Saturday, October 23, 2010

On Enabling Non-Profits to Create Profitable Business


Well, my intention is not to create a paradox about "profitable non-profits," but there is always a feeling deep inside my heart that if one can actually make economic sense out of charitable/CSR activities; one should really try to achieve it as a goal, and orienting his efforts towards that front. The spark that caused such an entry entry into this blog is this very same thought I had when I visited the road-show conducted by an NGO that receives constant support and appreciation from our HR.

This NGO does a great work by supporting the cause of the girl child. They provide support in the educational needs of school going children, and also provide mid-day meal programs, etc. Recently they organized a campaign in the office premises to promote their efforts. They also set up a stall to sell some household items/decoration material, etc. Proceedings from this sale shall be directed towards one of their several programs. I am happy with the response they received from people in the office, but at the same time slightly apprehensive about the valuation system they might have used to price the goods on sale.

May be such thoughts resulted from the pricing exercises I was undertaking with the team, or the recent influence of articles from experts like McKinsey. But honestly, I didn’t like the way items were priced in the stall. Other than that the proceedings of this sale shall be spent towards a bigger cause, there wasn’t a good enough reason to buy those products. I even imagined asking the HR assistant why we can’t take a step forward and sign a contract with them to design our corporate gift items, now that we are sponsoring this organization for a few years now. We can actually take pride in ourselves for being able to support an NGO which fights for a cause. It would also add to our brand value as organization that facilitates its CSR roles and also creates us a certain comfortable reputation among clients when we gift them with items created by the lesser privileged people we support. But would the HR or Corporate Communications buy this idea? May be not.

Why? Because I find no other apparent reason to buy an unfinished gaudy-looking candle measuring a few inches for an uncomfortable price of 50Rupees. Same was the story with the bags on display that had large capacities, but handles not durable enough to carry the weight of things they are designed to contain. I left the stall with the thought “Is it impossible to design good products with an aim to support charity? Is the cost equation so elastic in a society like ours?”

I was (and still am) of the opinion that unless philanthropic efforts are able to retrieve some value of the funds they receive or put to use, economic instability will remain. Taking a second look at the stall and its offerings, I started thinking what can be done differently than just pumping more money onto such initiatives. It would be great if we could encourage this NGO to create and market products in a presentable and profitable way. I see no wrong in that if it could transfer part of such value created, to the people who actually work on it, and see to it that it enhances their life and that they are not in a position to do anything and everything (like usual businesses do) to retain a corporate sponsor or a reputed client. This notion goes very well my concept of an ideal non-profit.

Do you think it makes sense of teaching a non-profit how to create and sell products a profitable way? Do please comment.

Image courtesy: Wilson Chin

Saturday, September 18, 2010

SST - The Expandable Indian Business Model for Sustainable Business

It has been here since time immemorial. It was part of our thought process and cultural values. To us it is the way we perceive things as consumers. If we can take forward this concept to better heights as a process of continuous improvement, there is no looking back. I am talking about three beautiful words that mean the way an Indian consumer defines his needs precisely -- Sasta, Sundar, Tikaoo -- meaning cheaper (cost-effective), beautiful (presentable) and reliable (value added). In the days where vernacular terms like "Jugaad" (meaning make-shift arrangement) gets active references from mentionable places such as Harvard, I feel SST also merits equal (if not more) attention.
Sasta – Cost Effective
This is one reason that keeps India a preferred outsourcing location: our products/services are cheaper at cost. In the era of biggies like US threatening to pull the plug on perpetual outsourcing efforts, Sasta is the most preferred way to contain business risks. Many times there is no valid reason why we charge a premium to over products or services if we can extend the assembly-line process to include value-for money components that share our business value.
Sundar – Presentable
That you are marketing a cheaper solution is not a valid reason to hard-sell products of unacceptable look and feel. This applies not only for the hardware (electronics, communication items, fabrics), but also for the software and services. Organizations need to put emphasis not to make their products look cheap and visually repelling. The quality of material used in manufacturing, the design process, all have to keep up with a certain acceptable standards.
Tikaoo - Reliable
Not just in India but customers around the world prefer a reliable product than just something else that serves the purpose. Organizations should emphasize on providing lasting solutions to customers, and at the same time encourage them to provide feedback about what more would they like to see in any given product line. This would help the product define and expand its target audience, and at the same time establish itself as a reliable brand before its target market. This is conventional wisdom for the Indian customer and the Indian way of running business. This is something we all know as customers. However the story does not end with this. SST should not be considered an end by itself but a reliable tool for continuous improvement, instead.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On (Mis-) Communication and Games

The recent HBR blog entry by Peter Bregman caught my attention today. A little different from the typical entries I come across; Peter’s way of narration is interesting.

The blog post has a nicely narrated, simple message. I remember a similar situation I was in a few days ago with a close friend of mine who lives and works in South America. It was the World Cup season, and like all true South Americans she was also quite excited about the matches. I should admit that I'm not a very big fan of football or cricket (the most popular sport here in India), though I don't mind watching the World Cups. I cheered for Brazil (I really wished they'd win. I simply like the way they play the game, just that) while my friend cheered for Argentina. No matter who won or lost, we always ended up saying "may soccer win." Such was the spirit.

So when one day suddenly Brazil was kicked out of the tournament by aggressive rivals, I felt wounded though I am not such a passionate footballer. In a way for me, this was the end of FIFA World Cup 2010. While talking after the game, I said "This season is over for me. I see no reason why I should continue watching the World Cup." I wasn't sure that my response would make her feel bad. Though she doesn't like Brazil very much, she cheered with me (May great soccer always win!) and can't stand that I feel down because my favourite team lost the tournament. Little did I realise that a simple comment from me could hurt so much. After apologizing and setting the path straight, I decided to sit back and cheer for Argentina in the following days to support my friend and keep her spirits high. Argentina too couldn't make it, so we happily ended up in the same boat. May great soccer always win.

As Peter puts it vividly, it is significant to be clear of and to communicate well on what's in one's mind. The severity of the situation is inversely proportional to the distance between the people in conversation. So I make it a point to mention clearly in cases where I differ in opinion, and also suggest alternative options. This concept is equally significant in managing teams especially so, when the leader and the teams are in different locations. When I was reading Peter's recent post, I missed the key words "at least" in the first run. Later when Peter went on explaining about it, I felt the gravity of the situation. These are words that most of us miss. In Peter’s case these two words contained the entire message. If the team requests or demands attention, hold back your temptation to react and reflect on the root cause. Also ask the team what's going on. Clarify the picture before you jump into a conclusion.

Luckily for me, this year's Wimbledon was quite in between the World Cup matches. I admit I am passionate about tennis, and head-over heels when it comes to Wimbledon. I feel so happy that this year I taught my friend a little about tennis, and she seems quite interested.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

On good bosses

Today morning I was reading the follow-up to "12 Things Good Bosses Believe" by Robert Sutton in HBR blogs. He points out how big bosses not just keep their "big hairy audacious goals (BHAGs)" known to everyone in the team, but also break them down to objectives for daily activities that gradually aggregate to reach the organizational goal. While I was reading his blog, a recent commercial by a low-cost airline flashed in my mind.

This commercial was about the airline providing its services on time and thereby aiming to do wonders. I felt amused at first. I still think if I'm the only one who didn't have a good experience with this company. Most if not all the flights I had with this particular airline was late, though only one did keep me waiting too much. However my focus right now is on this particular commercial on air and not their commitment to deliver their promises. I found this commercial really interesting, not as a television campaign explaining bored housewives how the airline is helping India become a developed economy tomorrow, but rather as an internal motivation tool for the airline's employees on how they can actually make this transformation happen.

This typical 15 second commercial has the listed all key elements that require the airline to deliver its services on time. This campaign would be designed by a team with a good boss, I'm sure. Also if the airline enhances its internal processes with the same spirit imbibed in this campaign, there is hardly any stopping them. However, what I'm not sure is how much emphasis the airline has on delivering "on time" services: whether it is a strategic objective for the next few years, or a mission statement that draws its roots on the everyday aspects of the carrier at large.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Your Website Is a Marketing Tool: Design It Positive

Recent visits to several web sites - that of customers, prospects, vendors, and the like - made me rethink the reason why companies need to have a web-presence. During the DotCom boom of the 90's it was a popular fad among companies to have an "online presence of our own." Having a web site is considered indispensable even today. However how many of us make sure that our website attracts, engages and retains traffic that is key to our businesses? I'm not sure. Here are a few steps I feel could add value to your business as a practical marketing tool.

Identify your visitor

The key question here is "who is your visitor?" Is she a customer (valid mostly for portals and B2C businesses) or a partner? (valid for B2B businesses). A more convenient way is to define why someone would visit your business website. It could be an old customer catching up for updates, or a fresh prospect interested in a partnership to support your newly created business vertical. All these visitors have well defined purposes for their visits, and your site should be able to provide concise and updated information about your business to address these needs. On the other hand, the customer of a B2C business may just be interested in your company's history, or just curious to know what are your upcoming products or even may be looking to your offices are located in her city, in case they need to contact you.

It would be advisable to monitor the number of clicks you get in a particular time period, say a week or a month in order to have an idea of how frequent do you get visits.

Create an experience

Have a flashy website running on the latest technology or most updated browser? Chances are that your customer may not be able to see information that you want to detail for them. I keep a fairly updated version of my browser, armed with the supporting technologies (JRE or Flash player plug-in). Even then I get messages (though not frequently) asking me to install a higher version of Java or a different version of .Net or Flash when I visit some web sites. My limited user rights in the office computer don’t let me download and install a latest version of Java, and I don't have the time/patience/convenience to wait till evening when the IT guy comes and does it for me. So the message is straight: keep it simple, not limited to specified browser(s), and easy to use. Make it visually appealing by providing simple but eye-catching images, readable fonts, and a comprehensive narration of text.

Provide your visitors some memorabilia

People like it when they get something freely downloadable. It may be wallpaper, a desktop calendar or an international time clock, a screen saver, anything. This could serve as an advertising tool that people actually like downloading and watching. And yes, if you are a B2B organization that provides professional software and you intend to provide a sample or a demo version, please provide a good one: something that is hassle-free for the end user. If you invest in your website to attract visitors, it is also possible that you can engage your visitors (ideal for B2C businesses) with online thematic games. This would add to the user's knowledge of the theme, may it be a technology platform or even your specific range of products.

Ask them to come back/contact

Encourage users to contact you or come back to you. Ask for their feedback, what they think of the website, and what they like to see in the next range of products of your company. Assure (and equally make sure as well) that the information they share with you shall be kept confident, and shall not be used against them (as in cold calling). Unhide your face from your partners and customers. Give a physical address, a valid phone number and email which someone responsible actually reads and responds as the case is. I personally don't feel interested in a company that hides itself behind a web form, asking me to provide my details, and what I'd like to know with a comment saying "we will get back to you." In more than 50% cases, no one got back to me, and in fact I have observed a significant increase in the spam emails, text messages (this is a happening trend in India, believe me!) or maybe even hard-selling calls from unrelated companies. Make sure this doesn't happen to your customers.

And in case someone comes back, do respond to their queries, and do it soon! Respect the time and privacy of the customer and chances are high that they value your brand. Make sure you do this even in cases you feel that they may not do business with you soon.

Repeat the cycle

If all the above happens in a positive note, there is reason to cheer: it is proof that you have expanded your brand visibility. The next step is to maintain the tempo of interaction and keep gaining more value-added customers. The key is to maintain this value you've earned and make sure that you return the same value to the customer. Repeat this process with a narrower focus, since you know more about the ones to come back to you. They truly care for your brand, and they are the market you were looking to serve.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Crime of Wrongly Prevention


I have heard that the pen is mightier than the sword. I never knew that shares are mightier than missiles. If you can open the URL mentioned above, you’ll understand exactly what I’m saying.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The emerging importance of national economics as the least common denominator of social development

Uproar in the parliament over reservations, and recently over the inclusion of caste as a category of population classification of population, beyond religion, region and economic status. Add to it an ailing national air carrier, a puzzled government unable to identify what’s lacking in its dreams of taking the nation to the next level, and the easiest and most popular answer of “we are like this only.” All this while millions of people in this vibrant country setting goals and standards for themselves and striving hard to deliver on their promises to take us to the next level. Mine is just a little effort to connect the dots: a tiny step to remind ourselves that something can be done. Something that is uncomfortable, yet supportive in moving to the next level. We need to focus on national economics as the basic common denominator in our journey to social development. Here are some possible steps:

  • Caste-based reservations should go

Decades ago, while the founding fathers of this great nation recognized the need of social development of the underprivileged citizens, little have they thought that reservations/quotas could be a weapon of choice for politicians in their hunger for power. Since the main purpose it seeks is to uplift a downtrodden community to invite its contribution to the nation building process. And such a support need not be there forever. Instead, it should be a one-time process providing the individual/family an opportunity to grow, and reach a position from where he/she/they can take it forward themselves. There should also be a mechanism in place to monitor the benefit of this reservation provided to this individual/family and the way he/she/they have grown economically.

  • Mechanism to measure productivity of governmental/public sector workforce needs to be implemented

Each government employee should have a set of tangible goals/targets that is measurable in terms of the value added to the departmental/divisional/PSU-level goals set by the government, as usually done in the promises inside the Parliament. At least the annual increments and bonuses of these employees need to be made proportionate to the employee’s achievement of these goals.

  • Government needs to continue implementing its austerity measures

Any action from the government’s side on minimizing expenses for unimportant issues, are welcome. Please continue doing that.

  • Scrap “sports quotas” before they infect sportsmanship

Let’s start separating government departments from sportsmen. It is important that the government should support sportsmen and athletes. But let this be undertaken through authorities like the Indian Olympic Association or the Sports Authority of India, or any such organization specifically designed to undertake developmental activities in sports and athletics. It is always better to grow sportsmen independently. But for the government departments, it is important to stick to their mission statements (if they have such statements) and not spend on sports quotas, especially if the department/PSU is not in good economic health.

Simple, but strong solid steps can guide India towards economic development and fulfill the dream of becoming a developed nation.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Creativity and the Buffalo: Customizing Social Media Presence for Organizational Benefits

While having a casual conversation the other day, my friend was upset to tell me that instant messaging (IM) services over the Web is going to be blocked in her office. My friend, a senior editor at a leading newspaper used IM services to communicate with her team of journalists working across the nation. With the Presidential elections in Bolivia round the corner she was doing double-shifts and coping up with the live coverage of campaigns, practically trying to square the circle. Add to this the dilemma of losing the connectivity with ground staff members who report her with the latest updates. And during our conversation she asked me if I have an argument supporting the use of IMs in office, as part of official communications. Well, I definitely have a few. And this post is not just about making the productive use of IMs and innovative means of marketing communications, but also about using social media as one of the most powerful tools of corporate business development and brand value addition.

The Corporate Blog as a Newsletter

The other day our team was having an internal discussion about reinstating an extinct practice of sending custom-made newsletters dedicated to our business vertical, and it became almost decided that we restart this practice the old level of enthusiasm and vigor. But ultimately who will bell the cat? So it went cold again. For companies who have a dedicated marketing communications division up and running, and are interested to adding value to the organization on a practical standpoint, this practice can add value.

Any company with an efficient Corporate Communications division can create and maintain a corporate blog. Instead of a PDF newsletter that only a few people actually read, organizations can encourage customers/vendors and partners to make use of the blog to keep them updated and help them improve their products/services/support, etc. Web 2.0 promotes the use of increased human interaction on all issues, thereby helping organizations send and receive feedback from their customers/partners.

Chirps and Tweets from the C-Suite

Employees across the organization would really like to know what their leaders are thinking. About areas of immediate attention, about long-term growth, about expansion, about, well...anything. A 140-character tweet from the CEO once in a while can keep the ball rolling by sharing ideas, sending/receiving feedback etc. Organizations that adapt to such models find increased responses from employees due to the empowered feeling they have when they receive a direct message from the CEO.

IMs As an Effective Communication Tool

Several of my clients in the Asia-Pacific region mention their MSN user names or Skype identities as part of their signature in official emails. It has been a great help to me when I used to communicate with clients from home. It saves hefty international calling charges while allowing me to peacefully explain the situation to clients, especially in cases where there is a technical feedback or a mismatch in delivery deadlines, etc. It also lets me empower my customers by updating them in advance before an event (such as a critical delivery) occurs. IMs have also helped me communicate with my team members while one of us is working from home or traveling abroad.

Official Fan Pages in a Social Network

Presence of a discussion group or a fan page in the name of an organization would help enhance its visibility across the worldwide web. Organizations that serve individual customers directly (B2C model) can let customers interact with the company and provide their support. There are customers who take pride in being your customer. Identify them, and invite them to participate in such forums. Also that is the place where you actually measure how much well ranked your organization is in the "Best Employer" or the "Best Service Provider" category.

My friend is contended now that her hard work paid off, and the organization has chosen to retain one common standard IM service as an official provider (nothing official about it), to bring in uniformity across the board. Recently, a marketing Guru asked me how connected my organizational leaders are through social networks. I hesitated a little before mentioning that social networks are blocked across the organization here. "What!!?" came the prompt reply. "Which century are you living in?". Well, I have to ask the organization's 007s about this.