Archive for May, 2010

Save Money By Using Credit Cards!

Monday, May 31st, 2010

A few months ago, I’d posted a blog about why credit cards don’t necessarily lead to overspending.

Now, forget overspending: the recently launched Offermatic promises that you can actually save – and make – money by using credit cards.

offermatic01_300When you sign up for Offermatic, you register your credit card(s) with it. Offermatic will then securely connect to your online bank to download your transactions. Based on your purchasing history, it will send you emails containing highly relevant money saving offers on everyday purchase items like car rentals, textbooks and music. 

As an icing on the cake, Offermatic will pay you $15 per year per card even if you don’t use any of its offers – as gratitude for registering and using its service. This way, you can make money on your card even as a passive user of Offermatic.

As in the case of Mint, WeSabe, Kublax and other personalized personal finance management (P2FM) services, you have to give away the keys to your online account to Offermatic to receive its offers. Like I’ve written before, that might stop a lot of people – including me – in their tracks.

However, there’s a difference: By giving away your login credentials to P2FM services, you’re letting them access your entire bank account. You’ve to take them at their word that they’ll not do anything other than download your transaction statements. Whereas, in the case of Offermatic, you’re only letting it access your credit card account. So, it can’t do much else than download your transaction statements, as long as you don’t have your credit card  and checking / savings accounts in the same bank.

However, the situation becomes complicated with debit cards, which can also be linked on Offermatic’s website.

With the exception of the decoupled variant that has gained traction only in the US so far, debit cards are issued as an add on to checking / savings account held with a particular bank. Therefore, by letting Offermatic access your debit card online account, you’re in effect opening up your checking and savings accounts to it. In this case, Offermatic poses the same security concerns as P2FM services. Notwithstanding Mint’s $170M+ exit to Intuit, the CEO of a newly-shuttered P2FM company told me recently that security concerns are playing havoc with the plans of many P2FMs to achieve scale, and are bound to stunt the growth of Offermatic.

Going past security concerns, Offermatic has a strong story in terms of the usefulness of its offers. In a blog post explaining the rationale behind the founding of Offermatic, its founder Faisal Quereshi claims that Mint and other P2FM services only make offers for financial products. Since I haven’t linked any of my bank accounts to Mint due to the aforesaid security concerns, I don’t receive any offers from it. Therefore, I’ve no way of knowing if Mint’s offers are restricted to financial products. But, assuming it’s true, I agree with Quereshi that it’s very difficult to avail oneself of financial offers because, as he says, “switching financial accounts is about as much fun as a root canal”. Since Offermatic’s offers relate to everyday purchase items, they’re bound to be far more useful to its users.

One more interesting thing about Offermatic is its claim to be able to come up with offers that are guaranteed to save you as much as 90% of the sticker price on various items. Now, readers might have come across such deep discounts only on GroupOn and other group buying sites. Unlike offers on those websites, an offer from Offermatic is valid regardless of how many other people sign up for it. This should guarantee far greater conversion for Offermatic’s offers.

Offermatic has found an interesting niche between P2FM and group buying services. If it’s able to allay security concerns and craft the right go to market strategy for signing up a large enough base of advertisers ready to make the offers for it to distribute, Offermatic should have a bright future.

Will Wal-Mart Succeed With EMV Where It Failed With RFID?

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010


Wal-Mart executive calls for US move to Chip and PIN

US retailer Wal-Mart is calling on the nation’s banks to move to the international EMV standard for securing financial transactions at the point-of-sale. Speaking at the annual forum of the Smart Card Alliance, Jamie Henry, director of payment services, Wal-Mart Stores says the supermarket chain rejects the idea of investing in ‘band-aids’ such as end-to-end encryption and tokenisation.


When Wal-Mart tried to drive RFID technology in the retail industry a few years ago, it resulted in a lot of buzz but nowhere near 100% adoption even several years after its original deadline passed. It remains to be seen how much impact its current call for EMV is going to make in the USA. But, one thing is for sure:  the somewhat-flippant label like “band-aid” given by Wal-Mart is not going to help improve business prospects for nuBridges and other providers of E2EE and Tokenization technologies.

Private Sector And Government Can Learn IT From Each Other

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

This one has been a long time coming.

Most private sector banking, insurance and other applications purporting to be online give up their online nature quickly and degenerate into “click and mail” applications the moment it comes to forms and signatures.  While they tell you that you can complete a form online, most often, all you get is a Word document that you must download, print, fill out by hand, sign in wet ink and snail-mail to some postal address. One of the most ludicrous examples I’ve ever come across is this one from a leading private sector automobile insurance company, which promises instant policy issuance on its PPC ad on leading websites, only to land you upon its website where you need to complete a form and wait for 48 hours to be contacted by one of their representatives. Let alone instant policy, you don’t even get an instant quote!

In sharp contrast, I’ve come across many e-governance applications in India and overseas that are almost 100% online.

Take for instance, my application to the Registrar of Companies for incorporating GTM360 Marketing Solutions. The application was filed on the website of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (India), under whose jurisdiction the ROC falls. The application had an editable PDF form into which you could simply enter all the information, save the PDF form and submit it. That’s it – no downloading, printing, handwriting and posting involved. This, as well as the Income Tax Return application on the UK government’s HM Revenue & Customs ministry’s website, issue a digital signature at the very beginning, so that they can dispense with the need for “wet ink signature” that undermines an application’s online nature.  

Thanks to these  experiences, I’ve been peeved with half-baked attempts from the private sector and delighted with some excellent examples from the government when it came to with online web-based applications.

I’ve been convinced for a while now that there’s ample scope for the private sector to learn a few things from the government on how to go about building online applications. I’ve been meaning to write about this for sometime and decided not to postpone it any further after coming across a recent article, which argues that since individual ministries have launched good IT applications by themselves, there’s no role for the Department of Information Technology (DIT) under the Ministry of Communications and IT, which should therefore be immediately dismantled.

While I believe that this article jumps to an unwarranted conclusion, it made me recognize that, when it comes to governance, organization structure, and roles and responsibilities, the government might find a few useful things to learn from the private sector.

In many private sector companies, finance, marketing, sales, HR and other functions tend to develop point systems on their own. Done from time to time to gain greater flexibility and faster time to market among other reasons, these applications do not always have the fullest involvement of the company’s IT. However, that doesn’t negate the importance of a corporate IT function as a standards-setting body. Likewise, instead of dismantling the Department of Information Technology, the government can restrict its mandate to setting broad IT standards while leaving the actual implementation of those standards to individual ministries.

Changes In Tirumala-Tirupati

Monday, May 17th, 2010

I recently visited Tirumala and Tirupati after four years, on a pilgrimage to the famous Balaji Temple.

I noticed several changes from my last visit. Most – though not all – of them are for the better. Here’s a partial list:

  1. A new “Quick Darshan” ticket costing INR 300 has been introduced. With this ticket, you can enter the queue complex directly without any prior appointment. My two darshans during off-peak season took one and two hours respectively, although, I’m told, it could take as long as eight to 10 hours during peak season.
  2. The INR 300 ticket is only available in the Vaikuntam Queue Complex in Tirumala and nowhere else.
  3. The INR 50 ticket is no longer available in Tirumala. A total of 5,000 of these tickets is sold per day across different locations all over India e.g. Tirupati Bus Stand, Tirupati Srinivasam Complex, Renigunta Railway Station and TTD centers all over India. 
  4. With the INR 50 ticket, fingerprint and photograph are used as proof of identity. No more armband.
  5. Crowd control inside the main concourse of the temple not as good as before. Not sure if this has anything to do with the scores of scout and guide volunteers – rather than regular TTD staff – engaged to manage the crowd.
  6. Poor visibility into expected time of darshan in the “cages” that you pass through with the INR 50 ticket. The blank in the board stating “Darshan for you will be after ___ hours” was not filled up.
  7. The ladoo complex has shifted from the front of the temple to a massive building – built with future needs in mind, I’m sure – located on the north-east corner.
  8. Severe language problem – most of the hotel staff, taxi drivers and even a computer repairman I met only spoke Telugu, which is the local language of Andhra Pradesh, the state in which Tirumala-Tirupati is located.

FiServ ZashPay Should Gain Rapid Consumer Acceptance

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

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“GlobalExtreming” – Not Global Warming – Is The Real Problem

Monday, May 10th, 2010

glext01Pune in India has become a lot warmer over the years. As recently as seven years ago when I moved in here, it used to be really hot only for 2-3 months in a year during April-May-June. Even during those months, it used to be quite pleasant during evenings. Gone are those days. In the last three years, it has started becoming hot as early as February and it stays warm until July-August. It doesn’t cool down even as late as 11 o’clock in the night during these months. People in Pune won’t have any problems agreeing with the notion of global warming.

On the other hand, there was hardly any summer worth talking about during my last two years in London couple of years ago. Friends in New York and New Jersey area complain of excessive cold this winter. My sister says Norfolk, the town in Virginia where she lives, hasn’t seen so much snow in decades. If you talk about “global warming” with any of these folks, they’re bound to think you’ve lost it.

Is ‘global warming’ for real? Or is it a con pulled by fear-mongering environmentalists?

I think what’s really happening is a pronounced shift of climate to the extremes. Places known to be slightly cold are turning very cold whereas those generally considered warm are becoming very warm.

I’m not sure if this is what the proponents of ‘global warming’ really mean, but the term is definitely a misnomer.

How about GlobalExtreming? I think it captures the globe’s real climate problem far more accurately.

Call Centers Can Cut Costs And Still Enhance Customer Experience

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Websites of banks, telcos and other service providers make available a lot of generic information (e.g. interest rates) to their customers without asking them to log on. However, when the same customers telephone their call centers, why do they insist on knowing the account number, telephone PIN number and other info that’s virtually the equivalent of a voice log on?  It irritates me no end when they do this before ascertaining whether their callers are seeking generic info like “What’s the GBP:INR exchange rate today?”, or some account-specific details.

If only call centers provided generic info without creating any fuss over trying to ascertain a caller’s identity, they can not only make the interaction frictionless and thereby enhance the customer experience but also reduce call times and save time and money for themselves and their customers. Of course, authentication should be compulsory for the subset of callers who are seeking account balance, last bill amount, and other account-specific information.

Build – And Give It Away Free – But They Might Still Not Come

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

When a customer recently told me that he’d tried to leave a voicemail message for me but got a message saying my voicemail box was full, I was surprised. Like I’ve written in the past, usage of voicemail is quite low in India: I receive fewer voicemails per year in India than in a day when I was working in Germany and the UK. When I accessed my voicemail box, sure enough, I found only eight messages left for me over the last ten months – none of which I’d checked since I’d never received any alert when these messages were left. How a mere eight messages can exhaust a whole voicemail box is beyond me.

Recording a voicemail message is free for the caller. Despite that, it suffers from a low offtake, perhaps illustrating that you can build – and give it away free – but they might still not come sometimes. At the same time, voicemail is not free for the subscriber, some of whom enrol for it despite the cost (equivalent of $1-1.75 per month depending upon the provider) – possibly because they realized its value when they’ve used it abroad.

Whether this small minority continues to use voicemail or gives it up depends upon how mobile network operators (MNOs) address the problems in their voicemail services.

MNOs seeking to push up their ARPUs (Average Revenue Per User, which is estimated to be in the range of $5-8 per month in India) could use voicemail as a lucrative Value Added Service (VAS). The following features would help them to solidify the value proposition of their voicemail services and attract more adopters:

  1. Send realtime alerts to subscribers as soon as someone leaves them a voicemail. While this is a standard feature in many networks abroad, it rarely works in India, if my personal experience is anything to go by
  2. Notify subscriber promptly when their voicemail box is full or, better still, when it’s nearing full. Subscribers would have the chance to clear old messages and make room for new ones
  3. The voicemail introduction message (“message from so-and-so-number on so-and-so date and so-and-so-time”) should identify the caller by name if their number is present in the phonebook of the subscriber’s handset. This is a very useful feature and, although I admit that I’ve never come across it anywhere, I can’t resist asking for it. After all, MNOs in India are sitting on top of one of the hottest mobile phone markets in the world and can surely afford to take the lead in innovating and launching new features in India ahead of anywhere else in the world.

On the other hand, if MNOs neglect their voicemail services and continue with their present shoddy administration, they risk cancelation by their present users, with the resultant loss of revenues being not so inconsequential considering that voicemail subscription fees are almost 20% of ARPU.