Why COD Still Rules Ecommerce In India

April 21st, 2017

Contrary to popular belief, ecommerce began in India way before Flipkart came into existence in circa 2007. I remember placing orders from a dial-up modem on Fabmall, Rediff and a couple of other Indian ecommerce pioneers in the late 1990s. The only mode of payment supported was online by credit card.

That said, Flipkart did pioneer COD in 2010, which gave a huge fillip to ecommerce in India. For the uninitiated, “Cash on Delivery” is a mode of payment whereby a customer buys online from the ecommerce website but pays offline to the person who delivers the goods at their doorstep. The actual payment is made typically by cash but also increasingly with credit card, debit card or mobile wallet nowadays. So COD could equally well stand for “Card on Delivery” or “Wallet on Delivery”. Given the variety of payment instruments actually used in a COD transaction, “offline payment” is perhaps a more accurate term for this method of payment. But that’s a post for another day.

In this post’s context, there’s another characteristic of COD that plays a more important role: In this mode of payment, the customer does not pay at the time of order placement but only against receipt of goods.

Initially, Flipkart and other ecommerce companies ascribed the runaway success of COD to low card penetration in India. Even the mainstream media went along with their claim that there were very few cards in India. This claim was highly patronizing at the time – I used to pay for my online purchases in the late 1990s by credit card. Today, it’s total BS: There are more than 600 million cards and only 40 million online shoppers in India, so an average Indian shopper has a choice of 15 different cards with which to pay for an ecommerce order.

If card penetration is not the reason for the overwhelming popularity of COD, what is?

Going by personal experience and anecdotal evidence, it could be friction and failed payments caused by two factor authentication. For the uninitiated, 2FA became mandatory for all online payments in India in 2009. For reasons explained in the below exhibit, 2FA mucked up online payments and drove many long time credit card users like me to COD for online purchases.

Cue to the present.

The Government of India demonetized high value currency notes in November 2016. On the back of the “Note Ban”, the government began pushing cashless payments. Trending as #CashlessIndia, the drive has resulted in the proliferation of several new digital payments such as UPI, BHIM, BharatQR and, most recently, Aadhaar Pay.

Credit card, debit card, e-wallet, m-wallet, realtime A2A, biometric – you name it, India has it. I wouldn’t be bragging if I claimed that India has more types and brands of digital payments than any other country in the world today. Some of them (credit and debit cards, mobile wallets) involve incumbent banks and card networks (Visa, MasterCard and the indigenous RuPay) whereas others (UPI, BHIM and Aadhaar Pay) disintermediate card networks from the payment value chain. But I digress.

More important point is some of the recent digital payments have found innovative ways to enhance the CX of online payments and improve their success rates while still remaining compliant with the regulator’s two-factor authentication mandate. Think HDFC Bank’s PayZapp and PayTM.

The proliferation of frictionless digital payments has had an immediate and perceptible impact on brick-and-mortar retail, going by the direct attribution made by the doyen of India’s organized retail industry of digital payments to his company’s topline.

But ecommerce still remains stubbornly driven by cash. According to latest reports, nearly 70% of online purchases are paid by COD, with some reports putting the figure as high as 83%.

If that sounds puzzling, it is – but only if you think of payments in the isolated context of its operating model.

If, on the other hand, you look at the entire customer journey, payment plays another role: It acts as a seal of trust placed by the buyer on the seller. In simple terms, you pay someone only if you trust them to deliver. It’s this facet of payment, which is unrelated to the mechanics of its operating model, that determines the winners and losers among payment methods.

From personal experience and anecdotal evidence in the recent past, cash still rules ecommerce in India because of the following reasons related to trust:

#1. Delivery Address Ambiguity

While ordering a pizza on Pizza Hut’s mobile app, I reached the checkout page. I was asked to enter my building’s name. As soon as I finished typing in the first three characters of my building’ name (SAT), the app went into a tizzy. It recovered after 2-3 minutes and displayed a long list of buildings from which I had to select one. None of them matched mine. Ditto when I entered the first 3 characters of my street name on the next field of the checkout screen. Since I had to do something to move forward, I selected the option that came closest to my location. (No, the app didn’t allow freeform text entry of my building or street name). The app again went into a tizzy. When it came back, it displayed the delivery address the way it had reckoned it. This didn’t match my real address.

With so much ambiguity in the delivery address, I wasn’t sure if my order would ever reach me. No sensible customer under those circumstances would pay online by card in advance. Neither did I. I opted for Cash on Delivery.

#2. Delayed Deliveries 

Ashish Vyas articulates this problem very well on LinkedIn:

Order a Laptop on 7th April from Flipkart. Expect it to be delivered by 11th April. Delivery partner E-Kart’s phone is not reachable for the entire day on 11th April. The delivery person calls me in the evening to tell me that the delivery couldn’t be done on that day due to manpower shortage and would be done on 12th April 2017, 2.00 p.m. I explain to him that my work is suffering because of the delay in delivery. But he is not bothered and gives me more reasons why he couldn’t deliver on that day. 12th April – Entire day passes, again E-Kart’s telephone is switched off for the whole day. No way I can speak to any executive of Flipkart to understand by when the delivery will be made. Flipkart’s Customer Care only gives an automated response. Now that the money is already with them, they don’t give a damn.

No prizes for guessing what payment mode this guy would select the next time he orders something online.

#3. Fake / Wrong Deliveries

As I’d highlighted in Beware of Credit Card Reward Redemption Theft, fake / wrong delivery of documents, bills and magazines is a widespread problem. Looks like the epidemic is spreading to ecommerce packages now.

It’s easy for a courier company’s delivery boy – yes, they’re always boys – to log into his app that he has delivered a consignment successfully without even ringing the consumer’s doorbell. Ergo fake / wrong delivery is easily possible. If you pay upfront, you’d have to chase the courier. With COD, the courier will chase you. In this situation, any sensible customer would like to be chased rather than to have to do the chasing.

 


As the above incidents illustrate, many people who otherwise use credit cards extensively in their day-to-day lives – and have been doing so for ages – turn to Cash on Delivery when it comes to ecommerce (and then pay by card or m-wallets when they receive the goods!). In each example, the key issue is when the payment is made rather than how it is made. Lack of cards or fear of fraud risk – the go-to reasons given by online retail honchos – has had no role to play in the choice of COD in these three cases.

And it’s not only me.

Flipkart’s first employee Ambur Iyyappa, spills the beans about the real reason why Flipkart introduced COD. Contrary to what the top brass at ecommerce companies say, he makes the following observation in Times of India:

By 2010, Flipkart was doing brisk business. But the challenge to scale up was that customers didn’t want to pay for something before getting it. And our delivery partners at that time lacked the infrastructure for cash on delivery. It would’ve been easy for Flipkart to wait for others to build the capability first. Instead, Ekart, Flipkart’s supply chain, launched cash on delivery.

So, it’s trust deficit, specifically related to delivery, that explains why COD still rules ecommerce in India. 2FA-related issues will continue to pose challenges to the mainstream adoption of online payments but, even if those issues were to be resolved over time, delivery risks would continue to ensure that COD remains the most popular method of payment for online shopping.

In Will The Sad State Of Logistics Hurt eCommerce?, I’d highlighted the growth challenges posed by core logistics (also called “3PL”) to ecommerce in India. It now appears as if the finance side of logistics (“4PL”) is posing existential threats to the industry. Just when the Flipkarts and Snapdeals of India are trying to turn profits, logistics is pushing their customers to COD (or keeping them there), which is by far the most costly method of payment for a merchant to service.

Mastering Targeted Offers – The Uber Way

April 14th, 2017

Uber makes extensive use of targeted offers as a key plank of its customer engagement management (CEM) strategy.

For the uninitiated, a targeted offer is a personalized deal for an individual customer segment – or even individual customer. It’s the antithesis of spam, where the same deal is sent to all customers. A simple example of a targeted offer is a gift coupon you get from a restaurant on your birthday.

Here are a few targeted offers received by me and my family from Uber in the recent past:

  1. 50% off for next two rides. Enter Promo Code HOLI17.
  2. Flat Fare Weekend. INR 49 for up to 5 kms; INR 99 for up to 10 kms and INR 149 for up to 15 kms. Enter Promo Code FFWKND.
  3. 33% off on five trips. Enter Promo Code PUNE833.
  4. 25% off for next three rides. No Promo Code required.
  5. 50% off for next two rides. Enter Promo Code PUNEGOLD.

Like all brands, Uber also tacks on some fineprint to its targeted offers e.g. validity period. But that’s where the similarity ends. The world’s largest taxi aggregator sets itself apart from the herd by following a few unique practices in the way it devises and fulfills its targeted offers.

#1. OFFERS VARY BY CITY

When Uber made the second targeted offer in the above list in my city (Pune), it had made an even sweeter Flat Fare Weekend offer in Ahmedabad. For one, the fare was lower: INR 50 for up to 8 kms and INR 100 up to 15 kms. For another, it ran through the whole week. (Last year, I’d visited this Gujarat city and had taken a couple of Uber rides there. Maybe because of that, I keep getting Uber’s targeted offers for Ahmedabad as well).

#2. OMNICHANNEL

I regularly receive Uber’s targeted offers via three channels viz. Email, SMS and in-app PUSH notifications. All of them work inside the Uber app. Which is a non-trivial statement because I can’t say the same of offers I receive from many other brands.

#3. TARGET AUDIENCE

As you can see from the exhibit on the right, some of Uber’s offers are available to all customers whereas others are narrowly targeted only at some customers. Most offers come with a promo code that needs to be entered at the time of booking the ride. Some of them don’t need a promo code. But even they’re not necessarily targeted at everyone. For example, only my wife got the fourth offer on the above list (my daughter and I didn’t).

#4. FRICTIONLESS REDEMPTION

I described a pet peeve about promo codes in Walking The Tightrope Between Driving Repeat Purchase And Rewarding Loyalty. A quick recap: Three years ago, I got a targeted offer from MERU Cabs, the pioneer of app cabs in India. It was for a discount of INR 100 on my next ride. To get the discount, I needed to enter the promo code FEELGOOD while booking my next ride. That happened a few weeks later and I’d forgotten the promo code by then. As a result, I forfeited the offer and had implored brands to automatically apply promo codes in future.

But I’d also predicted that they won’t. To know why, click through to the aforementioned post.

My prediction was right. Many years later, even Uber and Ola – the two main players in the aggregator cab market in India today – don’t apply promo codes automatically.

That said, Uber strikes a great balance between customer experience and its business goal of driving repeat purchase. In a novel approach to achieving this, Uber requires you to enter the promo code – where applicable – only once. Uber applies the code automatically for all subsequent rides during the offer’s validity period. Let me illustrate this with the third targeted offer listed above. By entering PUNE833 only once, you get the discounted fare for five rides without doing anything while booking the second through fifth rides.


Going by my personal experience, Uber’s targeted offers are very effective. There have been times when I’ve gotten an offer from Uber and decided against using my car as I’d originally planned.

The Holy Grail of targeted offers is to create a need solely via targeted offer. In Does CX Really Drive Sales?, I’d wondered if Ola, Uber’s main competitor, would crack it. I now tend to believe that it won’t – once I switched to Uber, I’ve hardly used Ola. I’m convinced that, if there’s a brand that will crack this Holy Grail, it’s Uber.

There’s no doubt that Uber has mastered the use of targeted offers to create loyalty for its deals.

Is it also creating loyalty for its brand?

That will be the topic of my follow on blog post. Watch this space. (Spoiler Alert: Ironically, another type of targeted offer comes in the way of Uber’s achieving the ultimate reward of CEM).

Unschackling Inside Sales To Make It More Aggressive

April 7th, 2017

As SAAS software gains traction, software companies are making greater use of inside sales. According to Salesforce, inside sales is growing 300% faster than outside sales. With an increasing number of  sales development representatives operating in the same market, it’s not surprising that inside sales is finding it more and more difficult to get through to prospects.

Some vendors take the bull by the horns by using Marketable Items and Account Specific Point Offerings to transform their messaging from product-out to business pain area-in mode whereas others leave it to their SDRs to stumble through the challenge.

In the latter scenario, it’s no unheard-of for SDRs to adopt immature and questionable tactics. According The Pathetic State of B2B Market and Sales Development Tactics, these include guilt trips, impatience, strong-arm shaming, feigned concern, and so on.

We’d never permit any of our SDRs to use the shady tactics described this article. We also agree with the author of this piece about the need for professionalism in Inside Sales (like in any other profession).

However, we felt that the follow on objections raised later in the article were somewhat pedantic in the context of inside sales in the B2B technology space. Any veteran sales or marketing leader would be able to easily rebut them with the following replies:

Q1. Are these tactics really the first impression B2B managers want to create with customers?

A1: When a SDR writes “reason we haven’t responded”, s/he is obviously doing a follow up. The first interaction is over by then. Therefore, this tactic doesn’t create the first impression.

Q2. Are these “hacking” techniques worth damaging a potential relationship?

A2: There’s no relationship worth talking about with a prospect who hasn’t replied to your emails or taken your calls. Ergo, your SDRs won’t damage anything by doing a bit of hacking.

Q3. Do these tactics identify the customers that are ready to engage? Or do they deter people from even wanting to talk?

A3. Yes and no. Prospects are tired of the same approach followed by all vendors. A slightly different approach does work more often than you’d think. A customer of ours in the USA told us that he receives at least five cold emails and two cold calls a day pitching some technology service or the other. He averred that he reads past the first paragraph of a cold email or listens past the first ten seconds of a cold call only if he sees / hears a new approach in them.


Inside Sales is a tough job. The function faces a few unique challenges that are not faced by any other function in a typical software products or services company viz. high rejection rates, need for twenty-something SDRs to connect with CxOs of FORTUNE 500 companies, need to work in night shifts, and so on. To that we shouldn’t be tacking on imaginary concerns. Instead, we should look for ways to unshackle inside sales and make it more aggressive. One way to do that is to look at the advantages enjoyed by inside sales such as ephemeral nature of funnel top interactions and fleeting memory of suspects and use them to empower SDRs to try out some unconventional tactics.

We must hasten to add that these concerns become real once a lead reaches the middle of the funnel and becomes an SQL (Sales Qualified Lead). It would then be owned by field sales, account managers, and relationship managers and would need kid-gloves treatment. Unconventional tactics should be kept out at this stage. As Sabrina Ferraioli points out in B2B Phone Sales Tips: Beating the Voicemail Gatekeeper, “If you have 25 to 50 highly targeted, marketing qualified leads (MQL), inside sales can turn prospects into sales qualified leads (SQL). And if you turn even two or three SQLs into clients, you can have a substantial impact on your bottom line. So treat each one like gold.”

At the same time, we also need to unshackle SDRs working at the top of the funnel to be more aggressive.

Finding And Monetizing Innovation And IP In IT Services

March 24th, 2017

Mr. N Chandrasekharan, former CEO of India’s largest IT company Tata Consultancy Services and currently the Chairman of Tata Group from January this year, lashed out at detractors of the IT Services industry recently.

I totally agree that:

  • Indians should be celebrating an industry that has grown from nothing to US$ 150 billion in revenues in 30 years
  • India should be doing more in an industry that is clearly aligned with its strengths
  • There’s huge headroom for growth in IT Services.

That said, India’s IT Services industry faces growing competition from Brazil, Central Europe, China and other wannabe-offshore destinations. Therefore, it’s necessary for the industry to think of new ways to maintain its lead aka innovate and create Intellectual Property.

Normally, innovation and IP are associated with software product companies.

People assume that IT Services comprises of mundane work and offers little scope for innovation and IP.

The notion is further perpetuated by the following practices that are fairly common in the industry:

  • Programmers and Project Leads working on a project get excited about some new facet of technology or programming language they’ve used in their project. Automatically, they tout that as innovation. But, when viewed against the prism of market, most their claims fall flat
  • Project Managers / Delivery Managers responsible for the project are not very enthusiastic about uncovering innovation in their projects. Their apathy stems from the belief that, since source code developed in a services project belongs to the customer, they can’t do much with IP, even if they find it.

I totally disagree.

In my experience of over two decades in the IT Services industry:

  • I’ve found nuggets of true innovation in many projects. Just that they remained hidden because they didn’t float the project team’s technical boat
  • I’ve come across industry players who regularly packaged services innovations in ways that fully safeguarded their customers’ IP rights
  • I’ve seen the use of innovative business models like “co-visioning” to take service innovations to market in collaboration with customers.

But, because of the aforementioned industry practices, it’s hard to spot services innovation from the inside. Unlocking it often requires an “outside-in” perspective. We use the following structured methodology to help IT Services companies identify and monetize innovation and IP:

  • Discover capabilities by deep-diving into projects
  • Create marketable offerings that are centered around resolution of business pain areas related to revenues, costs, risks, and so on
  • Use our proprietary STRADOF framework to identify differentiators like domain expertise, dedicated practice groups, engagement models, optimum size, hosting infrastructure, etc.
  • Develop case studies and offering detail notes
  • Spec proof-of-concepts

You can find more details and success stories at GTM360 for Software Services Companies.

If you need help with identifying and monetizing your services innovation, we’re there!

Reliance Jio – All Good Things Don’t Come To An End, They Just Stop Being Free

March 17th, 2017

In Reliance JioFi First Impressions, I’d shared my experience of buying the Portable 4G Pocket WiFi Router and onboarding the 4G Internet connection from Reliance Jio in September 2016. I’d followed this up with another post a month later in which I’d recounted my first two months’ experience with Reliance Jio. At the time, the Internet service was free.

Reliance Jio recently announced the end of its free trial period by 31 March 2017 and launched a membership program called Jio Prime and a series of paid topup plans that will become effective from 1 April 2017. Fashioned after Amazon Prime, Jio Prime has a membership fee of INR 99 (US$ 1.5) for the first year. While Jio Prime members have a wide choice of topup plans, the most heavily promoted one offers 1GB data per day for 28 days at a price of INR 303 (US$ 4.7).

Just as Jio is transitioning from free to paid service, my other Internet connection started sucking big time. Apparently, the provider of this connection has a generic network issue in my neighborhood and no clue as to when it’d be able to resolve it. Therefore, I decided to cancel its connection and opted to continue with Jio.

In this third and final installment of my 3-post series, I describe my experience with Reliance Jio over the last three months and the process of signing up for Jio Prime recently.

#1. SPEED HAS TANKED BUT EXPERIENCE IS BETTER

Gone are the speeds in the 20-30Mbps range I got during the first two months of using JioFi. Of late, I’m lucky to get even 10Mbps. For the record, the fastest speed I got in the last three months was 11.59Mbps and the slowest, 3.09Mbps.

However, I’m more happy with my experience with JioFi now.

That’s because its uptime has improved considerably and ping times have dropped a bit.

In my update dated 10-Oct-2016, I’d reported that my JioFi connection suffered from >50% outage. These days, I get upwards of 90% uptime. Average ping time has dropped from 75ms then to 65ms now. Knock on wood!

Although downloads take longer, bulk of my Internet use is for surfing and content marketing. High uptime and low ping time play a much bigger role in delivering a superior user experience in my usage scenarios.

Image credit: Radhika Iyer*

I also take this opportunity to give props to Reliance Jio for providing reasonably good quality of service during my recent trip to Tirupati and back via Bangalore. For the uninitiated, these routes pass through many small towns and villages. My experience with quality of Internet connection from other Internet Service Providers at these remote places is not great.

#2. ONE EXTRA PAYMENT PER YEAR

As against the industry standard of 30 days, I noticed that Jio’s INR 303 topup plan had a validity period of 28 days. When I signed up for it, I didn’t think much of this. It was only after I came home and did a little math that I realized what Reliance Jio has done here: By trimming the validity period slightly – so slightly that most customers probably won’t notice it – Reliance Jio has created 13 payment periods per year (365 / 28 = 13.03) unlike other ISPs who get only 12 payments a year with their 30 day plans.

Well played Reliance Jio! Wonder if the company picked up this hack from Western Europe, where employees typically receive a 13th month salary as bonus each year.

#3. ONBOARDING IS STILL FORMLESS…

In my previous post, I’d felt that Reliance Jio was able to roll out a formless, paperless and signatureless onboarding process because it was giving out free connections. At the time, I’d wondered what’d happen when Jio eventually started charging for its service.

Well, Jio just launched a paid plan. I signed up for it and paid up for three months. There’s still no form, document to submit or wet ink signature. I was pleasantly surprised to learn from the salesperson at the store that the Aadhaar e-KYC done when I enrolled for the service in September 2016 continues to be valid now.

Kudos once again to Reliance Jio for reiterating its commitment to formless onboarding. Hope other service providers follow suit.

#4. …BUT SCRAPPY

That said, there’s still a lot of scope for improvement as regards confirmations and notifications. After signing up for a plan and paying up for three months in advance with my credit card, I was expecting to get details of my entitlement under the selected plan and a receipt for my purchase. But all I got is this piece of paper:

The image on the left is the credit card chargeslip. On the reverse of it, the salesperson scrawled the order numbers for my four orders (one order each for membership plus topups for three months). I doubt if I’d have gotten even this much if I’d paid by cash.

I asked for a more formal confirmation of my plan and payment. The sales guy kept saying “it’s all in the system”. Normally, I don’t accept such vague assurances but, on this occasion, I let it pass because I did have the credit card chargeslip to prove my payment.

I left the store, quite sure that the sales guy couldn’t do anything more and hoping that everything would work out fine.

#5. HOPE THERE ARE NO BILLING ISSUES

That was not to be.

A few hours later, I got an SMS from Reliance Jio. I thought it was the plan and payment confirmation that I’d sought at the store. But it turned out to be a pitch for Jio Prime and a missive for me to join the membership program at the earliest! Either this was the result of a channel disconnect or, worse, a sign that Jio’s system had no record of my instore transaction.

I no longer sat tight hoping for the best and decided to initiate action. I tweeted @RelianceJio with a subtle reference to the notorious billing problems faced by millions of Reliance mobile phone subscribers a decade ago:

I got a prompt reply asking me to submit my Jio # and alternate mobile phone number.

I’ll spare you the details but my request for proof of purchase – and registration on jio.com website – face a challenge: Unlike the vast majority of Jio’s 100 million customers who bought its SIM card for their mobile handsets on which they can receive notifications, I bought a router that can’t receive SMSs.

When I began this post, Reliance Jio’s social media support agent and I were going around in circles. However, by the time I finished it, I got a written confirmation of my purchase on Twitter.

All’s well now.


On that upbeat note, I conclude my third and final post on my impressions of Reliance Jio’s free trial period, but not before observing that:

All good things don’t come to an end. They just stop being free!

*: Radhika Iyer is my niece and a final year student at MIT Institute of Design. She runs her blog called Design for X.

LED There Be More Light

March 10th, 2017

At the outset, this post is not about how to recite Genesis 1:3 in a thick Malayalam accent:) It’s about ways to stimulate the use of LED lights.

But, first, some background:

I was very excited to read about UJALA Dashboard in an Economic Times article titled “LED There Be Light” (now you know the real inspiration for this post’s title!). Standing for Unnat Jyoti By Affordable LED’s for All, UJALA is the name of Government of India’s scheme to “promote efficient use of energy at the residential level; enhance the awareness of consumers about the efficacy of using energy efficient appliances … thus facilitating higher uptake of LED lights by residential users” (Source: UJALA FAQ).

Developed by the Ministry of Power of the Government of India, UJALA Dashboard monitors the progress of the government’s LED distribution program.

The dashboard displays the total number of LED bulbs distributed, energy and cost savings, CO2 reduction, among other metrics – all in realtime. As I write this post, I see the following numbers on UJALA Dashboard:

The scope of the dashboard is truly stunning when you consider that it aggregates information from across 30+ states of India and, that too, in realtime. UJALA is the only realtime dashboard I’ve seen anywhere in the world of any nationwide program, whether run by government or private enterprise.

Soon after reading the ET article, I stumbled upon a few factoids about LED.

As a result of all this, the techie in me was deeply impressed by LED technology and the consumer in me decided to support UJALA by migrating all lights in his house to LED bulbs.

I immediately headed to the neighborhood hardware store and found out that an LED lamp of my desired wattage cost around INR 450 (~US$ 7). I then called my electrician and asked him for his time and cost estimate for replacing all my existing incandescent lamps and tubelights with new LED bulbs.

My LED migration journey began soon afterwards. It has still not ended. I’d say I’m somewhere at the halfway mark as of now.

Based on my experience to date, I’ve thought of three ways by which the government can drive greater “uptake of LED lights by residential users”, a core mission of UJALA.

#1. SPREAD AWARENESS OF LED SUBSIDY

Pointing to an ad in my latest electricity bill, my electrician told me I needn’t buy LED bulbs from the open market at INR 450 apiece. According to the ad, the government was offering a bulb at a highly subsidized price of INR 100 (US$ 1.5). All I had to do was show my latest electricity bill to my utility company and collect a maximum of ten LED bulbs against a payment of INR 1000 (US$ 15). IMO, the government is justified in rationing out the subsidized LED bulbs – otherwise, the huge difference between their subsidized and open market prices will create a big black market for the bulbs. But I digress.

I must have seen this ad several times in my electricity bills but it had never registered. Probably because it’s in the local language. I have nothing against the use of local languages but the ad breaks the cardinal principle of marketing by failing to talk in the consumer’s language, which, in this case, is English. I remember an old warning issued by Helmut Kohl, ex-Chancellor of Germany, to foreign companies setting up shop in Germany in the ’80s and ’90s: “I’ll sell in any language but I’ll buy only in German”. Credit where credit’s due, the UJALA dashboard defaults to English, with an option to click on a button to view the dashboard in Hindi, the most widely spoken language in India.

By printing this ad in the customer’s preferred language – if not bilingually – the government can raise the awareness of its LED promotion scheme and entice more people to buy LED bulbs at the deeply discounted price for which it’s offering them.

#2. FACILITATE EASY MIGRATION TO LED

The electrician inspected the existing lamps in my house and noticed the type of sockets used by most of them.

Unfortunately, these holders can’t accommodate LED bulbs, which require a different type of holder.

While it doesn’t cost much to replace the holders, it’s not so easy to get hold of an electrician willing to do such small jobs – at least in my neighborhood. I wrote about this problem in Changing Face of DIY Markets. Sadly, eight years later, the problem hasn’t gone away – despite the fact that over 50 “Uber for Handymen” startups have mushroomed in the interim period. Instead of alleviating the pain, these startups are shutting down at an alarming rate.

Saying that he didn’t have the time on that visit to replace twenty-odd holders, my electrician scooted with the promise to come back on another day when he had more time. That has still not happened.

As a result, I’ve been able to replace only around 40% of the existing lamps, which happened to have standard 2-pin holders.

I don’t know what can be done by the government to solve this problem but facilitating easy migration from existing lamps to new LED bulbs is a critical success factor for UJALA.

#3. RECORD EVERY SALE

The guy at the utility company who sold the LED bulbs didn’t record my name or consumer number from the electricity bill I’d carried along. He didn’t give me a receipt for my purchase, either. Nor did he record the transaction anywhere that I could see. This may not affect the actual proliferation of new LED bulbs but it does compromise the integrity of UJALA Dashboard.

The government should ensure that operational level shortcuts like this don’t create scope for pilferage and blackmarketing nor lead to delayed-/under-/mis-reporting of UJALA’s progress.

 


I’ve been having a few LED lights in my house for three months or so. I continue to have many incandescent lamps and tubelights. Let me make a quick-and-dirty comparison between the old and new type of lights:

  • LED bulbs are as bright as the existing lights
  • Even after hours of operation, LED bulbs are cool to the touch unlike incandescent lamps that singe even after being on for only a minute or two
  • Compared to incandescent lamps that come on instantly, LED bulbs take around two seconds to start glowing. Before you ask, that’s long enough for the human brain to wonder if the bulb has blown. In the early days, the delay caused quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. Then I stumbled upon the story of a light bulb in California that has been on almost continuously since 1901 in THE L.E.D. QUANDARY: WHY THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS “BUILT TO LAST”. After reading THE NEW YORKER article about this bulb, I’m convinced that my new LED bulbs installed in 2016 couldn’t have blown so soon and that they’ll start glowing before I leave the room.

I haven’t analyzed the BEFORE / AFTER figures in my electricity bills to verify if my partial migration to LED has resulted in any savings on my power bills. But, as testimony of my enthusiasm for LED, I’ll gladly pay full market price – I’ve already exhausted my entitlement of 10 subsidized LED bulbs – to replace the remaining lights in my house with LED bulbs. Provided someone makes sure that my electrician turns up at my doorstep at the appointed date and time committed by him.

Moral Policing At Tirumala – Good Or Bad Thing?

March 8th, 2017
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Tirumala Main Road

Here are the latest updates from my March first week visit to Lord Balaji and Goddess Padmavati Temples in Tirumala and Tirupati respectively. For the uninitiated, these are two towns in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southern India.

#1. DARSHAN TIMINGS

Here’s how long my two darshans took on Sunday, 5 March 2017:

Darshan 1:

Darshan 2:

According to the instructions printed on the INR 300 Special Darshan ticket, pilgrims can’t enter the queue before the darshan time stated on the ticket. However, I noticed several people joining the queue a good three hours before the alloted time. I know this because, when the person at the counter scans the barcode on the ticket, the alloted darshan time is visible to everyone on the overhead monitors.

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Photo Op Near Bus Stand

#2. NEW SPECIAL DARSHAN BUILDING

The INR 300 Special Darshan ticket mentioned a new entry point viz. “ATC CAR PARK”. This happens to be a new building located behind the Vaikuntam Q Complex. Dedicated for Special Darshan ticket holders, the building has facilities for handing over footwear and electronic items (e.g. mobile phones), which, as always, can’t be carried inside the temple premises. (Pro Tip: Carry a couple of carry bags with you. The guy who collected my footwear suddenly insisted that I place them in a bag. The previous day, the guy who collected my mobile phone at Padmavati Temple also did the same). It also has a counter for supply of of tea, coffee and butter milk. After taking a cup of coffee, I asked the volunteer how much I owed him. He looked up and said, “Govinda”, implying that it was free!

#3. MORAL POLICING

As I mentioned in my last year’s post-Darshan post titled TTD Has A Sales Department. And That’s A Good Thing, it’s now mandatory to be attired in “traditional Indian dress” for all special darshans. While there’s no change in this rule, a team of lady volunteers at the entrance to the new Special Darshan building was stopping almost every lady devotee and adjusting their dupattas. My teenage daughter surely didn’t appreciate this “special attention”. I thought this was a form of moral policing. I leave it to readers to decide whether it’s a good or bad thing.

#4. CROWD MANAGEMENT GETTING WORSE

There’s always been a lot of pushing and shoving inside the sanctum sanctorum. However, this time, I found the same happening in many other areas e.g. entry into the Special Darshan queue, in front of Sri Varahiri Hundi after darshan, and so forth. In fact, there was a lot of jostling even at the Padmavati Temple in Tirupati – I’ve never seen this happen in my 20+ years of visiting this temple.

This surely causes a lot of discomfort for pilgrims.

At first blush, this might suggest that footfalls have increased in both temples. But that flies against the face of newspaper reports, which quote TTD officials saying that crowds have come down post #CurrencySwitch. Besides, there are a lot of holding areas where pilgrims can be confined so as to avoid overcrowding in the other areas. My take: TTD is not confining crowds in the holding areas. In other words, it’s releasing more pilgrims directly into the queue. I noticed this on my queue: The holding areas were unlocked, unlike in the past when each holding area would stay locked for at least a half hour. As for why TTD is doing this, I can only guess that it’s the same reason why it doesn’t regulate crowds in the sanctum sanctorum. I could be entirely wrong but I can’t think of any reason for the worsening situation regarding crowd management.

#5. CASH IS STILL KING

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Solitary PayTM Sign

I couldn’t find a single store on the main Tirumala road that accepted credit cards. In the entire shopping complex, I could spot just one PayTM sign.

Andhra Bank has a counter for sales of gold and silver coins. It’s located near the bookstore in front of the temple. The person at the counter informed that they charge a 2% surcharge for card payments. In keeping with my normal practice, I refused to pay this surcharge. When I complained about it, he connected me with his branch manager on the telephone. Named Narasimha Rao, this gentleman told me that TTD refuses to pay merchant fees, so Andhra Bank has no choice but to slap a surcharge on customers. He brazenly told me that I could complain to whoever I wanted to about this practice. I walked out, mumbling to myself that this is yet another example of banks and government organizations defying government diktat against charging additional fees for digital payments.

Looks like #CashlessIndia hasn’t reached Tirumala yet.

Quantifying The Risk Of Online Payment Failure

March 3rd, 2017

I had to pay college fees of INR 300,000. College supported an array of digital and paper-based payment options viz.

Digital: Log in to college website, use college’s ePayment Gateway and pay by Credit Card.

Paper: Demand Draft.

I evaluated the pros and cons of both options.

DIGITAL PAYMENT

Pros:

  1. Credit card reward points: 3000 (@ 1 point per INR 100 spend). Generally, reward points can be redeemed for gifts worth INR 0.25 per reward point
  2. Deferred payment of 45 days, so no need to break FD immediately
  3. Automatic linkage of remittance info to student’s account
  4. Convenience of making the payment from home

Cons:

  1. Risk of failed payment due to two factor authentication and patchy Internet connection. I’ve written about this here.

PAPER-BASED PAYMENT

Pros:

  1. Zero risk of payment failure

Cons:

  1. Visit bank to buy the Demand Draft (3 hours)
  2. Demand Draft commission (INR 1000)
  3. Loss of interest due to need to break FD immediately
  4. Visit college to submit the Demand Draft (1/2 hour)
  5. Manual updation of payment on college website (1/2 hour)

*****

Let me compute the cost difference of the two options below:

BASIS: INR 300,000 Payment

INR


DIGITAL


PAPER

Gift value of 3000 reward points @ INR 0.25 per point

:

+750

Interest on INR 3.00 Lakhs FD for 45 days @ 8.50% p.a.

:

-3188

Demand Draft commission

:

-1000


TOTAL

:


+750


-4188

The incremental cost of the Paper option is INR 4938 (being INR 750 + INR 4188).

I still opted for it.

Why?

Because of the risk of failure of online payment. And the consequent trouble I’d have to go through to get my money back. I’ve written about this here. This is worth nearly INR 5000 in my mind (excluding cost of extra time taken up by the  paper option).

This is the perceived cost of the risk of online payment failure.

Thriving On Chaos Of SMAC Architecture

February 24th, 2017

If you follow this blog, you know that I mostly write about fintech, marketing, product management and customer experience. IT architecture is a new topic. I was prompted to write about it after witnessing a series of chaotic happenings with modern SMAC architecture during the last few months.

For the uninitiated, SMAC stands for Social-Mobile-Analytics-Cloud. SMAC applications are typically built using cloud hosting, app stores, web services and APIs.

This is how I encounter the building blocks of SMAC in my everyday life:

Cloud Hosting: My company’s website, including this blog that you’re reading, are hosted by HostGator, a leading hosting services provider.

App Stores: GTM360’s mobile apps are published on Google Play Store.

Web Service: Every time I publish a new blog post, a web service called Twitter Feed automatically tweets a link of the post to my Twitter feed along with the first 100 characters. Every time somebody likes, retweets or replies to my tweets, another web service called IFTTT adds them to a Twitter List called skr-engagers.

Third Party APIs: This blog is published using WordPress. The world’s leading blogging platform uses an array of APIs to perform various functions like validating the blog to third party plugins like Disqus (comments) and Akismet (spam protection).

SMAC architecture helps non-technical people do stuff they otherwise can’t dream about. For instance:

SMAC architecture also helps technical people cut down time-to-market of new applications by letting them deliver new functionality readily using preexisting web services (and open source code) instead of developing them from scratch. As Fortune says:

Fewer companies are releasing bloated, monolithic apps that take months or even years to revise. Instead, they are breaking them up into individual components or “microservices” that handle specific processes. For example, a bank might create one authentication system for creating accounts or for verifying a person’s identity that is used across all of its systems and apps. In theory, this lets organizations update software more quickly.

With that out of the way, let me describe the kind of chaos I witnessed with SMAC systems in the recent past.

#1. Failure of ‘Set and Forget’

Most SMAC services are designed to work on the “set and forget” principle. Most of the time, they deliver on that promise.

The chaos begins when they break that promise.

Like Twitter Feed did.  I recently noticed that the tweets posted by Twitter Feed didn’t contain the link to the post (although they did display the 100-character text). Because the web service had been working on “set and forget” mode ever since I installed it over five years ago, I’d totally forgotten how to configure it! I’d been wondering how to fix this problem. But, lo and behold, while I was trying to take a screengrab of one of the problematic tweets to use in this post, I noticed that the last three tweets do have a bit.ly link!

Problem solved. Without me doing anything about it.

Unfortunately, not all problems get solved automatically.

#2. Premature Death

So many web services are developed without a business model. Some of them acquire huge distribution by word-of-mouth. Then, they suddenly die. Like the aforementioned Twitter Feed and IFTTT recipe. Leaving thousands of applications built on top of them in the lurch. Now, I need to look for another auto-tweeting service for my blog and find some other way to update ‘skr-engagers’ whenever someone likes, retweets or replies to my tweets.

#3. Frequent UI Changes

We’ve all been through perplexing moments when familiar software suddenly looks strange, with screens, links and buttons vanishing into thin air. This happened with Windows Vista a few years ago. It happens with virtually every SAAS software nowadays. It’s easy to spout philosophical statements like “change is the only constant” and all that, but the chaos caused by frequent changes to user interfaces shouldn’t be underestimated, especially if the software is used by large teams and / or time-poor executives.

#4. Too Many Moving Parts

SMAC applications tend to use open source code, third-party APIs, and so on. This has introduced a lot of moving parts in software. As a result, companies are dependent on app store passwords, API keys and more. Since wide circulation of this critical information leaves the system open to attack from multiple threat vectors, the security best practice is to restrict its circulation. But the people who do know this information needn’t be permanent employees in today’s world of distributed development teams – they could be contractors or supplier employees as well. As a result, it has become quite hard and time-consuming to recover from a defect or attack, whether they’re caused by a poorly trained employee or disgruntled team member. As the aforementioned Fortune article notes:

The downside is that a company’s chief information officer might not have a centralized view into all of these different projects. If an app falls down on the job, it’s tough to pinpoint the cause.

I can testify to this from first hand experience:

An ecommerce customer’s employee consciously deleted a few duplicate records in the database without knowing that this piece of housekeeping would cripple the open source search function used by the software. As a result, the website came crashing down. Had the system been developed and hosted internally, it would have only taken a few minutes to troubleshoot the problem and restore the website. However, the website had used many building blocks of SMAC architecture and the only person who knew all the passwords and keys was no longer working for the company. Luckily, the present development team was able to locate him and secure his help to fix the problem. All’s well that ends well but it took four days to resolve a five minute issue. Needless to say, the company suffered a significant loss of revenues and severe damage to its reputation as a result of this outage.

The last, and perhaps the most serious, source of chaos is caused because SMAC hype has overtaken reality by leaps and bounds.

#5. Excessive Hype

Hype is no stranger to the IT industry. However, in the case of SMAC architecture, it’s gone a bit too far and is causing a lot of operational chaos.

I got a glimpse of this when I recently visited a healthcare center in my neighborhood. I was asked to fill a registration form. I told the receptionist that I’d already registered with them during my previous visit. He told me that they’d lost all customer data when their server crashed two months before without any backups. But he assured me that they won’t have any problem from now onwards because they’d “shifted everything the cloud”. Obviously, he assumed that the cloud service provider would take care of backups and make the data available 24/7/364.

Big mistake.

I hope the CIO of this company knows better. But I strongly doubt it. Because it’s not just this random healthcare center.

Australian ATM networks recently went down because their cloud service provider suffered an outage. According to Finextra, there was no backup. Apparently, the leading banks to whom the ATM network belonged thought it was the responsibility of the cloud service provider to take the backup. And the cloud service provider countered by saying the banks’ hosting plan didn’t include a backup.

When such things happen even to seasoned technology users like banks, you know that the “cloud gets rid of all infrastructure worries” hype has gone a bit too far.

 


Just to be clear, it’s not my intention to discourage enterprises from implementing new SMAC systems or migrating their legacy systems to SMAC architectures. I’ve highlighted the topic of chaos only to underscore the need to plan for measures to manage it while embarking upon SMAC implementations and migrations.

And I’m not alone. Yvette Cameron, Gartner Research Director, offers similar advice on the right!

Innovative Fintechs Don’t Need No Open Banking Regulation

February 17th, 2017

Pink Floyd fans won’t need any explanation for this post’s title*. 

The recent buzz around Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning has spawned the next generation of Personal Finance Management applications. While the forerunners in the cateogory like Mint (now part of Intuit, Inc.) are still available on the web, most of the new players are mobile-only. Going by monickers such as Mobile Money Management App and Money Management Bot – herewith termed MoMMA for the sake of convenience – they all require access to their users’ bank account information.

This has become a bone of contention of late with banks reminding their customers that their TOS forbid them from handing over their online banking credentials to third parties (I don’t know what took all but a handful of banks so long to assert an old clause in their terms of service – actually, I think I know, but that’s a blog post for another day).

As a result, MoMMAs have been looking to “Open Banking” regulations like PSD2 to give them a leg up. For the uninitiated, PSD2 mandates banks to allow fintechs to access banking data of customers.

But banks are not taking this lying down. According to Financial Times, big banks are lobbying to reduce access to customer data envisaged by PSD2, which would substantially dilute the original provisions of “open banking”. According to Sebastian Siemiatkowski, chief executive of Swedish online payments company Klarna, quoted by FT, “If it (PSD2) goes ahead as currently written it will not create open banking as the law originally envisaged.”

Fearing an existential crisis, fintechs are fighting back.

They shouldn’t.

In fact, they should stay away from regulation. As I’d highlighted in Fintechs Need Marketers And Lobbyists – Not Lawyers and Fintechs Need Guts More Than Lawyers!, many successful startups have flourished by leveraging “regulatory gaps” rather than regulation.

Instead, MoMMAs should become truly innovative and enhance their value proposition.

Intuitively, everyone knows that “earn more, spend less” is all the money management mantra they need. To get people to use a MoMMA to practice this principle is a tough sell, made even tougher by what the current crop of MoMMAs currently do:

  1. Transform the customer banking experience by enabling consumers to compare and save on current accounts, … look for mortgages more easily and access better terms for loans (Source: Finextra article titled Consumers unaware of Open Banking – Equifax)
  2. Answer questions like “How much have I spent on Uber this month?” and “Can I afford to go for dinner?” (Source: Finextra article titled Personal Finance bot Cleo)
  3. Protect customers from bankruptcy by telling them not to buy that $4.50 coffee. Okay, I’m joking about the bankruptcy but the part about the coffee is true.

IMHO, these existing features are quite lame because:

  • MoneySuperMarket, Which? etc. have been letting us do comparison shopping for current accounts and mortgages for ages without needing any access to our banking info.
  • What can we do about the money we’ve already spent on Uber?
  • If we can’t go for dinner, do we starve?
  • We don’t need a fancy MoMMA to tell us that a coffee costing $4.50 is a big rip-off that’s worth avoiding even if we’ll stay within our budget by buying it.

Okay then, how can a MoMMA use innovation to offer true value to its users?

A few ways of doing that would be for a MoMMA to:

  1. Give truly useful money management tips e.g. Earn $$$ more by sweeping X amount from a checking account to a savings product.
  2. Indemnify customers from losses caused by data breach arising out of third party access to customers’ banking info.
  3. Access only the info customers permit them to access – nothing more, nothing less. Screen-scraping via online banking password, which is currently the most widely used technology, fails this test because, once they’ve given away their online banking passwords to these apps, customers have very little control over what info the app can and cannot access.
  4. Make data sharing activity frictionless. OFX is one prevailing technology that lets the user download only the info they explicitly want to supply to the money management app or bot. However, most apps and bots require frequent updates of transaction info, which means users have to log in to their online banking portals frequently to download the latest version of their transactions. This can be painful.

#1 is related to consumer behavior and product management. #2 has a legal angle.  They’re both within the control of the fintech.

#3 and #4 are related to technology. As I’d highlighted in P2FM Services Walk The Tightrope Between Convenience and Security and How Many More PFMs Do We Need?, data access modalities have posed major challenges to the viability of the first generation of PFMs 8-10 years ago. But, all that’s history now. OFX-API seems to have cracked the Holy Grail of data access, going by the gung-ho views expressed by executives of JPMorgan Chase and Intuit when they recently announced their data partnership agreement based on this technology (Source: American Banker).

As a result, fintechs are closer than ever before to being able to leverage their innovativeness to develop a compelling value proposition for PFMs. If they achieve that, they can kick off their ‘open banking’, PSD2 and other regulatory crutches.

In return for the ability to make frictionless payments, tens of millions of otherwise security-conscious customers make payments with India’s largest mobile wallet app PayTM without entering a single password or PIN.

If MoMMAs give them a similarly compelling value proposition, people won’t care about sharing their online banking credentials with them – with or without PSD2.

I’m not alone in holding this view. As Steve Ellis of Metia says on Finextra, “…the question on sharing personal data is the wrong way round. No-one agrees to share personal data without being offered some kind of fair value exchange for it. Show the consumer a compelling value proposition and they will do it in the blink of an eye.”

Let me conclude by paraphrasing another Pink Floyd line:

Hey! Fintechs! Leave Them PSD2 Regs Alone

*: As for the others… well, it’s never too late to become Pink Floyd fans!