Maturity: Experience

Where a product enters the maturity stage, products become commoditized. Customers (rightly) feel that they can get the same product with the same features from any of a number of providers at roughly the same price.

My sense is that this is the stage at which customer experience becomes a significant factor of competitive advantage. Arguably, it might have been an advantage during the growth stage - in that a given firm might see it as a way to make their product more appealing regardless of whether its features are the same as everyone else's - but it's at the maturity stage where experience becomes the only real method of competition for the majority of firms.

That is, given the homogeneity of features and pricing, customers now consider experience as a differentiating factor: they choose based on which supplier offers the easiest or most pleasant shopping/buying experience, or based on which product provides the greatest experiential (specifically, non-functional) benefits.

My sense is experience is touted in the present market because the majority of products have become stagnant. I can't think of an example of a product I own that would be much improved by additional features ... nor can I think of a product that is presently advertised based on unique features. Could be I'm not trying hard enough, but not a single example comes to mind.

Decline: Tradition?

I include "decline" by way of being comprehensive in covering the entire life cycle - but have to admit that I don't have it worked out. My sense is that a product is in decline not because people no longer have the need that it is designed to fulfill (though it seems possible that it might be so), but because an entirely new product has come along that meets the needs of the consumer in a way that the old product cannot.

It seems to me that the primary selling point for a product in decline is the mere resistance against the selling proposition of its replacement. That is, to suggest to buyers that they can do without the new product because the old product still serves their needs, possibly better and/or more cheaply. For lack of a better term, I'll call this "tradition."

My sense is also that an old product can be revived if it can add the features of a new one, or sell customers on the experiential factors of the product. But so long as sales continue to fall as customers adopt newer solutions, the product will remain in decline.


This has been a bit of a ramble, a lot of raw thoughts that need further deliberation and consideration - and I think I may be tackling another issue (feature bloat) from an oblique angle.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Diseased Companies, Jackass Managers, and Sick Individuals

I was dismissive of Charles Sennewald's book, Traits of a Jackass Manager - it's a very thin book, lots of cartoon drawings and not much text, and most of the chapter titles seemed painfully self-evident. But I found my thoughts going back to it, and eventually picked it up and read through it cover to cover.

The book is intended to address dysfunctional behaviors in management, but as I went through I recognized that some of these behaviors are so widespread as to be part of the very fabric of certain companies, and of entire industries.    The customary tone of the superior-subordinate relationship is an indication of organizational culture - a manager is acting in accordance with the culture of the firm, or if he is not, his behavior is at the very least being tacitly condoned and accepted, though not overtly advocated (as yet).

My sense is the examination of the superior-subordinate relationship yields insight beyond the formal authority structure of an organization, as the same qualities evidence themselves in any relationship in which there is power disparity ... which is to say, in all relationships, as even those that are nominally egalitarian will find that each party has some advantage over the other in certain instances.

And from a perspective of negotiation, one of the most critical assessments in the early stages is to analyze the locus of power: to determine who thinks they have power, who actually does hold power, and to adjust your tactics accordingly.  The traits that people involved in a negotiation demonstrate reflect the degree to which that individual feels himself to be in a position of power.

The qualification "feels himself to be" is significant.  A person who lets on that they are in a position of power can be mistaken.  Such a person might also be well aware that they lack power and are overcompensating with their behavior to deceive the other person into thinking they are in a stronger position than they are.  And in either case, it can be a severe liability - just as a wrestler can use his opponent's force and weight to effect a devastating takedown, so can a skilled negotiator leverage to his own advantage the force of someone who is throwing their weight around carelessly in a metaphorical sense.

At this point, I am chasing a red herring ... I've turned away from relationship management and have begun down the course of negotiation tactics, and have to stagger a bit awkwardly back ...

The tone that a person takes in interacting with others reflects their sense of power in regard to the other party.   This is applicable to  manager-subordinate relationships as the author describes - but can be extended to service relationships, in which the provider and the customer each feel themselves to have a source of power, and the negotiation is influenced by this belief.     That is,  a boss who feels himself to be in a position of complete power over his subordinates in prone to behave abominably, and so does a firm that feels itself to be in a position of complete power over the market.

It's curious that such misbeliefs are perpetuated to the present day: if it were not so, there would be no market for a book of this nature - nor any need for the volumes of information written to guide firms and individuals in interacting with customers.  It should go without saying that bigotry, despotism, manipulation, autocracy, and the like are detrimental to morale and performance alike - but if it really were self-evident, would these behaviors really be so widespread?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Technology Immortalizes Bad Practices

For all the benefits that technology can bring to an organization that adopts it to automate tasks, it has a smothering effect on innovation.  This likely elicits a incredulous "harrumph" from those who are of the opinion that technology alone is innovation - but there's a good case that it isn't, and that it is most often used to ensconce bad practices and prevent companies from being innovative.

Consider first that technology is used to replace processes without changing them in any significant way.   At the onset, a paper-based system of storing and managing  information was automated by technology, but the fundamental process by which the information was collected, organized, and accessed was carried over rather than reconsidered in light of the different, and in most cases superior, capabilities of technology.  

Has it never struck you as slightly idiotic that personal computers still mimic the artifacts of the ink-and-paper world?   Why is it that a word-processing file is represented by an icon that looks like a typewritten letter?   Why should data be stored in spreadsheets that look suspiciously like paper ledgers and graphical representations of database records look like 3-by-5 index cards or paper forms?   Why should "files" be stored in "folders" and the icon for a file server look suspiciously like a filing cabinet?

Certainly, when the graphical user interface first appeared on personal computers in 1984, it could be argued that representing computer files as if they were paper files was a friendly paradigm for office workers who felt reluctant to adopt the new technology.  But nearly thirty years later, we're still locked in a paradigm that content is stored in documents that must still be treated in the same way as paper artifacts that fewer people in each generation of workers have a memory of ever handling, which prevents us from even considering information in any other way.

It's a pernicious problem on a larger scale, when you consider that in order to make and pay for a purchase, you must still fill out a requisition, that is approved by one department, which creates a purchase order, which is compared to the requisition before being sent to another department, which places the order with a vendor, who ships the order with an invoice, which must be reconciled against the purchase order in one department and the original requisition form in another.   While technology has digitized the paper and transmits the data through cables instead of vacuum tubes, it's still fundamentally the same process with all its redundancies and checkpoints that has been in existence since the nineteenth century.

This entire nonsensical system exists because the purchasing process itself has remained the same.   Computers replaced paper files with digital ones and transmits data over cables instead of vacuum tubes, the same way that typewritten orders replaced those written on parchment with ostrich feathers to be carried about by human runners.   Never once in all this time has it been questioned whether the process makes sense, or if a lot of the busyness of business could be reduced by reconsidering the necessity of the process in light of the capabilities of the technology with which it is executed.

This is the basis of my argument that technology alone isn't innovation: it makes the tasks we do faster and less cumbersome, but it doesn't change the pointless ritual of the process itself.  True innovation would not merely automate an existing way of doing things, but change the way things are done, eliminating busywork, redundancies, and the expense and delay that they cause.  But this didn't happen when technology was introduced - it merely mimicked the old way of doing things.

The second point of my argument is that technology smothers innovation, and immortalizes bad practices.   And that's a boarder argument - but one that seems sensible to anyone who has changed jobs and spent a significant amount of time having to be trained, or discover by trial-and-error, how "the system" works and the ridiculously complex things they have to do to perform a simple task.   And if you suggest there might be a better or more efficient way, you hear "the system won't let you do that."

It's paralyzing in the course of trying to implement process improvements by modifying existing information systems to eradicate some of the fuss and bother.   Why do we ask the person to enter the same data twice in the course of a single task?  Why do we ask for some information on screen five and other information on screen three when the two or closely related?    Because that's the way the back-end system is designed to work.   And why can't we change it?   Because it would be difficult and expensive to do so.

And that, I believe, is a serious issue for many firms who have lived for many years with information systems that has prevented any deviation from processes that have not changed in decades: even if they recognize that there would be greater expediency and efficiency in changing their business processes, they are being held back by archaic paradigms they are forced to accept by adopting technology that mimics traditional and entirely unnecessary processes.

In fairness, this has been a long rant by someone who has of late run into one too many brick walls and smeared lipstick on one too many pigs ... but I can't help the sense that the frustration that I feel at this moment is entirely warranted, and the blithe complacency to accept the limitations of outdated information technology is smothering innovation and progress.

And as much as I love to smirk at the irony that this has all been brought about by the very technology that promised to move us forward, I just can't muster the enthusiasm.  So I rant.  Isn't that what blogs are for?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Division or Unification of Labor

I heard a fairly convincing two-part argument against Smith's principle of the division of labor.   I use the qualifier of "fairly" because I don't think that it entirely disproves the theory, nor does it replace it, but it does cast some doubt as to whether it is universally applicable.

Division of Labor

As a refresher on the original principle: Smith suggested that dividing a task into a number of simpler tasks, and training workers to perform only a small step in an overall process, enabled considerably greater production with considerably less skilled hands.  It's the theory that was best demonstrated by assembly-line production, and the astounding level of output that could be achieved.

Smith's example was that of a pin factory: each worker performs a simple task: one draws the wire, another cuts it, another straightens it, another grinds the head, and another sharpens the point.  And by this method, a small group of illiterate farmhands could, with very little training, far outproduce an equal number of master blacksmiths.

Strictly speaking, this was not the origin of the division of labor.  Even before Smith's theory was put into practice, separate tradesmen mined the ore, smelted the metal, and fashioned it into useful objects.   Blacksmiths also specialized according to the kinds of objects they were most skilled in fashioning, and there were separate "smiths" for various kinds of metal.    So in essence, Smith was merely observing an existing phenomenon, but he took it to the extreme.

First Rebuttal: Divisibility

The first rebuttal to Smith's theory draws on an example that seems patently ludicrous - but which seems no less extreme than the example proposed by Smith: that of typing a letter by using fifty or so workers, each of whom uses a machine that has a single key: one person types a lowercase "e", another an uppercase "T", another a comma, another the spacebar, etc.

This follows the very principle of the division of labor, and illustrates the dysfunction of taking it to extremes.  The amount of time to load and position the paper, strike the key, remove the paper, and transport it to the next workstation overwhelms any benefit of specialization, and requires a tremendous amount of coordination to move it from one worker to the next in proper order.

Plainly, the task can be performed most efficiently by a single skilled worker than a team of unskilled workers, and it makes little sense (and much waste) to subdivide it.  As such, the unification of the tasks involved into one skilled typist makes far more sense than the division of labor among many unskilled hands.

And to that point, the unification of labor is taken further by the elimination of the typist - as it is presently common for the author of a letter to do his own typing, and likely far more efficient, as the speed at which keys can be struck is of relatively minor effect.

Second Rebuttal: Skilled Labor

A second rebuttal, more philosophical than functional, is that Smith's theory was created at a time when skilled labor was in short supply: it was the perfect solution to the problem of manufacturing when there was not a ready supply of skilled blacksmiths and illiterate laborers had to be trained to perform tasks in a short amount of time (five years of apprenticeship was not feasible).

But in the present day, most workers are at least semi-literate and considerably more intellectually sophisticated than their eighteenth-century counterparts.  So it lo longer seems necessary or desirable to break down a task into functions that are so simple that they could be performed by a trained chimp or replaced by a mechanical device that repeatedly performs the same sequence of basic motions.

It's also worth considering that the manufacturing of goods has become a relatively minor part of the present economy.   Most workers in the post-industrial world are involved in what is generally called "knowledge work," in which the intellectual component is of far greater importance in the generation of value than the manual tasks involved in producing physical artifacts.

Many of the most highly-compensated professions produce no physical artifact at all: a doctor, an attorney, and an executive do not (directly) produce any physical object.  And neither is this work adaptable to the division of labor beyond a certain degree.   It can be argued that the work of a physician has been divided into specialized forms of medicine (podiatrists, oncologists, cardiologists, etc.) and that some of the tasks are handed off to labs or clinics (blood work, X-rays, etc.), but there remains the need for a general practitioner to manage the care of a given patient in a holistic manner, calling in specialists when it is beneficial.

In more abstract terms, an intelligent person is capable of performing more sophisticated tasks, and more tasks, and there is not a practical need to subdivide labor.  In addition to being counterproductive, it is patently unnecessary in a culture in which there is ready availability of an educated workforce.

Reconciling the Extremes

Each of these arguments takes an extreme position - the complete division of a process into minute tasks, or its complete unification onto a single workbench.  As in many things, my sense is that neither extreme is right, but represent the ends of a continuum along which an intelligent choice must be made.

When a task is too divided, there arises a need for administration and control, and the number of errors as a result of miscommunication and misdirection rise.  I vaguely recall an article that suggested it can be assessed by the ratio of non-productive employees who supervise and audit work as compared to the number of employees who are directly productive.   Where that ratio is less than 1-to10, the overhead cost of administration likely exceeds the efficiencies of division of labor.   Seems a bit arbitrary, but likely a good indicator that consideration is necessary.

When a task is too unified, productivity decreases.  I don't expect the argument of an educated workforce holds much weight here: I don't think education would have been a factor in Smith's pin-factory example.  The most educated and skilled blacksmith would still be capable of producing far fewer pins than an assembly-line of uneducated workers.  I can recall no guidance on this issue, but it seems to me that it has much to do with task-switching, and perhaps the same ratio of 1-to10 could be used to assess whether the nonproductive time of a given worker (switching from one task to the next) as compared to the productive time (performing a given task) likely exceeds the efficiency that can be gained by specialization, when considering both the time to move work from one person to the next as well as the overhead costs of coordination and control.

In terms of managing knowledge-workers, the educational factor likely comes into play.   While some individuals claim to be able to perform all tasks related to a given act of production with expert precision, it is very seldom true.   I've found this to be the case in print and Web production, where individuals arrogantly claim to be experts at every facet - only to find that they are very good at one or two things, marginally competent in a few others, and woefully inadequate at the rest.  There does seem to be a finite number of things a person can do very well, and when a task requires expertise in too many dimensions, unification of labor produces a low-quality and low-volume result.

As such, it seems necessary to determine the point between the extremes for any given task or process: division or unification of labor to the logical extreme is not a panacea for all forms of work - but instead, the idiosyncratic nature of the task, and the idiosyncratic capabilities of the individuals who perform it, must be intelligently assessed to arrive at a point where productivity, cost, and quality have achieved an optimum balance.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Culture and Service Expectations

I was taken aback by an study I read that indicated that customers in the south are much more fastidious, impatient, and demanding in their relationships to service providers than are people in the north ... until I noticed that the article was referring to the north and south of England.

The situation there is much the opposite to the (eastern) United States, where the north is urbanized and densely populated than the south and people are a lot less gentle with one another - but if you flip the poles, the situation is likely the same: people who live in urban environments tend to lead more hectic lives, and are far less civil to one another, and likely carry those cultural proclivities over to their relationships with the companies that serve them.

Likely, it would be fair to say "cultural stereotypes" rather than "cultural proclivities" because the north/south dichotomy is a broad generalization. There's a dramatic difference between the personality traits of an individuals who live in Manhattan and those who live "upstate" in a less densely populated area - though both are in the north, the latter are more easygoing, congenial, and almost "southern" in the way they interact with other people.

This got me to thinking that there are a number of factors in the culture of the customer (as opposed to the culture of an organization) that have a dramatic impact on the perception of customer service. In general, the way in which a person is inclined to interact with other people in society will influence the way in which he interacts with them in his role as an employee in a business or customer situation.

That is, an impatient, rude, obnoxious, and self-centered person is going to be a difficult customer to please.   He will be more critical of flaws, less appreciative of extra efforts, and more surly and difficult in general.  Aside of individual psychology, my sense is that there are objective and measurable environmental factors that will lead a person to exhibit this personality.

The most germane factor to the study that spun up this train of thought is location - though it's not as simple as latitude, it likely is highly correlated to the population density in the locations where a person lives and works that influences his perspective: people whose daily lives are conducted in densely-populated areas are far more irritable in any situation in which they are faced with human interact than are those who live in areas of lower population density.

Age might also be seen to have an impact, though it's difficult to say whether younger customers would be inclined to be more peevish, self-centered, and unreasonable than older ones. There is the stereotype of elderly people being cantankerous and cranky, and there are no stereotypes without prototypes - and plenty of them - but at the same time, younger customers are peevish and petulant as well.

The more I think on it, the more it seems that this is more a matter of sociology than customer service - though it certainly impacts the latter - and there's likely no shortage of data on the subject based on more formal research than an individual's speculation ... so I'll stop speculating, but preserve this note for future consideration, as much of my ruminating considers the culture of the organization rather than that of the customer, which is likely as important if not more.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Media Clutter

My curiosity has been piqued by a new, or at least unusual, method of in-store advertising: floor stickers, particularly in grocery stores. If you've not seen one (as I hadn't until recently), it's a sticker that's about the size of a welcome mat that contains a promotional message for a product, with an accompanying train of footprint-shaped stickers (in the same color as the promotion) leading from the sticker at the end of the aisle to the shelf where the product is located.

What makes this unusual is that the floor of a retail store - the physical surface beneath the shoppers' feet - is presently a blank canvas. Some marketing enthusiast recognized it as a space he could leverage to grab attention and pimp his wares. Granted, there's some consumer resistance to the increase of promotional messaging, every available inch of space seems to be plastered with a clutter of ads - but the novelty makes this technique particularly effective.

I paused to watch a few customers, who noticed the sticker, followed the footprints to the shelf, and inspected the item being promoted. None of them actually bought it. I expect that my study of half a dozen people in one location isn't sufficient to draw firm conclusions, but it did seem highly effective: everyone seemed to notice the ad, and about a third went to the shelf to inspect the item. That's not statistically sound, but it does seem to indicate merit.

A floor sticker is also a tricky problem for functional design: it has to stand out against whatever floor it is affixed to. It must stand up to wear and stains that occur from people walking on it (and being mopped each night), but yet not be so slippery that it constitutes a hazard. The adhesive has to be strong enough to hold it to the floor, but not leave a residue when it comes time to remove it, etc. But this is likely a digression into minor tactical concerns.

What makes this mode of promotion so (presumably) effective is that it is unique. It is the only advertisement on the floor - one message in an uncluttered expanse automatically gets attention. Will it be as effective when there are two? Will it be as effective when there are six of them on each end of the aisle, with a patchwork of interweaving footprint trails from one end of the aisle to another?  I expect not.

And this is true of advertising in all media: it is effective when it is new precisely because nobody else is doing it. If there were but one billboard on a stretch of road, chances are people would notice and pay attention. It's likely a matter of imitative evolution: the first billboard got attention and effectively increased revenue. Someone else saw the idea and copied it, and then there were two. Years later, the roadside is so cluttered with billboards that drivers no longer pay attention, and even complain about it being a distraction and an eyesore, and pundits declare roadside advertising is ineffective.

And this is where I take issue with blanket statements that a given kind of advertising "does not work."   It works, and it works very well, until so many companies attempt to do the same thing that it becomes clutter. People would not like music concerts if there were six bands playing at the same time, each one trying to play louder than the rest - it would be a cacophony of noise, an incomprehensible nuisance. But it would be wrong to conclude that people don't like music and find it annoying - they would like it, and give it their attention, but for the clutter.

But to drag myself back to the specific topic at hand (floor advertising), it will be interesting to see, in ten years, what has become of it. Will the idea catch on at all? Will it become so ubiquitous that customers ignore it? For most forms of advertising, few can remember when it was just getting started and the field was uncluttered - and I look to this as an idea that can be watched from the early stages of its evolution.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Beating the Commodity Trap

Commoditization seems to be a growing problem in the present marketplace, given the downturn in the global economy and the increasing power of the consumer, though arguments seem vague and contradictory as to the causes and results. With this in mind, I found Richard Aventi's book on the topic to be particularly enlightening.

By his reckoning commoditization is not, as some are fond of suggesting, a one-way march to a dead end where all products are reduced to the preferences of the lowest common denominator, but a cyclical occurrence in consumer markets that persists so long as customers have need of a product.

It begins simply enough, with one firm offering a new product to customers with an attitude of "take it or leave it," and then panics when customers decide to leave it for products that better suit their needs. What ensues thereafter is a constant struggle among competing firms to suit specific segments of the market, offering the benefits they value at a price they are willing to pay. It doesn't end until a greater change takes place in the environment: customers have the same basic needs as they ever have, but merely find a different way to satisfy them.

That struggle in the middle presents an ongoing cycle of commoditization, which is not a terminal toward which markets progress, but which merely a lull (sometimes brief, sometimes quite long) during times when customers are complacent with a limited number of options and firms become entrenched in providing them, assuming that they will never change ... until they do. The cycle has repeated throughout history, and it always seems to take them by surprise.

The book itself identifies three different forms of commoditization (deterioration, proliferation, and escalation) as well as three different strategies that firms can use in response to each situation (escape, destroy, or exploit) - which gets a bit tedious at times, and I can't help wondering if it's quite comprehensive. But all in all, it's an interesting set of considerations that makes the phenomenon of commoditization a lot less monochromatic, and a lot less daunting.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pretending to Be Ethical

A person can fake his behavior, but not his character. I should likely qualify that as being in reference to the short term, because character can be developed over longer periods of time - perspectives can change, and values can be adopted - but over shorter periods of time, a person has great difficulty pretending to be something he is not, going through the motions to create a false sense that his actions are driven by motives that are incompatible with his actual motivation.

It doesn't take an expert in "reading vocal tone, choice of words, and nonverbal elements of communication to have a sense that a person isn't being entirely honest. Most reasonably observant people can detect this, and few have the skills necessary to maintaining a facade. They will eventually slip, or crack, and go back to their true nature, such as it is ... generally when they have gotten what they wanted and no longer feel the need to maintain the charade.

The same is true of companies: it's not uncommon for a firm that has suffered from bad publicity to go out of its way to support charities or causes that are aligned against the very behaviors of which the firm has been accused and is often entirely guilty. When a petroleum firm has cut costs by neglecting security precautions and coated the shorelines with oil, it's a boon to environmental charities, but for a very short amount of time.

Companies show their true colors in far less dramatic and far more extensive ways: consider the quality of tech support for electronic products, the difficulty you encounter returning merchandise to stores, or the haggling you must do to redeem a CD at a bank. When you made the purchase, service was impeccable ... once they have your money in their hands, their behavior takes a turn, and should you want your money back, things get ugly.

It's in moments such as those that marketing slogans about customer service are put to the test and often fail. The values espoused in advertising and corporate documents reflect what the firm wants people to think, not what it actually is, nor how it actually conducts itself, nor how it has any intention of ever conducting itself.   The experience you have of a firm in everyday encounters demonstrates its actual values.

It's just as true of good companies as it is of bad ones: there are firms that are legendary for the quality of service they provide after the sale and merchants who simplify the return process, realizing that in order to maintain their reputation they must act in accordance to their professed values - giving up a little profit now means maintaining the trust and retaining the lifetime value of a customer. There are some who would suggest, and rightly so, that this behavior is maintained in order to nurture positive relations in hopes of getting your future business.  Even if that's true, it's not necessarily a bad thing. 

From an ethical perspective, a promise kept is a promise kept - even if there are ulterior motives for doing so. By some standards, it's more admirable to keep a promise if you gain no benefit from doing so - but it may be clutching at straws.   It's difficult enough simply to be good - and when someone behaves in a positive manner, it seems unjustly cynical to muckrake to unearth (or invent) a reason to be sour about it.

I also don't agree that companies should care about customers in a general way, "as human beings" or whatever phrase that is used to connote an ineffable and unconditional love for no particular reason. It's certainly a sentiment that customers, even those who seem to demand it for themselves, are unwilling to return. A company's love of customers is for the value they get from them, and a customer's love of a company is exactly the same.

I'd go further, to say that it would be unethical to suggest otherwise - and ethical to acknowledge the relationship such as it is: a commercial relationship, like a professional relationship, that has a given context and specific conditions: each gets what they expect of the other, with a clear sense of boundaries, utterly devoid of illusions or misconceptions, and both are happy with the arrangement.

This is also likely a critical difference between firms that are highly profitable for a short amount of time and those that earn a respectable (but not astronomical) profit and sustain themselves for a longer period of time: they do not pretend to be ethical, they simply are ethical, and not just in regard to their customers, but to their employees, investors, suppliers, partners, and communities.

This may be scratching at the surface of a deeper meditation - that ethics is not merely being true to one's nature, but having a good nature in the first place, such that their interaction with anyone they affect is either mutually beneficial, or at the very least not harmful. I'll think on this some more.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fashion versus Function

An interesting observation: a decade ago, people took a great deal of pride in owning a new gadget as an object of conspicuous consumption.   They wanted other people to see them using it, to ask them questions about it, as if merely having the gadget made them (seem to be) a person of some importance and esteem.    But the value people take from being a thing-owner has waned, such that the gadgets that have longevity and were not abandoned have had to deliver actual value to the user other than a token that could be flashed to get attention.

I'm of two minds about this observation: there's something about it that rings true, but at the same time I have the sense it's not quite right ... and what follows is some meditation on that conflict.

Primarily, I have a sense that the implication that this is a cultural change may be wrong, or is at least an idiosyncrasy of the present environment.   That is, I have the strong sense that America is a consumer culture and that distressingly many American consumers can be justly characterized as shallow narcissists - and I don't have a sense that this has changed much over the past few decades.  The advertising message of "be the first kid on your block to own one" is nothing new, and I don't think the (rather contemptible) psychology to which it appeals has changed or diminished over the last decade ... but instead there hasn't really been any "shiny new thing" that can be shown off.  That is, the next truly different gadget that comes along (something physical, that can be seen by other people) will cause a resurgence of conspicuous consumption.

That considered, the core of the statement rings true: for any new product that is capable of being conspicuously consumed, there will be a period during which conspicuous consumption is a driving force in its adoption by the market: people will want to have one for the sake of the attention they get merely by being an object-owner in the presence of non-owners.   But after the product is in wider circulation, to the point at which enough people have one that the mere possession does not confer esteem, there is the reconsideration of whether the product offers any other benefit.

Consider the example of cell phones: in the nineties they were rare enough that anyone seen to be using one was considered (or hoped to be considered) a person of some importance.   Ten years later, they were so widespread that even children and poor people carried cell phones, and its value as an object of fashion diminished.  Granted, for those who joined the owners' club late still expected esteem. And speaking loudly on a cell phone in a public place was a desperate and annoying attempt to get other people to pay attention to them and acknowledge their importance in spite of the fact that cell phone ownership no longer garnered any esteem.

About the time that the cell phone had lost its cachet, smart phones came along, and the attention-starved individuals turned to those devices - but that fashion has also run its course.  To my earlier point, nothing else seems to have come along to become the next badge of esteem for owners ... but as soon as it does, I'm confident we'll see the cycle repeat, because the culture has not changed, we just lack a prop to put our collective insecurity on public display.

Thus far, I have been overly focused on the "fashion" and haven't had much to say about "function."   It's much more difficult to assess the value of a device to a user from an outsider's perspective.  That is, I can plainly observe a person using a smart phone in a public place, and the furtive way in which they periodically look about to see if anyone has noticed them using it ... but I can't very well observe whether they are getting any genuine value from whatever it is they happen to be doing at the time.

In retrospect, it was likely possible to make such an observation of the last-generation technology of cell phones because at least one side of the conversation was audible.  It seems to me that a decade ago, whenever you heard someone using a cell phone, there was some substance to the conversation and they were calling someone else for a specific purpose, whereas nowadays, the laggards who still think that owning one makes them seem important are engaged in banal and vapid conversations that, ironically enough, loudly demonstrate how unimportant they are - but that may just be a function of my own selective memory, picking recollections that support my present assessment.

But more to the point, a device must deliver functional value even after its fashion value has worn off, and that producers should be highly effective to the transition from the fashion phase to the function phase.   That seems to be the critical difference between products that are fads and novelties and those that have real staying power in the market.

It's likely also important to have a clear conception of exactly what that value is.  Mobile computing was originally sold on the notion that it had a functional value - it was for relatively important business-like activities such as checking your flight status, trading stocks, transferring money among accounts, and that sort of thing.  But if you consider the top applications of all times, it's all games and social networking, meaning that the majority of device users aren't using the devices as intended.

That's not to say they're not using them at all, as there likely is some genuine value to being able to distract yourself with a game and chitchat with friends, and given the amount of money people will pay to be able to do those things (device cost plus software costs plus monthly service fee over a five-year period), it shouldn't be taken lightly.  

But at that, I may be straying into yet a different topic - for now, the crux of this meditation is that many products begin as a fashion, and peter out if they fail to deliver functional value, and that serious mistakes can be avoided if you are careful to recognize when consumers are trending from the former to the latter.