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.