Tag Archives: business process

Service – the Quick Way to Kill a Brand

I took my car for a service this morning – an experience that once again underscored just how easy it is to chase customers away and kill your brand.

Some background – I currently live in Dubai in the UAE, where the climate and conditions are not particularly vehicle-friendly, so that 4 wheel-drive vehicles such as mine need to be serviced every 5000 kilometres (3000 miles). Because the car is still under warranty this necessitates taking it to the dealership from where I bought it.

This particular vehicle, a Mitsubishi Pajero (also known as a Shogun in some markets) is extremely popular in the UAE – providing a well laid-out, spacious interior, good quality and reliability which is what one needs, especially when the temperature outside is somewhere over 45C. We greatly enjoy the vehicle. What I don’t enjoy is the regular service experience – and come the end of the lease period, I’d switch brands for this reason alone.

And this in a market where new car sales were some 82.5% down last year against 2008 according to ArabianBusiness.com. So you think the dealerships would be delivering exceptional service to maximise what few sales there are. Yet the Mitsubishi agents here seem to be oblivious to this simple approach, as today showed.

Yet, a pre-booked service that should take 30 minutes and be done while you wait, means being without a car for 11 hours – I take that car in at 7:30am and can only pick it up again around 6:30pm in spite of asking for it earlier (bigger services take 2-3 days with these people)!

What amazes me is that they seem to live in perpetual chaos. You book vehicles in advance, turn up at the specified time/day and they still seem to be unable to do the job quickly and painlessly because they’ve always got an unexpectedly full workshop. This sort of approach is, incidentally, quite commonplace here – service lets so many brands down (I have another still-unresolved issue with Bose).

What companies really have to recognise is that the after-sales service experience is one of the quickest ways to kill a brand. Customers are not – or should not – be a one-transaction experience. Lifetime value is what  companies need to focus on, as that’s where the real profits lie – repeat customers that become brand advocates. When are they going to understand this simple concept?

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The End of Cash?

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It’s interesting to see the number of recently introduced products coming to market which are designed to, in effect, remove the need for cash.

One that has garnered particular attention recently is, of course, Square. This comprises a small application that resides on your iPhone (or iPad, iPod Touch) or Android phone, together with a little reader that plugs straight into the audio input jack of the phone and turns it into a personal credit card payment machine that will allow the user to accept credit card payments from anyone for a small fee (typically 2.75% + 15c). With no costs for set-up, application or card reader this is sure to change the game for those tens of millions of small businesses, traders and professionals that have, until now, fallen outside the electronic payment net because they are too small for the card companies to serve cost-effectively.

But Square is not alone – Obopay allows anyone with a  mobile phone to set up an Obopay account and, for just 25-50c (plus 1.5% if you’re using a credit card to fund your account) send money – in other words, make a payment – to anyone else with a mobile phone, whether or not that person already has an Obopay account. Again, there are no setup costs.

And then there’s Intuit with its GoPayment service that also enables credit card payments from a mobile phone – this time with a Bluetooth reader – at a cost of 1.7% + 30c per transaction, although this service does have a monthly service cost of $12.95 attached to it (I wonder for how long, though, given the competition above).

Doubtless there are many others, too, either in stealth mode at present or on the drawing board.

What’s more, these systems allow you to build purchase histories by customers, offer loyalty programs and great levels of service more simply than the straightforward cash systems did – so even the smallest businesses can step up their marketing at little or no cost.

At present, all these products only work for you if you’re a US-resident/business, but it’s only a (hopefully short) matter of time before they go global and the way of transferring value changes forever from cash to electrons. No more looking for change, worrying about how the currency in a new country you’re visiting works, being concerned whether anybody’s watching as you withdraw a large amount of cash from an auto-teller…. And, of course, if you’re a small business, no more concerns about having the right change for those large notes that auto-tellers like to give, about the value sitting in your till, or being worried when taking your cash to deposit it.

It’s going to be interesting to see how society changes over the next generation as we move from cash altogether. Will the nationalistic bonds to a currency (and the resulting issues of payments from/to different countries and with travel) be removed, and could we find a common global currency?

And, of course, we’re seeing the continued drive for the mobile phone to be less a telephone and more a personal digital assistant in every way – clock, alarm, calendar, address book, diary, music player, radio, newspaper, camera, voice recorder and now, wallet. As an aside, it’s interesting to see how many of the Generation Ys don’t wear watches – their phones tell them the time. Has the watch industry got an answer to this, its potentially biggest threat?

We’re at a very interesting point in the 5000 year evolution of money as we know it. Will it disappear completely as a physical object in the next 20 years?

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Does “The Cloud” Make Sense for Business?

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The interest in Cloud Computing has grown exponentially in the past few months with a quick Google search on “The Cloud” and on “Cloud Computing” yielding over 25 million articles between the two phrases.

Suddenly, it seems, this is the panacea for all that ails in the technology space – or is it?

There is certainly a good deal of ongoing investment in giant data farms – although the cost of power required to run, and cool, these massive installations is now causing serious concern. I’ve seen estimates of up to 100MW for a giant server farm under development, with 50MW farms apparently not being unusual. Consequently we’re seeing imaginative schemes to overcome this in advanced stages of investigation – ranging from hydroelectric schemes in particularly cold countries with good water, like Iceland and Finland, to Scottish tidal power, to some companies even investigating building sea-platforms that use wave energy for power and sea water for cooling.

However, there is equally a slow but steady increase in governments wanting to monitor data traffic – apparently for security reasons, although I suspect there may be oversight by the fiscal authorities, too. Even Australia is talking about Internet filtering…

All of this is adding greatly to the conversation, of course, with equally strong lobbies on both sides of the debate – much around whether Cloud Computing is taking us back to the old “mainframe and dumb terminal” computing days or whether it’s taking us forward to an more secure, cost-effective era, albeit with the possibility of less flexibility with systems and information.

In my view, though, the issue of whether to adopt a Cloud architecture or not comes down to individual companies and applications – and for the purposes of this discussion, I mean a public Cloud architecture, rather than one owned by the end-user company.

To my mind, the companies that should strongly look at this approach are the SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises). The reasons here are straightforward economics – few will have the staff or the capital resources to have a fully secure IT infrastructure, complete with Disaster Recovery. This means multiple servers in multiple locations, interconnected by very high speed links and a significant IT team managing it all, with a strong security system. By adopting Cloud architecture for most applications – including that most critical one of all for most businesses, email – the issues of security, availability, backup and full disaster recovery are outsourced to the experts and the SME gets on with running its business. That’s not to say you dispense with PCs – they will still have a strong place in many areas, from detailed individual analysis of data to creative writing, design, etc.

For large corporates, though, the issue is different. They have large IT teams. They have multiple locations, many servers and, generally, already have high-speed connections between them all. Therefore, ensuring adequate levels of security and availability while having a proper backup regimen and a full set of disaster recovery plans for each location, should be routine and already in place. For these organisations, Cloud Computing makes little sense – except, perhaps, for some specialist applications that are not available in another form.

And, of course, if all the world’s large corporates had all their corporate systems in a few locations, what a tempting terrorist target that would make – SPECTRE, of James Bond fame, would seem tame by comparison with the havoc that could be wrought in such a scenario.

So, to answer the question about whether “The Cloud” makes sense for business, my view is that for most SMEs, certainly. For large corporates, probably not. What do you think?

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Customer Loyalty – is there a Right Kind?

Your Customer's Emotional Experience
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We talk a good deal about customer loyalty nowadays, but do we really understand it and know how to gain it?

The “1 to 1” gurus, Peppers & Rogers, define three sorts of Customer Loyalty:

  • Emotional Loyalty – this is about how customers feel about your brand;
  • Behavioural Loyalty – the way customers respond, and whether they actively seek to do business with you;
  • Profitable Loyalty – those customers that help you to make money.

Emotional Loyalty was the first level of understanding of the concept of customer loyalty, with early marketing designed to appeal to the emotions and build a bond with customers in this way. However, it became apparent that while customers might feel emotionally close to your brand, that didn’t necessarily mean they would buy from you, or do so on a regular basis.

This led to the concept of Behavioural Loyalty where marketers sought to find ways of bringing the customer to them to do business, and do so regularly. Of course, in many cases Emotional Loyalty was ignored as the focus was on getting the customer to purchase from you.

More recently, with the advent of tools to analyse customer purchases and overall costs more accurately, companies are discovering that on average only around 20% of customers are profitable for a business, with 60% being around break-even and a further 20% losing the company money, so they then focused on trying to find ways to increase the percentage of profitable customers and either remove the unprofitable ones or make them profitable.

However, isn’t the key really to do the first two well and use this to leverage the third? It really is not about focusing on just one aspect of loyalty, but rather about understanding how all three interact and driving your business accordingly.

On the emotional level, you need to be clear about what your brand stands for and ensure that you deliver what you say you will do – never over-promise and under-deliver as that is the quickest way to kill your brand’s emotional loyalty.

To keep your customers coming back – and we all know that repeat customers are best – your marketing must understand their buying behaviour and ensure that you continue to interact with them to capture the maximum share of their wallets. The Lifetime Value concept is key here.

But, of course, you must ensure you do so profitably – and this is not just about margin, but about the total costs of doing business with each customer. A high margin customer can still result in a loss for you if, for example, they are consistently returning items for credit, needing expensive support resources, paying late, and so on, while a low-margin customer who pays cash and never needs support can be nicely profitable. Be clear about where the costs are for each customer.

A great example of a company that does all three well is Amazon: just look at the brand recognition, the fact that you know they it’s a reliable supplier of books, DVDs, etc., at good prices, with a no-quibble replacement policy, and then see how it constantly offers you new items based on your buying behaviour. Amazon’s systems are not only providing its marketing engine with ongoing offers tailored to your likes, but make purchasing easy, so its internal costs are low as there is minimal need for support.

But, after all, if you really think about it, isn’t this what business is all about anyway: getting customers who feel good about doing business with you as you provide a consistently great customer experience, coming back over and over again to make purchases that are profitable for you?

So, to answer the question as to whether there is a Right Kind of Customer Loyalty, the answer is clearly, “No.” To be successful you need to ensure you are focusing your business on all three – Emotional, Behavioural and Profitable. And, in the famous words of a song first made popular in the mid 60s, “Do What You Do, Do Well.”

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Analyse This!

‘Analysis Paralysis’ is often cited as a reason for businesses failing to achieve their potential – too much time spent analysing an opportunity (or problem) with the result that the window closes and nothing is achieved. In fact, much has been written about this, with Google, alone, returning over half a million pages!

The problem is that many in business – particularly the more entrepreneurially-minded – use this syndrome as an excuse not to analyse anything, relying instead on ‘gut feel’ for all decisions.

However, analysis is a critical part of achieving maximum success in a business and there are many areas where this can be automated to a large extent, too.

One often-overlooked area of a business – because it is nowhere near as glamorous as Sales in many eyes – is Credit Control (also referred to as the Debtors’ or Accounts Receivable Department, depending on where you are in the world). And yet, it’s an area that can have a huge impact on the overall health of a company, and one where analysis should play an important role.

In the years BCC (Before Credit Crunch), of course, many companies effectively outsourced much of the decision-making to Credit Insurers, who would determine appropriate account limits for customers, and would chase up for the longer-overdue debt once it was reported to them. The company was paid out either way – by the customer or the insurer – so was less concerned.

This, of course, has all changed.

Credit Insurers are now a lot more careful with their level of risk and companies are having to re-evaluate their approach: do they accept lower credit limits and a consequent restriction to their business, or do they ‘self insure’ to maximise their opportunities?

By analysing their customers’ payment patterns over time, companies will develop a much better understanding of their customers, being better able to assign appropriate credit limits, while also developing an early-warning system of impending trouble.

What’s more, utilising this information in cash-flow forecasts will provide a far more accurate picture of expected income for a given period than the ‘rule of thumb’ that so many companies seem to still use. And, of course, this should feed through to enable companies to give accurate information to their creditors as to payments due, and take maximum advantage of any early-settlement discounts that may be available.

It all comes down to understanding your business more thoroughly. If nothing else, the economic conditions of the past couple of years should encourage businesses to pay a lot more attention to the fundamentals, and that will be good for everyone going forward.

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Cash Flow or Bust!

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The recent furore over large companies asking to reschedule debt repayments has once again highlighted the issue of cash flow, and how important it is to even the largest businesses.

The companies are not really bankrupt – in one recent example, a company with debts of an estimated $60 Billion has these amply covered by an asset portfolio which, even in these depressed times, is reckoned to be worth around $100 Billion. Why, then, is it trying to put back the payment of some $3.5 Billion due this month?

The simple answer is that it doesn’t have the free cash available… Business plans were built on an expectation of a certain level of trading – primarily in property sales – which simply dried up with the global economic crisis. Without the sales, the company quickly found itself running short of cash and so unable to service upcoming debt repayments. Unlike governments around the world, of course, a company can’t simply print more money to get it out of a hole (an unwise move for governments that seldom seems to stop them, though!). In the absence of being able to improve its sales to generate cash, it must either borrow more money to repay old debts, or delay the repayment of those debts. And this is what the company in question is now trying to do.

The fact is that many more businesses fail through cash flow problems than for all other reasons combined – an estimated 80% of failures, in fact!

So how do companies get out of looming cash-flow crises?

The answers, of course, vary enormously with the type of business, but a few general items cover the vast majority of situations:

  • Boost sales – this is the most common response, and can be helpful. However one needs to ensure that it is not a case of delaying the inevitable: that sales are not done at such low [special] margins that the business cannot cover even basic costs. Reducing profitability for a short period to get extra sales can help cash flow, but reducing it to a point of significant loss is potential suicide.
  • Manage Inventory– this is a more complicated area and one not fully appreciated by many businesses. One needs to not only reduce inventories to a level appropriate to the business and lead times, but also to manage the ordering process to stop islands of excess building up (look at weekly sales, instead of monthly, and you’d be surprised how the picture can change, for example).  Reducing inventory by 3-4 days is like putting an extra 1% on the bottom line, and lower stock means lower payments which helps your cash flow, so systems should be in place to ensure stock doesn’t age, and that ordering is appropriate to the business run rate.
  • Reduce Receivables – another potentially complex area that is often neglected in the interests of “keeping customers happy.” If you are known as a soft touch, then your customers will stretch your payment terms to pay those that are more demanding (or financially beneficial). Instead of sending a month-end statement and hoping the money will roll in, send it at the beginning of the month and have credit controllers call your customers before mid-month (when they’re quiet anyway) to ask about any possible queries on the statement. Simply removing these queries proactively will reduce your DSO noticeably in most cases. Of course, there are many other techniques, too.
  • Reassign Assets – although this might not help a short-term cash flow issue, managing your assets properly can help prevent cash flow problems. Do you really need to own your Head Office, or is it an ego thing? Do your vehicles, or IT systems, need to be owned or can you lease them? In many cases you’ll find that the benefits of leasing or renting are significant in terms of cash flow and they have tax benefits, too.

All of these issues can play a significant role in helping you manage cash flow better, and there are more, besides, depending on the nature of your business.

The real point, though, is to run your business in such a way as to avoid getting into this sort of trouble in the first place – cash flow problems can literally put even the most profitable company out of business.

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Keep it Simple, Stupid

What is it about the human race that while we all apparently prefer ‘a simple life’ we delight in adding layers of complexity to everything?

Much to nobody’s surprise, I imagine, a recent McKinsey article, “Consumer Electronics Gets Back to Basics” showed that something like 2/3rds of consumers valued simplicity and price over a more comprehensive set of features. And yet, product after product is designed to have more features than its predecessor – generally at an incrementally higher price or, at best, the same price.

Just look at today’s ‘bloatware’ as an example. Remember the days when Bill Gates declared that “640KB ought to be enough for anybody” referring to the, then, new PC’s maximum memory capacity? Nowadays, you’re lucky to get away with less than three thousand times that much (2GB)! And yet, how many of us use more than 10% of the features available in today’s ‘productivity suites?’ I don’t, and many consider me a ‘power user.’

Oh, and don’t believe that the complexity is simply as a result of more capacity – people have been calling for simpler PCs for decades. In a Newsweek interview back in 1995, Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison said that the PC was too complicated and difficult to use then, predicting the PC would soon be replaced by simpler desktop devices – the ‘network computer,’ a no-frills computer/terminal that performs basic chores easily and simply and sells for less than $500. Perhaps Oracle’s recent purchase of Sun Microsystems will enable him to move us all in that direction some 15 years later: Sun already sells this type of device – they call it a Sun Ray.

The big surprise for many vendors last year was the Netbook. Initiated by Asus, this basic notebook PC really set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. The form factor was first tried in the mid 90s with a notable lack of success (it was called the sub-notebook in those days), so there was a healthy dose of scepticism when it was announced last year. Acer, as the first major multinational vendor to see the opportunity, quickly produced its own line of netbooks and gained enormous market-share as a result: seeing a significant increase in unit sales last year, just as the downturn was biting most companies. Here was a classic case of people wanting simplicity – what a pity, then, that the software was not also available in ‘Lite’ versions, meaning that many early adopters of netbooks ended up returning to the larger, more powerful machines that could handle the software workload.

But it’s not just in PCs that simplicity is the watchword. A couple of years ago a start-up company, Pure Digital Technologies, introduced a simple, one-button solid state video camera that runs on a couple of AA batteries. This device, the Flip, quickly grabbed 14% of the US video camera market surpassing all but the long-time market leader in sales. It’s a wonderful little camera and perfect for recording those ‘moments’ of life – I know, I got one soon after launch and swear by it. Interesting, then, that Cisco acquired the company a few months ago – is simplicity to be Cisco’s driver now?

This desire for simplicity is evident in many other areas of life, too – look at how people are embracing simpler airline and hotel offerings: companies offering easy-to-use services that do what’s needed at a reasonable price. The same goes for other products, like the success of Tide Basic laundry detergent.
And here’s the key – to succeed, products and services must be well-made, practical, offer the set of basic features that people need (read: market research is critical) and be seen as offering great value. Properly done, this can be achieved at increased margins to the over-featured products we’ve become used to, so increasing shareholder satisfaction along with customer satisfaction.

As the saying goes, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.”

Isn’t this what we all want?

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