Archive for September, 2010

How Banks Can Differentiate Beyond Products

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010
In a recent comment on a Finextra post (http://www.finextra.com/community/fullblog.aspx?id=4490), Madelie von Ludwig (
http://www.finextra.com/community/profile.aspx?memberid=51569) of Nedbank, Johannesburg wrote that banking products “are becoming a commodity and differentiation has to take place on another level”.
I fully agree with Madelie.
Like we do for high-tech companies with our proprietary STRADOF model, it’s probably time for Financial Services Companies to also look beyond the product to find differentiators, of which there are plenty in what we call the “Total Ownership Experience”.
With my current ongoing struggle with two Top 5 UK banks to remit money from UK to India, I can readily propose “Concierge Remittance” as one such differentiated offering.
An in-person consultative service by knowledgeable staff at the branch premise will help demystify BIC, IBAN, transfer currency, and other complications involved in a typical high-stake remittance transaction.
In a previous experience a few years ago, it was very off-putting for me to reach the branch of a Top 5 UK bank to do a remittance transaction  in person, only to be directed toward a telephone, and then having to speak out a 30-character IBAN number, beneficiary name, and other details loudly enough so that I could be heard over the din of the surrounding lunch hour Canary Wharf crowd. What was worse, the telephone transfer didn’t come free-of-cost. Even if people had to pay double that fee, I’m sure many of them would prefer face-to-face service for such transactions.

In a recent comment on a Finextra post, Madelie von Ludwig of Nedbank, Johannesburg wrote that banking products “are becoming a commodity and differentiation has to take place on another level”.

I agree with Ms. von Ludwig. Like we do for high-tech companies with our proprietary STRADOF framework, banks and financial services companies can also look beyond the product to find differentiators in various attributes of the “Total Ownership Experience”.

With my current ongoing struggle with two Top 5 UK banks to remit money from UK to India, “Concierge Remittance” is one such differentiated offering that readily comes to my mind. An in-person consultative service by knowledgeable staff at the branch premise will help demystify BIC, IBAN, and the other jargon involved in a typical high-stake remittance transaction.

In a previous experience a few years ago, it was very off-putting for me to reach the branch of a Top 5 UK bank to do a remittance transaction in person, only to be directed toward a telephone because they didn’t handle cross-border remittances from the branch. Mind you, I’m not talking about some remote branch – it was the one located right below the bank’s global headquarters in London. What was worse, I had to shout out a 30-character IBAN number, beneficiary name, and other details loudly enough so that I could be heard over the din of the surrounding lunch hour Canary Wharf crowd. And the point to note is that the telephone transfer didn’t come free-of-cost. Even at double that fee, I’m sure many remitters would prefer face-to-face service for such transactions, so “Concierge Remittance” can very well be a profitable offering from day-one.

Banks are in a lucky situation where their customers – like me – provide them with free advice to make more money! I only hope they’re listening. It’s really upto them to differentiate themselves by offering value added services that can earn them extra fee income, or risk losing business to MoneyGram, Western Union, XOOM and other money transfer operators and innovative payment service providers.

FORTUNE Global 500 & Magnifying Glass

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

f500For the first time in over ten years, I was disappointed with a FORTUNE GLOBAL 500 issue. This year’s issue had far less coverage of the gyrations of the corporate world’s movers and shakers as compared to the ones in the past.

To begin with, this year’s issue had no editorial. In the past, I’ve always found the editorial providing an excellent introduction to the special issue, besides cleverly exposing the gargantuan task involved in its creation through the human angle.

There was no leader article to explain the key revenue and profit trends across countries and sectors. For example, what led to massive revenue plunges of so many companies – 39.5% at Royal Dutch Shell, 47.9% for Arcelor-Mittal, and 36.9% in the case of Caterpillar, to name a few – and how long are they expecting to take before regaining their lost sales. While no one expects an explanation of the bloodbath undergone by Wall Street last year, it was shocking to see such precipitous fall in the revenues of so many Main Street companies. Without the customary leader, you were left to try and make some sense out of these crazy numbers by visiting the footnotes – which surely called for extensive use of a magnifying lens. There was no industry-wise ranking of the corporations. Gone also were the fancy charts one takes for granted from this issue.

In fact, there was so much missing that I double-checked to make sure that my copy wasn’t missing a few pages (it wasn’t).

The ad strips that usually run below each page of the list were also conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps lack of advertising support was the culprit for this year’s skimpy coverage?

I’m sure some of these items might be covered on the fortune.com website but I prefer reading them in the print form, which is why I pay money to subscribe to the magazine in the first place despite having access to the online version at no cost.

For the past ten years or so, I’ve archived each FORTUNE GLOBAL 500 issue until the next one came out the following year. Guess I won’t bother this year.

Preserve Aspect Ratios & Protect Corporate Identities!

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

whois02_50wJust by looking at the picture on the right, if you can guess who is featured on it, you don’t need to read any further.

However, like most of us with normal eyesight, if you’re able to recognize that it’s Aishwarya Rai only after clicking on the image, welcome to the world of distorted images on the world wide web.

While this is an extreme example of distortion, let’s see a few relatively common examples.

wrongar01_250

If you look at the picture on the left, you’d surely recognize the companies behind the respective logos, but you’d also realize that something is not quite right here. Just as you wouldn’t like people (mis)spelling your name variously as JJackk, Jaccck, Jackk, despite everyone knowing that they’re referring to Jack, companies wouldn’t like people taking liberties with their corporate identities, of which logos are a vital component.

wrongar02_300The same way, I can bet that Lee Child won’t be pleased to see how an online library displays the jacket cover of one of his books. But let me not single out this website. If you search Google Images for logos of leading companies and jacket covers of popular books, you’d find no end to distorted versions.

This is because programmers – and, sometimes, even graphics designers – don’t pay attention to “aspect ratio” of images. Defined as the ratio of height to width, aspect ratio is as intrinsic to an image as its shape and color. As the above logos and jacket covers indicate, the wrong aspect ratio distorts an image and mars its identity.

In spite of the importance of aspect ratios, they aren’t preserved very often either out of ignorance of the concept or a casual attitude while handling images. This explains why we see so many distorted images on the Internet.

While there could be several reasons for this, let me quote a couple along with suggestions on how to kick this problem.

People tend to resize an image simply by grabbing its corners and dragging them in whichever direction they wish to increase / decrease its size. In this process, the height and width of the image change disproportionately as compared to the original image’s attributes, thus resulting in the loss of the image’s aspect ratio. To avoid this, click the Shift key while dragging the corners of an object – this way, the program ensures that the aspect ratio is preserved. Alternatively, for those using the resize commands in various programs, ensure to select the option that’s typically called “Lock aspect ratio” or “Preserve aspect ratio” depending upon the specific program, as shown in the following picture.

par01_400

Sometimes, the way in which HTML code is written is also to blame. In order to reduce download times of images, programmers are encouraged to specify the height and width of an image that they’re calling within their HTML code. Given a fixed space in which to display each image from a set of multiple pictures, many programmers specify a fixed height and width within their HTML code. Now, since different images have different sizes, forcibly displaying them within a uniform height and width window leads to altering their aspect ratios. This is the culprit behind the distortion of the jacket cover of the aforementioned Lee Child book, as the following code extract from this website shows.

ba01_400

While the original image’s width (100 pixels) is preserved in the so-called image tag within the HTML code, you’ll notice that its height has been forcibly changed to 120 pixels from its correct value of 150 pixels, which has led to the observed distortion.

usauto01In such situations, the trick is to embed original images of differing sizes into larger rectangles of uniform dimensions, so that their aspect ratios are preserved. The website of US Auto Parts is a good example of getting this right.

Let me conclude by exhorting all programmers and graphics designers to preserve aspect ratios and protect corporate identities!

Ways To Extend The Life Of Software Evaluation Copies

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Let me share a recent example in which I was able to extend the life of the evaluation copy of a software.

After 30 days, my Corel Draw evaluation copy expired. Since IrfanView fulfills most of my graphic needs, I wasn’t interested in shelling out over US$ 400 to buy a full license of Corel Draw. However, I recently faced a situation that demanded editing of a CDR file (for the uninitiated, CDR is Corel Draw’s native file extension).

orig360logo_200With Twitter and favicons, one needs small sizes of logos. Since the full size GTM360 logo is too large to be converted into a favicon, I decided to make a truncated version comprising only of the 360 and the ring around it. My graphic design agency supplied a version using which I created the favicon shown on the right. As you can see, the touch up work done on the full logo to create the truncated version looks shabby and I wasn’t keen on using this version.

I decided to work on the original CDR version of the full size logo and remove the characters G, T and M in text-mode, so that I’d be left with the truncated logo. However, the evaluation copy of my Corel Draw had run its course and I wasn’t about to buy a full version for such a small job. I was about to give up when I double-clicked the CDR file. Lo and behold, despite expiry of the Corel Draw trial version, I found that it opened up in a restricted mode.

As you can see below, Save, Save As, Export, Print, and many other important commands are dimmed out in this restricted mode. 

cdr02_400

However, using the commands that we still active, I was able to create the truncated logo.

cdr03_200But, the problem was that I couldn’t save the resulting image because the Save command was not active. Once again on the verge of giving up, it suddenly struck me that I could always use Print Screen key to take an image of the whole screen. Which is exactly what I did, and then used IrfanView to crop out the truncated logo.

rev360logo_200Using PowerPoint’s transparent image feature, I converted it to the required favicon, which you can see on the right.

As you can easily make out, the final favicon  created using Print Screen and an extended evaluation copy of Corel Draw looks far better than the starting version supplied by my graphics design agency.

This experience shows that some packages continue to be useful even past the expiry period of their evaluation versions. Thank you Corel Draw!

Who’s To Blame For Hardships In Getting IT Refund?

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Income tax consultants and financial advisors everywhere advise you never to pay any excess income tax to the government because of the difficulties and delays involved in getting a refund. This article from lovemoney is no exception. However, even at the risk of sounding as though I’ve some ax to grind for the UK government, let me narrate my experience which illustrates how we often rush to blame the government for our own errors of omission and commission.

hmrc01_250wA couple of years ago, I was eligible for refund on income tax since I was assessed at the higher tax rate applicable for the assumed full year’s income whereas I’d left my UK employment in July itself. When I completed the tax return on the HMRC website, I was surprised to be told that I owed income tax instead of being eligible for a refund. When I spoke to my UK employer, I was told that the problem lay with HMRC and that I should take it up with them directly.

I then called the HMRC person who told me that my employer had reported reimbursable travel expenses under P11D, which is a category meant for taxable benefits. I then had to get my employer to send a a letter to HMRC to clarify that the said amount was non-taxable expenses.

The blame for the difficulty and delay in the refund process in this instance lay squarely with my error of omission for not knowing how to enter reimbursable expenses in the income tax return form and with my UK employer’s error of commission for wrongly classifying such non-taxable amounts under a taxable category.

Let me also take this opportunity to note that the HMRC website is extremely frictionless and delivers a fantastic UX.