Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Between Commitments and Fulfillments


About 3 years ago representatives from a climate change activist organization visited our office and added to our knowledge and understanding of global warming, and what steps they take to prevent governments and corporations from making decisions that harm the environment. Having had an opportunity to interact with the representatives and the list of their green achievements, several people including myself registered with them and rendered our support. I have been receiving their newsletters and specific campaigning requests from them from time to time. Emotionally charged after watching films like "Battle in Seattle," I too felt good that I a supporting a good cause.

Recently one of their campaigns was directed towards a particular wireless telecom operator asking them to use alternate fuel to support the operation of their mobile towers. I have been working closely with wireless network firms in both domestic and international markets since quite some time, I personally felt (I still do) that asking only one operator to switch their mode of power supply while there are several others of similar size, reach, customer base and profitability. Instead of simply signing up the campaign I wrote a reply to my friend who forwarded the mail to me, asking for an opinion and details. Not being convinced (still) about the logical reason for that particular campaign, I did not make my contribution.

Before I promise my support for their future campaigns, I started searching for logic in the way they choose and target their campaigns. Sadly, I did not find any campaigns in this organization's website that is targeted towards me - the end user - to change the way I consume energy, or methods/ideas that can help me save my dependency on fossil fuels. From then on, I started ignoring their campaigns. The purpose of this story was not to point out the incompetency of a particular organization, but to highlight the power of the individual user/customer to choose products and services that reduce our carbon footprint.

Change needs to happen in the way we (individuals) look at products/services/habits. If I choose to buy/use a certain product over a conventional one, which would help me reduce my carbon footprint, any provider would be happy to stock that particular product/brand so long as I keep buying it from him.  Imagine how positive the impact would be if each one of us start choosing eco-friendly products! Doesn't it make sense to us if we start changing our own consumption patterns (and thereby driving the market to transition) instead of campaigning against some service provider to change their products? I found logic in changing myself for good and influencing my service providers to change because I have.

Therefore, instead of bullying organizations or governments to enforce/transform their products/services/policies, we the individual can change the way we buy/consume/operate products or services. In market driven economies this could change consumption patterns of people at large forcing organizations to expand/transform their offerings. Since the change is driven by the customer, organizations would be happy to adopt, no matter even if the Durban talks failed to develop a measurable framework for reducing emissions.

More on Greenomics to follow.

Image courtesy: healthyhug.com

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Problem With Yahoo

This is in continuum to my previous post on Yahoo and how it can enhance the customer experience.

Over a period of time, I have observed that most of my old contacts do not use their Yahoo IDs anymore. They are connected to me either through a social network or with a different email ID such as Gmail or Hotmail/Windows Live, etc. However, as a user who maintains the nostalgia of using Yahoo, and feeling that Yahoo is sitting on a goldmine of valuable services, which if implemented well, can improve the user experience much more and help the old users come back. On a personal note, I would like to see the following implemented.

Integration of Babelfish's capabilities into the Messenger 

Right from my earlier days of using Yahoo Messenger, I have been in constant interaction with people across the globe from all walks of life. Call it the initial curiosity to interact with people and involve in a cultural exchange, it was interesting for me as well as for several people of my generation. Most people with whom I had exchange of ideas spoke in different languages, belonged to different cultures and lived in different time zones, yet the experience I had was wonderful. 

Thus it was good news for many users like me when we came to know of Yahoo's acquisition of AltaVista's Babelfish. Little has changed since then except for the logo. Babelfish continues to be my choice for several translations, simply for the reason that it translates web pages in a better way than Google does. Multilingual communicators like me would have benefited lots if Yahoo! could integrate the services of Babelfish enabling users of multiple languages to interact via instant messages. None of the other instant messengers that I have used (including Google Talk) has this provision. 

Imply a customizable html version of email like Gmail has done
During the internet rush hours of the evening, opening emails at home is a time consuming task. However, Google's G-Mail identifies the speed of the internet and asks me if I would like to switch to the low-bandwidth version of the mail for quicker access. I went for it, and am quite happy doing so since I can access my mails without hassles. Even on the advanced version, G-mail gives users the option of switching to the low-bandwidth version, and even making the low-bandwidth version as a default view. I really wish Yahoo! could also do the same. 

Automate synchronization of contacts between email and Messenger 

The Yahoo messenger user name operates independent of the Yahoo! email. This makes the process of sending emails to my Messenger contacts, simply because their email addresses do not get updated to the list of contacts in my Yahoo mail.

To add to the complication, Yahoo provides a lot of localized emails to people in different countries. For example users in India can have emails with "yahoo.com" or "yahoo.co.in" or even simpler "yahoo.in" suffixes. Thus users in Philippines can have either a ".com" ID or a ".com.ph" ID. This is similar with users in Brazil (.com or .com.br) or Morocco (.com or .fr) and so on. Wouldn't it be really helpful if I just open my email and start writing to my friend in Brazil without worrying if the email address ends with a ".com" or a ".br"? Yahoo knows well. 

Yahoo's recent efforts make it possible for users to integrate their Yahoo accounts with Facebook accounts. Though this is a welcome move, I feel that if Yahoo could implement some simple but solid steps one at a time to improve user experience, and make it known to public using its Facebook page, a lot of users would be interested to come back.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What Happened to Yahoo!?

Carol Bartz, Yahoo’s erstwhile CEO once famously commented that Yahoo is much more than just a white web page with a box on the top (ominous reference to Google). In the long run it is the same white page with the box that scored more and won the trust of users at large. Neither Yahoo, nor Ms. Bartz could match the services of Google.

The question I have is slightly different from the one that people openly ask nowadays. I ask myself “what happened to Yahoo!?” – The Yahoo I knew has always evoked a sense of nostalgia in me, and many other web users who created their first emails (Yahoo mail) or had their first crush with a stranger (Messenger) using their services. This question first came up in mind when I read Jerry’s announcement about stepping down as CEO, and it popped again when read about Carol’s ouster .

Many web users like me have created their first email IDs and experienced the wonderful experience of instant messaging using services of this great brand. Those were the mid 90’s when half the world wasn’t aware of the now popular concept of social networking. Yet, we used the Yahoo! Messenger and have created, shared and learned to use smileys [ J] and abbreviations (BRB, OMG!, etc.) also which became integral part of our daily communications. No other messenger was as popular or as user friendly as Yahoo Messenger those days. Yet Yahoo! failed to capitalize on its popularity and design its own evolution along with the history of the Internet.

Though I do not want to compare Yahoo with other services, I would like to make some comments in the following posts, on what Yahoo could have done to better the experience of its users.

What is your experience with Yahoo!? What changes would you like to see to their services?
Do please mark your comments below.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Problems With Customer-Service Systems


Sometimes it is better not to upgrade services that you regularly receive and are happy about. A couple of months ago I received a text message from my bank asking me if I would like to have an upgraded debit card. Since my existing card was a nameless one with a long time ahead before its validity ends, I thought it would be a good idea to have an upgraded one with my name on it; and I chose to respond. The new card was a good one, no doubt: Longer validity and lots of benefits and features associated with it. I was happy that the bank is actually honoring my long standing association with them, till I tried to undertake internet banking with the new card.

So here is the procedure: The bank gives you a login ID for internet banking (I prefer using this mode of payment than using the card directly) and the user logs in to the system and undertakes the transaction. After the user enters the transaction password, the website asks the user to provide some details from the card. The user furnishes the details, the bank verifies it and the transaction is complete. In case an incorrect user name or password is entered for a specific number of times, the user ID gets locked and the user needs to contact the customer care to get it re-activated. You know the drill.

When trying to book a travel ticket, the payment site forwarded me to the bank website where I am supposed to login with my details. I found that the website wasn’t accepting my password, and ultimately my transaction ID got blocked. I knew the drill here too. I called up the customer care and followed the IVR instructions announced on phone, and finally reached a point where I need to enter some information from my card to authentication. To my surprise, despite repeated careful attempts to enter the correct details, the system did not accept my details. Finally giving up on me, the system transferred my call to a customer care executive.

 The executive was quite polite listening patiently to my description of the problem. I know the drill here too. The executive explains the standard procedure and moves the user back to the mechanical IVR menu with a beautiful voice. User follows instructions and furnishes details from the card number and the login ID gets reactivated. Except that in my case it doesn’t accept the details. The call gets automatically forwarded to another executive. Here I explain the whole story to the clueless executive and mention that I had entered the right details. Ultimately as a last hope I spell out the details, letter by letter. He agrees “That’s right, sir. The values you have entered are the correct values as per the system.” Then why is it not accepting the data I enter?

Here I try to explain the executive the possible flaw in the system: man vs. machine. This incident came to mind while I was reading  a similar story this morning from MIT professor and Harvard blogger Robert Plant. My bank’s system too is designed by some team that comprises of human beings like me. It appears that though the bank has started sending away cards with longer lifetimes, the system wasn’t updated to accept cards with validity periods later than 2020 and hence it kept on rejecting the 2021 validity year of my card.

When we design systems in order to ensure smooth handling of customers, we also need to make remind ourselves that the customer is also a human being like us and won’t probably be happy doing things that we ourselves don’t.

Image courtesy: e-commercefacts.com

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thinking Beyond Lok Pal


On the 15 of August 2011, the Prime Minister was addressing the nation from the Red Fort as is the tradition during the Independence Day celebrations. As usual the PM addressed several issues that are of concern to the nation while also highlighting the measures his government has already taken or are planning to take and spelled out some figures to indicate the results. The fear of public support and popularity for activists like Anna Hazare who has announced indefinite fast to make the Lok Pal, the much hyped Anti-Corruption Authority more powerful, was also pronounced in this year’s Independence Day speech.

 While I agree with the PM in his statement that the government does not have a “magic wand” that can make all corruption vanish in a moment, I also feel that there should be some measures to check not just corruption, but the implementation of various schemes initiated by the government. I would like to take up issues one by one and gradually suggest fundamental changes in the way we look at governance, in a series of entries under the section “On Governance.”

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Gone With the Herd: A Word About "Followers"

I received this question in a social network from a distant friend of mine. I posted my answer to this question in the same network along with others. I thought it would be good to share with my reader friends as well:

Is having 1 million fans the only way to measure social media campaigns? What do you think is the ideal mix to measure any social media campaigns across platforms?

Crossing the mark of 1 million fans in a social media platform is a moment of elation for any campaign manager. It may be having a million “followers” in Twitter, or securing a million “likes” in Facebook or may even be having a million registered users commenting on the organizational blog.

For any given brand, this is a delightful number. But before declaring this result as a successful marketing effort, marketing managers should measure the efficacy of the crowd following the brand:  Not everyone in this fan list is a customer, or would like to be one. In other words there are numerous reasons why people click on a “follow” or a “like” button in your fan page or profile. Broadly there are four classes of fans in social media for an organization:

(a)    Customers who care about the brand and are fans in social media
The ideal customer each brand dies to have. Brands may have lots of loyal customers, but it is not necessary that they all become your fans in social media. Cherish the ones who follow you. Ask their opinions and encourage communication with them about what they like would to see changed in the product/service/concept, and build on it.

(b)   Customers who don’t care about the brand but are fans in social media
How many of us follow our favorite brand of coffee (not the coffee chain, but the domestic coffee powder brand) in social media? Or how many of us even know that they actually do have a social media page? A few considered customers, that’s all. But does it mean that I am not a loyal customer to my favorite brand of coffee? Definitely not. There are thousands of little brands that add value to my daily life, and I am happy with their product/service/concept. I even refer a few of them to friends. But in social media? I don’t think I would be an active fan.

(c)    Non-customers who care about the brand but are fans in social media
Usually the rich and the famous companies/groups have such fans. Not everyone can afford a Ferrari or a Mercedes. But these are popular brands everyone has heard/known about. But they would have a lot of fans in any social media page. People feel good to be seen associated with such big brands.

(d)   Non customers who don’t care about the brand but still are fans in social media
This is the bottom of the pit. Someone introduced you to a particular brand, and you signed up to their fan page. Now you lost in touch with that someone, but still receive email updates about the brand. Or it could be that you found a near-to-impossible offer from a big brand asking you to sign up in the next 24 hours and get unbelievable discounts. You signed up and got your product. But nothing happened after that.

These four categories appear similar to the four columns in a traditional SWOT analysis sheet. When it comes to social space a brand has to engage followers from all four classes in order to ensure that the popularity and visibility of the brand continues to be intact.

Additionally the organization should set up measures to examine how many of these social media followers/fans/likers are actually turning into customers, providing feedbacks on the products/services/offers they receive and cooperate with the organization’s effort to improve the visibility and acceptance of the brand. In short, the organization needs to calculate the growth of people in “Category A,” the list of customers who care for the brand and cooperate in the organization’s effort to improve its brand value. Any improvement in this category directly means that the social media efforts of the organization are moving in the right direction.

Image Courtesy: thecreativepenn.com.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Day at the Parcel Office


“I can’t take you in. Actually rickshaws aren’t permitted inside,” cried the driver of the tricycle that was carrying me and the tightly tied up cardboard box to New Delhi Railway station’s Parcel Booking Office. It was my sister’s idea to book the biggest package separately as a parcel on the same train that she is travelling on. I found it ironical that a parcel office doesn’t have carriage trolleys for people to push their packages to the building from the gate, and vehicles (like the tricycle that I hired) aren’t permitted to enter the campus. How am I supposed to present a 35-kilo heavy cardboard box from the office gate to the booking centre a 100 metres away? Surprising.

My brother-in law came to my rescue and together we lifted the box to the booking centre, surpassing the calls of middlemen/agents/touts that swarm every government (especially the Railways) office. Three Hours, two middlemen and numerous babus (clerks) later, the work is done and we all go home. So what’s about the situation? Everything.

India is a populous country, and most of us at some point of our lives board the train to travel long distances. Since we have a large migrant population (within ourselves, living in states/cities outside our natural places of birth or residence) using the services of Indian Railways, the market size is enormous. Add to it the culture of carrying a heap of baggage around, I should say the Indian Railways are sitting on a goldmine of potential business if handled properly. Through numerous Railway Budgets, we see how many new trains are on the go, how expensive the on-bard beverages and food is going to be, etc. But the average customer is not aware about any government effort to make the parcel van services being more supportive or user-friendly.  I would be happier to send my luggage through parcel booking services during my train travels if the government shall assure the following:

(a)    User-friendly office premises and staff

I don’t want to manually lift up a 45-kilo box and walk a 100 meters to get it booked. Also I prefer talking to one or two clerks who actually knows something about the parcels and the possible trains. (They need to have some basic geographic knowledge since they are working with the national carrier.)

(b)   A genuine online booking/tracking facility

The present website for Indian Railways parcel tracking just mentioned the whereabouts of the booking. It didn’t mention which route the packet follows, which day the packet is loaded on the train, and which station did it finally reach.

(c)    A prompt complaint/grievance redressal and enquiry counter

When my sister complained that her package didn’t reach the destination I had to go to the parcel booking office again, to make sure if the package is still left behind in New Delhi railway station unattended.  I had to talk to seven different people to get the assurance that my package has already been sent. I wondered if they have any proper enquiry counter (just like it works with a bank it a telecom office) where you walk in provide the details, and the official confirms the delivery with the necessary inputs.

To my big relief, my sister called up to confirm that the luggage was indeed delivered at the station (it was 4 grueling days late), and that she is finally happy. I wish such an unpleasant situation doesn’t happen in other people’s lives.
Image courtesy : Bloggers.com