16 October 2007

It's just as well they have a good brand ...

I was talking to a couple of people last week about an e-commerce website. Rather, I was listening, they were complaining. One person had stopped using the site completely while the other customer had recently contacted the Help Desk in order to overcome a problem during the checkout process which prevented them from completing a purchase. In a few moments, the Help Desk had identified the cause, described it as "common" and straight away emailed a 2 page set of instructions for resetting the browser. Browser reset, the purchase went smoothly, but how many customers would have had the patience to work through a 2 page email to find the five lines that related to their set-up?

In manufacturing that kind of solution would be laughed at. If you know you have a problem in a process then you fix the process, you don't develop a work-around for the customers. If this site has a problem with cookies then it needs to redesign the way it uses them. Asking customers to follow a 2 page email and decipher which instructions relate to them can't be regarded as a good approach. And the site that is having these problems? Tesco. It's just as well that it has a good brand, because any normal e-commerce site wouldn't be able to sell much at all with this kind of defective functionality.

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12 October 2007

The power of reviews

Recently I bought a new electrical appliance. It came top in a (2 year old) Which consumer survey and they were completely unequivocal - it outperformed the brand leader by a healthy margin against virtually every criterion that they tested it against.

Next stop eBay. I saw the item on sale, placed my bid and won. So far, so good. I had seen an impressive review, decided what I had wanted to buy and got it at a great price. But then, the little green demon curiosity took hold and I Googled to see if there were any reviews other than the Which survey. There were, and I began to read ...

Disaster. The first few were unfailingly negative and said that the Which survey didn't know what it was talking about because it hadn't used the product over a sufficiently long period. I looked further afield to see whether these opinions were a flash in the pan or reflected the consistent mood in the market. Eventually I found some more recent reviews and they were unstinting in their praise of the product so I feel vindicated at last that I have made a decent choice.

This information is a potential problem for manufacturers. They need to be aware of what people are saying about their product because there is a risk that negative reviews will impact adversely on their sales. Perhaps their site should link to some of the positive reviews so that they take advantage of independent praise to help offset the effects of any negative press which may exist.

Travel companies have taken this idea rather further - there are consistent claims that they have written some of the supposedly independent positive reviews of holiday destinations and hotels which appear on the web. I'm not advocating that - I'm a consumer, too.

Now I'm just waiting for the postal strike to end so that I can begin my own extended duration consumer testing. I'm just hoping that it's a positive experience.

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05 October 2007

Making a business more stable

A small business that I know set up a new offer in my area about a year ago. From a standing start this offering has generated new revenues of about $400k in the last 12 months. That indicates that there is a genuine need for the service and the pricing must be relatively attractive, particularly since this growth has been achieved without anything other than poster advertising.

It wants to grow the revenues from this new offer further since its core business has been cyclical and the new service is significantly more predictable, limited by the capacity of its facilities and the availability of suitably qualified staff. The supply side is complex with both national and local suppliers, all competing for the same kinds of staff and not differing much in the pay and benefits on offer. It looks as though recruitment may well be the key process in helping the business to grow.

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04 October 2007

19 55 28N 23 28 50W

That was the reported position of the lead boat in the round the world race Clipper Round the World 07-08 at midday today. The current leg is from La Rochelle to Salvador. The 10 boats are all identical and will arrive back in Liverpool next July as part of the city’s celebration of its 2008 City of Culture status. Clipper Round the World is a major adventure for most of the participants – the only professional sailor on each boat is the skipper – but it is also a business.

Clipper Round the World was thought up by Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person to sail solo round the world non-stop 1968-69.

Clipper Round the World races take place every 2 years and last about 9 months. The current design is a lightweight cutter built from a glass fibre composite sandwich construction with two layers of glass fibre around a balsa wood core. It displaces 30 tonnes and is just short of 21 metres.

Clipper Round the World has several revenue streams from the participants who pay to take part depending on how many legs they crew in, sponsors of the boats themselves and advertising sponsors throughout the event and on the website. Visitors to the website can use a race viewer which combines Google Maps with a KML file to report the track of each boat on the current leg. Positions on the map are reported every 6 hours. Crews on each boat write occasional blog entries as well as taking photos and videos of what is going on around them.

I’m hooked already and it has only just started. Mind you, I’ve got an interest in one of the boats, a friend is taking part in all the legs.

03 October 2007

Just a spike

For the past 6 weeks or so I have been working in an organisation with about 400 managers and staff. Although I have been there every day and I have met a number of people, I can’t normally claim to know what everyone there is thinking about at any one time.

Last Thursday and Friday there was no doubt in my mind what they were thinking about. They were thinking about business continuity. The local power supply became intermittent and a couple of power spikes disabled a number of their central servers. E-mail, printing, internet access and their main database system were all down for most of the 2 days. The interesting point of the story is that, in an attempt to ensure that their IT infrastructure was well managed, they had contracted out its strategy and management to Very Well Known in the IT Industry Ltd who is easily big and experienced enough to carry out effective risk assessments.

There a couple of reasons why an effective contingency plan might not be in place for this kind of risk:

  • the probability of occurrence was thought to be vanishingly small
  • the impact was expected be minutes rather than hours (this organisation has its own power generation for extended power cuts)

Whatever the reasons, I’m pretty sure that they have been visited at some length over the last few days and that there will be a serious attempt to make the network much more resilient to this kind of incident in the future. It also reminds everyone that even when you have contracted out the activity to a 3rd party, the quality of the service will depend on your being an informed client.


17 August 2007

Another food outlet

Many UK golf clubs have had a thin time over the last few years. Some of them have decided that they should do something positive to increase their attendance and bar sales, so they have made a real effort to develop their restaurant's offering at evenings and week-ends.

Last week-end I was a guest at a club who were running with this idea. The quality of the meal was excellent, the prices in the menu appeared to be from an earlier age, and the bar prices were low, too. The good news for the club is that the restaurant is full and bar income has increased substantially so there are real benefits to the club. That isn't to say that it would be a successful tactic for all golf clubs - it requires a well-equipped kitchen and a capable chef supported by sufficient support staff. For some clubs however, it can make substantial difference to trading income.

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16 August 2007

Getting the budget right

I've talked before about the problems of cutting costs in complex organisations. One of the things that I didn't mention is that arbitrary cost cuts can cause a good deal of internal debate as well as loss of morale.

I was reminded of this earlier today when two middle managers were describing the approach being taken to next year's budget. They were highly critical but were uncertain that there would be an opportunity to ensure that the cuts were made in what they saw as 'less essential' areas.

Whether those managers were right about the nature of the process, the fact that they have become emotionally committed to an outcome which is different from the existing proposal creates a loss of efficiency within the organisation. Budgetting processes need to be capable of bringing these middle managers along so that they can feel part of the process and accept the outcomes.

14 August 2007

What does a product recall cost?

At the beginning of July, I noted that finding a low cost supplier in a far off country wasn't guaranteed to keep input costs low. Maintaining quality over long supply chains is difficult.

Mattel is a business that is learning the lesson the hard way. Here the problem is not simply the cost of the recalls themselves, but also the damage to Mattel's brand - reputational risk is often talked about, but the real costs are very difficult to estimate, particularly since it can take a long period for the full impact to emerge.

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08 August 2007

The customer contact problem

While on holiday I met some people who don't use mobile text messages - they claimed not to know how to access them on their phones. That can be a problem for an organisation which may assume that because it has a customer's mobile phone number, it can use it to send text messages that will be read.

Customer contact is strongly in the permission marketing area and if a customer hasn't given you permission to use a particular contact channel then you may well be wasting your time. The message may not be seen or worse, be filtered through a veil of annoyance that the company has used a channel that the customer finds irritating. It's no surprise that so many people sign up with the mail, fax and telephone preference services. They do it because they don't like the approaches, or they don't like the channels.

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Don't ignore SPAM

I have just come back from a few days holiday and was welcomed on my return by 1783 messages in my SPAM inbox totalling 12.2 Mb. It would be easy to delete it all without reviewing it, but I thought I would take a few minutes to see if there was anything valuable there.

Of the total, only one message shouldn't have been listed as SPAM (a false positive) so that means that the filters are working pretty accurately, but I still get quite a lot of false negatives in my normal inbox (messages which are cleared as good but which are still SPAM).

The point of the post is that SPAM is a problem because it can bury normal mail.

One of the organisations I have been working with recently has a website which allows its customers to complete transactions online. Once the transaction is completed on the webpage, the transaction is sent to the organisation's main email address and is processed as soon as the office opens. That has proved to be popular with some of its customers and the number of transactions processed in this way has been growing rapidly. However, on examining their SPAM inbox they found that a number of the transactions emailed to them from their own website had been categorised as SPAM (a false positive problem). What makes it more difficult is that their problem is subtle - there doesn't seem to be a clear distinction between the transactions which correctly find their way to the inbox and those which have been declared as SPAM.

So, don't ignore your SPAM inbox - there may well be something in there which is valuable to you.


10 July 2007

Extending a supply chain doesn't just mean finding a low cost supplier

Many European organisations have been shifting their focus from local manufacture to import and distribution from an increasingly long supply chain, all in the name of reducing the cost to serve.

I found this article today which describes the quality problems with some products sourced in China. The article refers to US importers and distributors, but the same issues face European importers and distributors.

Now, I'm not making the case that European good, Chinese bad. That wouldn't be accurate, but I have little doubt that the importers and distributors mentioned in this link thought that they were dealing with good products which met the appropriate safety standards. Apparently that assumption isn't enough to guarantee that delivered quality meets local requirements.

It also means that additional activities may need to be built into these long supply chains to make sure that quality standards are maintained. That will have the impact of increasing the cost to serve although it is unlikely to make these sources uncompetitive until their wage rates increase substantially.

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09 June 2007

What is the customer experience?

The other day I called 118 118. For those of you outside the UK, that is one of a number of directory enquiries companies who provide details of business and private telephone numbers. I knew the name of the company I wanted to call and their address, but it didn't help. I didn't find out their number until I got back to my computer and looked them up on their website.

I don't imagine that many potential customers would try to find them through directory enquiries, and it wouldn't matter if they did, based on my experience. My point is that they haven't put themselves in their customers' shoes and tried it for themselves. If anyone in the business had a similar experience then I'm sure that they would have done something to get their number properly registered with the directory enquiries companies.

Not that they are exactly hurting on the telephone front. Last week I asked them what their incoming call volume was and they told me that it was running at about 150 calls per day - not bad for a micro business!

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02 June 2007

Writing a manual is tough

I like espresso. I've had my current machine about 3 years and it's been excellent, but in the last couple of months it started to play up - the flow rate through the brew head didn't seem as fast and eventually it slowed to a trickle. The noise made by the pump motor sounded different, too.

I read the manual carefully and followed the instructions to clear any airlocks which the manual suggested might be the cause of the problem. It didn't seem to really help so I tried everything else I could think of to clear those pesky airlocks. No real improvement, so I decided to look at the problem more carefully.

Eventually I had an epiphany. Although the flow rate through the brew head was very slow, there was water escaping from the pressure release valve back into the reservoir. With that new information, I was able to solve the problem in about 10 minutes and the machine now works perfectly again. Better, I did it without using any tools or anything that wasn't in the kitchen already. My point is that the problem and the solution weren't covered in the manual.

A proper manual needs to be comprehensive to be useful and that means not just instructions on how to switch the machine on, but helpful in identifying common problems and providing guidance for what can be done. On that basis, most instruction booklets for appliances fail as manuals. Trainer tip for budding manual authors: the phrase no user maintenance possible, is probably not one that you should use unless it is really true.

So how can you write a comprehensive manual? The most obvious approach is to provide the equipment to some would-be users and find out what happens when they try to operate it without any instructions at all. That will provide a very quick insight into how a group of people think and what kind of instructions would help them to get an acceptable outcome.

If you have access to a pool of machines with long working lives then you can also assess what kinds of problems those machines have experienced and provide advice on how people can analyse their problem and carry out simple maintenance.

I'm just off to have an espresso with a full, rich, crema.