Archive for August, 2006

Make Money by Sharing Your Contacts – Whose Rolodex is it Anyway?

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

Salespersons, marketers, recruiters and anyone else can share their Rolodexes on Jigsaw (http://www.jigsaw.com/), and make money for their trouble!

Salespersons, marketers and recruiters accumulate a lot of contacts in the course of their day-to-day work. Many of these contacts can be shared without losing too much business value. That’s exactly what Jigsaw facilitates: By contributing a contact, a user can get two new contacts, which are likely to be worth far more. The contacts they add to Jigsaw can give great value to another user.

Let’s take the example of two salespersons, one selling computers and the other selling printers. In many companies, a common person would be responsible for buying computers and printers. Supposing the computer salesperson contacts this common buyer first. Without any loss, she can easily share this contact with the printer salesperson, who would stand to gain a useful contact. This sharing would work especially well if there is something in it for the person doing the sharing. For the sake of this example, I am assuming that the computer company does not sell printers and vice versa.

Jigsaw provides exactly the kind of platform where the computer and printer salespersons can trade each other’s business contacts and get new contacts in return. And, what’s more, they can do this anonymously.

Each contact in Jigsaw includes the name, title, company name, telephone number, email and physical addresses. Unlike many address databases that include only the central switchboard telephone number (e.g. +91.20.39847000) and a generic email address (e.g. info@iflexsolutions.com), most Jigsaw contacts have the contact person’s direct telephone numbers (e.g. +91.20.39847110) and email addresses (e.g. s.ketharaman@iflexsolutions.com).

Hoovers and Jigsaw are both in the contacts database business. Where Hoovers (http://www.hoovers.com/) provides data by itself in a typical Web 1.0 fashion, Jigsaw (http://www.jigsaw.com/) follows the classic Web 2.0 paradigm by providing a platform in which its users contribute most of the content and thereby create a vibrant “business contact marketplace” as Jigsaw calls itself.

In typical Web 2.0 style, Jigsaw users are rated by one another for the accuracy of information they contribute. Users get rewarded with points both for providing contacts and for challenging existing contacts submitted by others. (Contacts no longer in the stated company, companies that no longer exist – these are typical grounds for challenge.) As a result, the data in Jigsaw is likely to be constantly refreshed, more accurate and hence more credible.

I see tremendous possibilities for business applications to leverage this Web 2.0 paradigm of user-generated business contact content. In continuation of my previous blog of 16 August 2006, I can immediately spot an application in the BFSI (Banking, Financial Services and Insurance) sector: A bank can set up a Jigsaw-style of contact marketplace in which its existing and prospective customers can share contacts which the bank can use for cross-selling its products. Banks already seek out referrals from existing customers; a Jigsaw-style platform helps to take this to the next level and make the process more structured and scalable.

Of course, there are some tricky privacy and confidentiality issues that banks and other businesses will have to sort out before proceeding full steam ahead with such a business contact marketplace.

For instance, in case a contact uploaded by someone has previously registered herself in the bank’s DNC (do not call) registry, a campaign targeting contacts acquired from the contact marketplace must ensure to exclude this specific contact. This can be achieved relatively easily by introducing an interface between the contact marketplace application and the DNC database.

Likewise, when a person acquires a contact in the course of performing his work for his employer, would uploading this contact to the contact marketplace amount to a breach of the confidentiality clause in his employment agreement with his employer? Would there be a breach of the contract between his employer and his customer, especially when he lets out  information like “This contact is responsible for buying ERP software for her company”, which are quite specific and not typically available in public domain? What if the contact company is only a prospective customer and there is no contract with his employer?

All this brings us to the basic question,

Whose Rolodex is it anyway?

 

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Just One Line Generates 200 Pages in Microsoft Word!

Saturday, August 19th, 2006

Don’t know if this is a feature or a bug: Open a blank document in Microsoft Word. Just type =rand(200,99) and press the Enter key.

You’ll find 200 pages of the following text popping out!

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.  The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog …

I read this in a book called “one night @ the call center” by Chetan Bhagat.

I tried it out, it works!

 

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Web 2.0 and BFSI Applications

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

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RSS, Blogs, AJAX, Podcasts, Wikis, Toolbars – these are the basic elements of Web 2.0, which is the popular name given to the collection of technologies that underpin the next dot com wave. Web 2.0 is typified by user-generated content. Leaders in the Web 2.0 era have focused on providing the platform into which their visitors have contributed most of the content. For example, Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) is a free encyclopedia where users contribute and rate each other’s articles;  Flickr (www.flickr.com) allows users to share, search and find photographs, and You Tube (www.youtube.com) does the same thing with videos. User-rating is becoming very popular in publishing, going by the runaway success of the technology article portal Digg (www.digg.com).

Barring the few exceptions of financial institutions like UBS and Dresdner Kleinwort who have used RSS technologies to distribute research to clients, Web 2.0 technologies have so far not made too many inroads into business applications, whether in BFSI (Banking, Financial Services & Insurance), or in other sectors. However, all that is about to change. Gartner has recently called banks and financial institutions to use more Web 2.0 technologies in their IT applications. A recent report from the leading IT analyst notes that engaging with customers through call centers and via Internet campaigns is no longer sufficient. It recommends that banks adopt Web 2.0 technologies and applications in order to provide personalized service to customers.

We can expect Web 2.0 applications like RSS, Corporate Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, Toolbars and  AJAX to feature more prominently in the application portfolios of banks and financial institutions, especially for customer-facing applications like Internet Banking, Online Stock Trading, Research, Electronic Bill Presentment & Payment, Remittance, and so on. Banks and FIs can use a combination of Blogs, RSS and Toolbar technologies to communicate more proactively with their customers. They can use a blog (derived from web log) as the mechanism for publishing details of new products and services, research updates and changes to policy. Using RSS (Really Simple Syndication), they can create regularly updated information feeds. Through Toolbars, customers get to notice such updates even if they don’t visit the bank’s websites.

Let’s take one example to see how all of this will work. I recently created a web toolbar with three RSS feeds: one for home page stories in digg, the second for updates of my blog (called Talk of Many Things hosted in my personal website www.sketharaman.com), and the third for article updates on my employer’s website (www.iflexsolutions.com). You can download and install this toolbar into your own PCs by clicking on the DOWNLOAD FREE TOOLBAR link on the lower left hand side of the homepage in www.sketharaman.com. The toolbar looks like this:

Click here if you cannot view the image above.

After installing this toolbar in your PC, you will find that it appears just below the browser’s search box. For example, in my PC, it appears just below the search box of Internet Explorer.

Click here if you cannot view the image above.

The “Talk of Many Things RSS feed” notifies toolbar users every time a new blog is posted on the sketharaman.com website, whereas the “i-flex Article Update” RSS feed alerts them to any new article published in i-flex’s website. This happens automatically whenever toolbar users surf the Internet for any reason including, say, to check their webmail. They do not have to visit either sketharaman.com or iflexsolutions.com websites to get these notifications.

Now, let’s say a bank creates a similar toolbar featuring RSS feeds. When customers install this toolbar on their PCs, they will receive automatic notifications from the bank whenever they are online, without visiting the bank’s website or placing a telephone call to the bank’s call center. You can now easily imagine the power of Blogs, RSS and Toolbar technologies in communicating with customers.

Greater power to communicate with customers using Web 2.0 technologies could also have an impact on the customer engagement levels. In the Web 1.0 context, a customer has to specifically remember to visit a bank’s website. With Web 2.0, a customer checking her webmail over the Internet could per chance notice in her toolbar an interesting update in the bank’s RSS feed viz. an increase in term deposit interest rates. This could prompt the customer to visit the bank’s website even though she had no prior intent of doing so. As a result, banks and financial institutions could see significantly higher levels of customer engagement as they accelerate the introduction of Web 2.0 technologies into their customer-facing applications.

What this would mean in terms of usability and performance of customer-facing applications, how banks and financial institutions can leverage other Web 2.0 technologies like AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), Ruby on Rails, and what kind of strategies banks can adopt to distribute toolbars, and so on – these will be the subject of a future blog. Readers’ views are welcome in the meanwhile. While the Gartner report talks of banks and financial institutions, Web 2.0 technologies could be equally beneficial in many other sectors, especially those that have the need to constantly stay in touch with a large expanse of customer audience. For example, telecommunications, insurance, hospitality, and so on.

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Call Center Call Performance Survey — Unique Practice by HUTCH

Saturday, August 12th, 2006

Calls made to Call Centers can often lead to frustrating experiences … long waiting times before you can reach a live operator, difficulties in understanding thick accents of some of the operators, having to repeat yourself each time you call to follow-up on the same complaint, call getting disconnected repeatedly, and so on.

Today, I got a pleasant surprise from HUTCH, my mobile phone provider. After my call to their helpdesk got over, I got an SMS message asking me if I was satisfied with the experience of talking to their representative. Since I have never been asked such a thing before by anyone, I decided to reply back immediately. They replied back seeking more feedback.

To best convey what were the specific areas of feedback sought, I am giving below the transcript of the SMS messages exchanged between HUTCH and me.

QUOTE

HUTCH: We would like to know more about your experience. Would you like to respond to a few questions? Reply toll-free with Yes or No.

Me: Yes.

HUTCH: Was Mr. MP able to take care of your query or problem? Reply toll free, with Yes or No.

Me: No.

HUTCH: Did you like Mr. MP’s tone and manner?  Reply toll free, with Yes or No.

[At this stage, I couldn’t help testing their system. Instead of a ‘Yes’, I tried a ‘Y’. Let’s see what happened]

Me: Y

HUTCH: Invalid response. Please reply with Yes or No.

[Fair enough, their system was programmed to accept only a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’. So, I went back to ‘Yes’.]

Me: Yes

HUTCH: Thank you for your feedback. If there is more that you would like to share, please SMS your comments to 6790 (toll-free).

Me: Doing a survey to evaluate call center performance is a unique initiative. I appreciate it and I am going to make a mention in my blog on sketharaman.com.

HUTCH: Invalid response. Please reply with Yes or No.

ENDQUOTE

In their previous questions, they clearly asked for Yes / No responses. But, here, they specifically asked for comments and did not restrict the response to Yes / No choices. Under the circumstance, their system should have been programmed to accept free format comments in response. But, apparently, it wasn’t — instead, it was still expecting only a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ by way of response.

This is a flaw. By correcting it, HUTCH could possibly get a lot of additional comments and feedback for improving their call center performance.

Apart from this small flaw, I found this to be an excellent initiative from HUTCH. Hopefully, other large users of call centers like other telephone companies, banks and online travel agencies start following a similar practice in due course.

 

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Abandoned Shopping Carts — even in the real world!

Monday, August 7th, 2006

Abandoned shopping carts are not rare in online stores.

As customers browse the shopping pages of an online store website, they decide which items they wish to buy and add these to their shopping carts. When they are done shopping, they click the “Proceed to Check Out” button. Studies have shown that anywhere between 40 and 55% of customers quit the site at this stage when they learn that they will have to disclose their credit card details.  This is one situation of abandoned shopping carts.

There are other situations where people might have abandoned their shopping carts when the websites informed them that their shopping cart was empty even though they got a positive confirmation each time they added an item into it. I have personally experienced this in a few online stores including fabmall.com. This happens due to technical problems affecting the stability and robustness of the website. Presumably, these problems are fundamental and not solvable, because I continued to face them even when I shopped there last month.

We are now hearing about abandoned shopping carts even in brick-and-mortar supermarkets!

Hypercity, a newly opened hypermarket in Mumbai, India, sells a wide variety of products ranging from food, stationery, personal hygiene, consumer durables, electronics and computer accessories. They recently reported that they have some visitors who visit the shop regularly, stack several items into their shopping carts but abandon the shopping carts before reaching the check-out counters. Hypercity says that it devotes a lot of time of its staff to round up such abandoned shopping carts and re-arrange the items back into the respective shelves.

The common reason given by retailers for this behavior is “aspirational retail therapy”, where the customer wishes to buy all these items but cannot afford to, so s/he achieves some level of satisfaction by moving around the store and placing the items into her / his shopping cart.

There could be another reason for abandoned shopping carts: Despite their relatively large sizes, most stores are short on merchandise. While many of these stores (e.g. Hypercity, Shopper’s Stop) are comparable in size to their overseas counterparts, they don’t have the comparable range  of products. There are still several items in India that are available for businesses but are not sold in retail e.g. cash box, leather notepads, and until recently, envelopes with self-sealing tabs.

Computer and electronics is another big category. In Pune, India, which is where I live, many leading supermarkets claim to sell a wide range of PDAs. But, when you actually visit the stores, they barely have one or two models in stock and only brochures for the rest. As a result, many knowledgeable visitors are disappointed and return empty-handed. This is effectively the equivalent of abandoned shopping carts.

When you probe deeper, the supermarket’s staff will tell you that if you place an order, they will get the item for you. This traditional “agent” mindset is not going to work in a supermarket setting which attracts people primarily for its ability to provide a touch-and- feel  shopping experience, which is not possible in an online store. A retailer has to stack shelves with goods — only then can he hope to make a sale and avoid abandoned shopping carts. Surprisingly I have noticed this happening not only with relatively high value items like PDAs but also with small-value items like USB pen drives and DVD drives.  If retailers cannot afford the working capital for buying goods upfront and stocking them, they are better off not paying the high rents for their retail outlets located in glitzy malls and hypermarkets. (To be fair to retailers, the range of mobile phones and digital cameras stocked in stores are satisfactory in most parts of India — retailers cannot be blamed for any cases of abandoned shopping carts).

Reading about the highly ambitious plans of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries to set up thousands of supermarkets countrywide, it appears that their plans to launch private label / house brands is key for ensuring that the shelves are stocked adequately. In many western countries, leading retailers have successfully exploited house brands priced at 40 to 60% below the market leader for stocking up their shelves and for increasing footfalls and revenues. For example, Wal-Mart has its iLo house brand and Best Buy has recently launched its house brand called Insignia. Germany’s ALDI has been very successful with its YES house brand. So much so that YES is quoted as one of the reasons for Wal-Mart recently opting to pull out from Germany altogether.

As they become more commonplace, customers will realize that house brands are essentially un-branded and have nothing to talk for them except low prices and a giant retailer’s backing.  At this stage, customers will start demanding quality certifications from objective rating agencies in order to help them compare such products with the leading brands. Stiftung Warentest is one such agency. Based out of Germany, it rates products and services in diverse categories like food, personal hygiene, housing, automobiles, garden supplies, and so on. Both leading brands and house brands of leading retailers submit their products to Stiftung Warentest for testing and certification. Digital cameras, packaged tours, toilet paper and home loans — these are some of the products and services for which Stiftung Warentest has recently published test reports in its German language website (http://www.stiftung-warentest.de).

Whichever way one looks at it, you can’t help getting the feeling that there are exciting times ahead for the retail sector in India! Be it in brick-and-mortar stores or in the cyberworld, both retailers and customers are looking forward to fewer abandoned shopping carts. 

 

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List of My “Top Books”

Sunday, August 6th, 2006

I have posted the list of my Top Books. Click here for this list. I’ve intentionally included fiction, non-fiction and so-called “management” books in a single list.

This is a list of my all-time favorite books, so you will not find these books in any current bestseller lists. I will soon post a list of my current favorite books.

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