Are you better than Apple at letting your employees help your customers?

I’m a mac fan. Not one of those loony, raving fans, but I do have an iPhone and an iPad, recently bought a MacBook Air, and there are several other versions of iPhones, iPads, iPods, etc scattered throughout our apartment. On top of that, I’ve bought iPads for my mother and my mother-in-law to allow us to FaceTime and let them see my kids more often.

Apple store stairs

So, I’m bought in to the ecosystem. Like so many other apple customers, one of the things I enjoy most about their products is the ease with which you can flit back and forth across your devices.

When I bought the MacBook Air a few weeks ago, I stumped up an additional $99 for Apple’s “One to One” membership — a kind of personal trainer service to help you improve your mac-savviness. But, when I logged on to the site today, I was told my membership had expired. So, I called Apple. First, I got a voice activated system that told me it could understand complete sentences and then kept trying to send me to the wrong place (and, no, it wasn’t Siri). When I finally got through to a live body, they told me that I should contact the store where I bought the membership, since that’s where my membership is tied. I pointed out that that wasn’t very convenient since I bought the membership in New York and live in Florida. I didn’t see how I was going to get much personal training in without flying to NY on a regular basis.

So, I was transferred over to AppleCare, the technical service and support people that I had paid a further $249 to access. They also told me that I needed to contact the store, and went to great lengths to explain that One to One is not part of AppleCare. In the end, I spent 30 minutes being passed around to various people, none of whom were able to help me.

Everyone I spoke to over at Apple was extremely polite. At one point, I was disconnected between transfers and got a call back from the intended recipient, who was up-to-date on the issue. But, ultimately, it left me with an awful impression of Apple. The smooth interplay within their software and device ecosystem is completely missing in their internal structures and processes. None of the several people I spoke with were empowered to own my problem and help me solve it. In the end, I got the situation resolved, but it wasted a silly amount of my time for something that should or could be as easy as flipping a switch or punching in a number.

It’s easy to point fingers, of course. But, how many of your processes, policies, and systems get in your employees way and prevent them from serving your customers better? If you know the answer to that, start solving the problems! Your employees and your customers will thank you.



Are you preparing for the Collaborative Economy?

Share The RoadI spent some time last week reading about what is becoming known as the “sharing” or “collaborative” economy. Versions of the sharing economy have existed since the beginning of time — and, I remember my parents when I was a kid had an “allotment” that provided land and shared tools, etc within a larger, shared vegetable growing space. But, as Jeremiah Owyang points out there are forces at play today — societal, economic, and technological (as well as legislative) — that are accelerating, cementing, and legitimizing this phenomena by the week.
There isn’t a single sharing economy. Ownership and access models vary — and are fragmenting. For example, you can imagine a spectrum of car “sharing” that begins with leasing a vehicle, rather than owning it. Of course, you’ve been able to rent a car from Hertz or Avis forever and a day; but then along came Zipcar (recently acquired by Avis) which allowed us to rent by smaller increments of time; followed by Uber and Hailo that altered how we think about car hire; followed by lyft and getaround that allow us to share a car that someone else owns (or has rented) or to monetize our own. And, a similar spectrum exists in multiple industries.

The whole subject is intriguing, but in this new Wild West, what stood out to me is that there doesn’t appear to be too much of an emphasis on data and IP ownership. From an IP perspective, collaboration is great while I’m getting some benefit, but as soon as someone else starts to benefit more than I do off the back of my idea or work, how will I react? And, who’s liable if something goes wrong?

As it relates to data, how do I learn about the types of people that collaborate on my product or business? Who owns any data output? For example, what information does lyft or airbnb own about me and about the people that I have shared/collaborated with? Do I have access to that data? Of course, I also have data about the types of people that I have shared with, opinions on what worked and didn’t, and preferences for how I share moving forward. Is there any value to my sharing that data — either with my collaborators or any central entity that is managing the process. Unless these questions are considered and thought through, I am concerned that we’ll end up in a similar situation to the mobile market where the device manufacturers, carriers, app producers, payment players, and corporations all own disjointed elements of customer/user data without a useful and holistic customer/user understanding.

Building on the data theme, there’s also an interesting question about “trust” and portability. If I’m a respected seller on eBay, a highly rated traveler or Hailo, or a trusted guest with airbnb, how can I take that reputation and benefit from it elsewhere? In chatting with Jeremiah, he pointed to FaceBook connect (which he also pointed out doesn’t have a reputation index) and TrustCloud, which seems to have the right idea, but lacks traction. I sense the growth of the collaborative economy (and its embrace by the mainstream) will be linked tightly to the idea of trust and reputation portability — it’ll be interesting to see whether TrustCloud or some other entity emerge as the credit bureau for reputation.

Overall though, as I read about this growing phenomenon, I was intrigued by a quote in Jeremiah’s research from the CEO of about how disruption in the future may come from meeting needs in new ways. What’s cool about this is that it begins from an understanding of customer needs. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s where most companies start from today in their customer service, promotion, and even, in many cases in their development of products and services. But, if you’re not thinking in those terms today, it’s going to be even harder to pivot your business, to think about new ways to meet those needs — and it’s going to leave you wide open to disruption by smaller, more nimble competitors that have figured out what it is that customers really need, and how they can deliver it to them in new, more interesting, and more effective ways.

Smart firms are already adapting, and collaborating to offset disruption. Regus (which offers office sharing) and Zipcar recently trimmed up to offer a combined offering to customers. Are they meeting customer needs in new ways? Not necessarily, but it’s a smart defensive move in the immediate term.

How about you and your company? What are you doing to understand customer needs and how you can meet them differently? If you’re not thinking in these terms, watch out, because your competition is starting to do so. And, your competition may be some small company that you haven’t even heard of yet!



Can marketers actually learn from the NSA and NYPD?

Stop and friskLet me be really clear from the start. I don’t intend to enter into a political debate with this post. But, a thought occurred to me while reading the arguments raging in the political and public sphere lately about two unrelated Government programs — the NSA surveillance issue, and New York’s “stop and frisk” policy. I’ve been struck that ultimately both programs (and certainly the conversations surrounding them) appear to center on an idea of “targeting” — targeting which phrases to listen for; which ethnic minorities to engage; which languages to listen to; and so on.

It’s pretty analogous — albeit at a different scale and with a different desired outcome — to how marketers target customer segments. Marketers ask questions and analyze data to target customers and prospects alike: they determine who to send which message to; consider who’s likely to churn; and try to predict what products a customer is likely to buy.

And, yet the NSA issue in particular is raising public awareness and getting certain privacy oriented organizations salivating at the opportunity to curb marketer’s opportunity to leverage customer data. And, here’s where the analogy breaks down — whether you agree or disagree with these political programs, their advocates are seeking to justify them by evoking a need for a balance between privacy and security/safety. These programs, they argue, are for our own benefit. They protect us.

Even if you don’t agree with that sentiment, it is at least a meaty idea. You can picture the front cover of the Economist with privacy on one end of a see-saw and safety on the other.

But what about marketers? What do we offer in return? Better targeted stuff we’d like them to buy? More relevant ads? Unless marketers — and the companies they work for — start to demonstrate the customer value and utility that derives from using customer data, they should start to prepare for the day when they have a lot less access to it.



How often do your execs interact with your customers?

The BBC reported this weekend that Norwegian prime minster, Jens Stoltenberg worked incognito as a taxi driver one afternoon this summer, in order to hear what real Norwegian voters really think, in the belief that people share their true opinions in cabs. While admirable in theory, this seems to be as much a publicity stunt as a genuine attempt to hear from citizens. All of his exchanges were captured on a hidden camera and the footage – compiled by an ad agency – is already posted to the prime minister’s Facebook page, and has been made into a film for his re-election campaign.

But, there are plenty of other examples of company bosses getting in to the trenches to get closer to their business. My former colleagues Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine wrote about Kevin Peters, former North American president of Office Depot, wearing beat-up jeans and baseball cap in order to interact un-announced with in-store customers. I have a buddy who’s a Jet Blue pilot that often speaks about how he used to look down from the airplane and see David Neeleman – one of the airlines co-founders – loading and unloading luggage from the plane.

How much time does your executive team spend understanding what employees and customers experience?

Focusing on employee jobs helps executives see the reality of how their processes impact employees, and how those processes often get in the way of delivering a positive customer experience. Interacting with customers gives executives first hand knowledge and direct feedback of what’s working and what needs to be fixed.

And, even if getting out and interacting with customers is difficult because of the circumstances and nuances of your business, it doesn’t mean you get a pass. Spend time listening in on customer service calls, or take a leaf from Credit Suisse’s book and encourage your executive team to follow your customer’s process of intreracting with your firm. Nothing will encourage them to fix problems faster than experiencing your customer’s pain.


Engagement plus data capture? Brilliant!

Those of you that know me are probably shocked that it took this long for me to write a post that centered on Guinness. I’ve long believed that Guinness excels at marketing, but this week it introduced a brilliant concept leveraging near field communication (NFC) which will give it the opportunity to engage with customers, learn more about them, and reward them in a single swoop.

Photo by Lyn Hughes Photo

Photo by Lyn Hughes Photo

During the 119 seconds that it takes to pour the perfect pint, customers can hold their smartphones to the harp on NFC-enabled Guinness taps (or founts as they are apparently called) and discover whether they have won a complimentary drink. There are already more than 13 thousand taps installed in the UK and Ireland, with another 65 thousand to come during the next couple of years.

This is smart on so many levels:

  • It gives Guinness the opportunity to engage directly with its customers. CPG/FMCG firms have always struggled to engage with customers, since they don’t sell to them directly. Now, Guinness can engage with customers during consumption — the ultimate moment of truth — as well as capture all sorts of personal and device information;
  • It’s 100% opt-in;
  • It makes data capture an integral component of their engagement strategy. It will give Guinness data that they can apply elsewhere – for example by understanding consumption by time of day/evening, it could help guide their media buying decisions; or they might be able to determine how environmental factors (like weather) impact consumption;
  • It provides a platform to capture more information. I’d be more than happy to answer a question each time I connected if it increased my odds of getting a free pint. If Guinness asked just one question each time a customer connected, they could quickly build a phenomenally rich profile of their customers.
  • It will drive brand awareness. Just seeing people take out their phones and connect with the tap is going to encourage conversation. It’ll probably also drive sales in the immediate term based on the novelty factor alone.

I simply love this idea – and can’t wait to try it out. As the Guinness ads would say: Brilliant!



It’s time to start seeing other hotel chains

Over the past several years, I’ve been mostly a brand advocate of Starwood and somewhat of a brand assassin of American Airlines. But two recent experiences have flipped my attitudes on their head.
I travel a fair bit for work and, until recently, was Executive Platinum on American, and Platinum with Starwood. When I moved to Florida it become more difficult to fly exclusively on American, and I subsequently dropped to Gold. But, American sent a really cool letter telling me that they valued my business and loyalty and elevated my status for the year to Platinum in the hopes that I could maintain that level the subsequent year.
Starwood, on the other hand, went from confirming my Platinum status for this year on my “my account” page, to then telling me I hadn’t stayed enough times last year and dropping my status without communication in the Spring. I’ve reached out on several occasions and in various media, but just had a conversation with a rep who rudely told me that their system confirms that I didn’t have enough stays and that there was nobody else that I could discuss it with.
So, I see this as a tale of two approaches. American has figured out – in this instance at least – how to insert some empathy into it’s program and communication. But, as for Starwood, it’s time for me to start seeing other hotel chains. Even though I fly multiple airlines now, I still fly American enough to reach Gold or Platinum status each year. Likewise, I probably won’t abandon Starwood completely, but they have definitely gone from the front of my wallet to much further down in the pecking order.
What’s the key for success? Make sure empathy is an integral ingredient in your loyalty, marketing, and communication programs.


Emulsify your business

A company’s data resembles a salad bar. Just as we make or order a salad with the ingredients we want, then toss it, and add dressing, we sort of do the same with data — we pull together disparate, silo’d data into a database or data mart, perform some form of analytics or segmentation, and then apply the insights accordingly.
Oil and vinegarBut I think a more interesting place to focus is on the dressing. Most salad dressings are emulsions — a mix of two or more liquids (such as oil and vinegar) — that don’t normally mix. In order to serve customers better, we need to emulsify intelligence — bring together disparate information to generate new contextual insight. And, we need to do it in fractions of an instant. An emulsion approach would combine data about everything from devices, to people’s interests, mindset, historical behavior, current need, location, to the company’s inventory and pricing, and to other factors such as time of day or weather, to determine what action to take in relation to a customer.
 These data would be emulsified in an instant to drive decisions. And just like an ingredient such as vinegar could be used to make salad dressing or mayonnaise, the output – or decision – will depend on all of the ingredients that are blended.
And, this approach applies throughout the business. It’s not just about data. It’s an interesting way to think about many of the elements within a business that are traditionally immiscible (fancy big word I found when researching emulsions) – customer and corporate needs; marketing and IT; physical and digital; static and mobile.
Unlike making a salad dressing though, there’s no way to put the ingredients in a jar and shake vigorously to emulsify them. It will require a deliberate focus and a significant change in culture and process within most organizations. It will require systems to be architected differently. It will force us to measure differently. But, done right, it will make us more nimble, more relevant, and more effective as businesses.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, but I intend to think about it a lot more in the next few weeks – expect more posts on the topic.

How much is your loyalty program giving away?

My wife went to buy coffee yesterday morning, and instinctively picked up their “loyalty” card – a paper-based stamp system that awards a free cup of coffee after you purchase 10 others. Caffe Nero – my favorite London coffee spot – and hundreds of other small retailers offer the same thing. But few if any, take advantage of the opportunity to capture customer information. I recognize that small businesses may not be able to invest in a full scale customer intelligence or CRM system, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take the opportunity to understand their customers better.

Loyalty cards

Emily Collins‘s research on intelligence-driven loyalty is relevant for both Fortune 100 companies and small coffee shop owners. As she writes, the first component of an intelligence-driven program is ‘strategy’ — aligning a loyalty program with marketing and corporate strategies; articulating how the program supports marketing goals; and using the information gleaned to enhance customer understanding and segmentation. Giving away coffee, while gratefully received, misses the opportunity to understand and engage customers.
What could these places do short of investing in a full-scale loyalty program?
  • Ask customers to include an identifier – an email address, Facebook address, or twitter handle – so that they can understand how often the same customer redeems a free coffee;
  • Offer another free perk – the chance to win a bag of ground coffee, a mug, whatever – to encourage people to provide their real information;
  • Create an ongoing contest to see which customer drinks the most coffee – based on redeemed rewards cards – and award other prizes monthly/annually;
  • Track which perks (pun intended) seem to encourage greater participation to inform their pricing/merchandizing strategies.
Every interaction with customers is an opportunity to know them better and to serve them better. Giving stuff away without attempting to do both of these seems like setting up an entire program designed to just give stuff away.
It’s ironic that we often talk about large companies seeking the intimacy that a local coffee shop has with its customers, yet when you look at how those small firms seek to engage with customers, many of them miss the opportunity too!

What’s the next application for your intelligence?

I had a great conversation last night with the receptionist at my dentist about the not-so-new Citi Bike program in NY (yes, it’s odd that an Irishman travels from Florida to NY to see an English dentist, but I’m a big fan).

Citi Bike Station

Michael was raving about the scheme – spending $100 on it will save him $1400 annually in subway spend; he’ll get at least 30 minutes of cardio a day, and so on. As he explained the scheme, it seems to have been really cleverly-thought out. Participants can see on a website or app which ‘stations’ have available bikes (to pick up) or bays (for dropping off – and if a bay is full they give you additional time to go to another bay without charge). They can report mechanical issues and flat tires at the touch of a button when docking the bikes. And, Citi is getting phenomenal branding by being ridden all over the City, while including some clever tie-ins like discounts for Citi card holders.

Then when I went to the website, what got me really excited was a tab for “System Data“. They use an open source tool to provide simple but slick visualization of information ranging from the number of annual members that have signed up to how many miles have been ridden to date.

But, if that’s the information they’re sharing, what about the information that they have behind the curtain. The City can begin to understand which neighborhoods are greater adopters – so that they might provide additional stations – but also to examine factors that might be holding other neighborhoods back. In other words, they can use intelligence to improve the system over all.

And, because this is a New York City initiative, they can presumably use the intelligence across multiple departments:

  • when planning for bike lanes – by understanding common routes/paths;
  • to adjust police feet on the street – if there’s an especially high or unusual spike of people in a given area;
  • to prioritize road repairs – if a given neighborhood has an unusually high number of punctures or bent forks, maybe the pot holes are to blame;
  • to plan other transportation system loads – the MTA might staff up subway booths in preparation for an influx of regular cyclists if there was a big dip in normal usage on a give morning.

There are so many ways the City can use the data – but its the same in every company. It’s always worth pausing when accessing insight about your customers for one specific reason, to consider how else the intelligence can be applied. Brainstorm non-obvious uses of the intelligence that might deliver further utility and value for the customer, and hopefully further insights and revenue for the business.


Introducing “Customer Helix”

For the past six-and-a-half years, I’ve had the privilege of helping to create, build, and then run Forrester’s research team focused on customer insights. I’m passionate about how firms can understand their customers, analyze the information, and use customer knowledge to create deeper relationships, better products and services, and ultimately to deliver customer value.

Despite the advances in technologies and the plummeting cost of data storage, understanding customers has never been harder. Customers are more in control than ever of what they buy, who they buy it from, what they pay for it, and what they expect in terms of service and engagement. They can access information from anywhere – including from within our store, while on the phone with our customer care reps, and when comparing our offerings to our competitors. And, they can often get whatever you’re selling just as quickly and easily at the touch of a button.
Eiffel Tower steps
Today is my first day outside the Forrester walls and I’ve created this blog to provide an outlet to continue to think about and provide perspectives on the challenges and realities that firms face as they seek to become customer oriented. So, the obvious question is why “Customer Helix”? In layman’s terms, a Helix is a smooth line that curves or coils around an axis. I believe that companies should try to think of themselves attempting to curve around their customers – unfortunately, too many companies expect their customers to meet their approach and navigate their processes. Separately, when most people think of a helix, they probably think of double-stranded helices – most notably DNA. Without falling into creepy territory, I believe every company should be trying to understand their customer DNA in order to serve them better.
So, thanks for stopping by, and I hope to make it worth your while to visit often.

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