Archive for November, 2010

How Businesses Can Overcome The Tyranny Of Friction

Friday, November 26th, 2010

Writing in the Finextra blog about the tyranny of friction, David Strachan provides a personal example of how Flippin’ Pizza lost his pizza order due to friction.

Kudos for providing exposure to friction, which, in my opinion, is a serious hurdle for success in any business. In our work around our EMAIL360 widget and other frictionless online solutions, we see tremendous scope for improvement in reducing transaction friction not only in financial services but also in IT, high tech and other sectors – online payment and electronic bill payment are just a couple of cases in point.
EMAIL360 helps you transform your website into a lead generation engine

EMAIL360 helps you to transform your website into a lead generation engine

Unfortunately, spotting revenue losses due to friction is very difficult. In your example, Flippin’ Pizza probably doesn’t even know that they lost your pizza order. The problem is compounded by facetious responses like “if somebody really wants to buy, they’ll take the trouble (to overcome friction)” that demonstrate absolute lack of understanding of the threat to their business from frictionless competitors.
I think we can see concrete improvement only when providers of frictionless solutions come up with innovative pricing models in which they offer their solutions at no cost and are willing to link their fees to incremental conversion brought about by their solutions.

Transaction friction is a highly underrated threat for any business. In our work around our EMAIL360 widget and other frictionless online solutions, we see tremendous scope for reducing friction not only in financial services but also in IT, high tech and other sectors. Friction in white paper download, webinar registration, online payment and electronic bill payment are but a few cases in point about which you can read more here and here.

Unfortunately, it’s very challenging for consumers and frictionless solutions providers to make merchants and service providers appreciate the amount of revenues they’re losing on account of friction. In Strachan’s case, for example, Flippin’ Pizza probably doesn’t even know that they lost his pizza order. The problem is compounded by the facetious attitude – “if somebody really wants to buy, they’ll take the trouble (to overcome friction)” – that blinds many business owners to the threat posed by frictionless competitors.

I think consumers can see a concrete improvement in this area only when providers of frictionless solutions come up with innovative pricing models in which they offer their technology for free and link their fees to incremental revenues enabled by their solutions. This is what we’ve done in the case of EMAIL360 where merchants, service providers and other website publishers get the widget and up to three leads for free, and pay us only if EMAIL360 delivers more leads.

Capital Protected Products Under Regulator Scrutiny

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I’d suggested that banks and financial institutions in India should renew their promotion of capital protected products as a means to drive more investments into equities and other higher risk assets. An old friend Rajeev Jog had commented that “it’s impossible to guarantee protection of capital”.

Today’s report in the Economic Times suggests that banks and FIs are trying to make the impossible possible. They have applied to India’s stock market regulator Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) for approval of several capital protected products that they plan to launch in the near future. Apparently, and presumably for exactly the same reasons pointed out by Rajeev in his comments, SEBI is not impressed and has asked at least four FIs to withdraw their prospectuses for capital protected products.

The Great Recession clearly exposed the intrinsic challenges faced by FIs in trying to create capital protected investment products. Despite their learnings, if FIs are still trying to peddle such products, some amount of regulatory oversight is called for, and SEBI’s directive to FIs is a step in the right direction.

The report also adds that the regulator will issue approvals for these products only if an external rating agency vets the debt portion of the fund’s corpus. When it comes to the track record of credit rating agencies with complex structured products, we’ve seen this movie before, and can only hope it has a happy ending this time.

How Humanlike Are Virtual Agents? – Part 2

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Encouraged by our experience with the virtual agents on Alaska Airlines and Yorkshire Building Society websites (click here to read Part-1 of this post), we headed towards the website of Milton Keyes Council to check out its virtual agents Shak (male) and Jo (female).

For the uninitiated, a council in the United Kingdom is the administrative body that runs local services such as schools, social services, waste collection and roads in a borough, which in turn is the sub-unit into which each town and city in the UK is divided. For example, Greater London comprises of 32 boroughs of which 12 plus the City of London form Inner London, whereas the 20 remaining boroughs make up Outer London. From my experience with the voice-recognition based bill payment system deployed by London’s Tower Hamlets council, I’ve generally developed a very favorable opinion of the tech-savviness of councils and other government agencies, so was keen on deep-diving into Shak and Jo.

The experience wasn’t so great.

Based on my experience with the Tower Hamlets Council, the question “Can I pay my council tax by debit card?”, should’ve elicited a simple “Yes” response. However, Shak beat around the bush by pointing us to several pages like

How much Council Tax do I pay?

How and where can I pay my Council Tax ?

Can you give me more information about Council Tax?

How can I reclaim overpaid tax?

Can I complete my tax return online?

While we might’ve found the answer on one of those pages, we didn’t bother looking – after all, who needs a virtual agent to locate a needle in a haystack?

We moved on to check Shak’s response to questions pertaining to current affairs in the borough. We noticed a news item being flashed on the Council’s website saying that the Council was on track to save GBP 48 million. Thinking that we’d check Shak’s response with this news item on its own website before progressively ratcheting up the complexity to headlines from The Sunday Times, we asked Shak: “How much is the Council planning on saving?”

VA_MK_450w

Shak’s reply stopped us right on our tracks. Despite the answer being readily available on the Council’s website, Shak pointed us to a page containing “full details of applicable fees”!

This stray experience won’t lead us to conclude that virtual agents fall short of human interactions. For, like many of you, we also keep encountering extremely inane and frustrating interactions with call center staff, and our  experiences would suggest that it’s an insult to describe virtual agents as humanlike.

Let’s narrate a recent incident of our interaction with a human customer service representative of a leading private sector bank in India.

hdfc_vbv

Login screen

A few days ago, I received a flyer by mail from this bank from whom I’d taken a credit card recently. The flyer went on and on about the virtues of registering my credit card for the additional layer of security offered by the bank for online shopping via its Verified by Visaand MasterCard Secure programs. Having already registered my previous credit card for VbV, I decided to follow suit with my new credit card.

However, apart from a cryptic one-liner –  “Log on to www.xxxxbank.com” to register for VbV – the flyer contained no detailed instructions. When I logged on to the bank’s website using my regular username and password, I landed on the usual accounts summary page. When I could find absolutely no mention of Verified by Visa there, I quickly logged a complaint seeking information on where exactly I could find the VbV registration link. A couple of days later, I was rudely shocked to receive an email from a CSR of the bank explaining me how to regenerate my Internet Banking username and password, which he gathered that I’d forgotten! Mind you, here was a live human who couldn’t get a simple query that had nothing to do with forgetting anything. I replied back to clarify what exactly I was seeking. Long story short, it took eight days for the bank to understand my question and to provide the answer. It finally turned out that the said link for VbV registration was present right on the homepage of the website and had to be accessed before logging in.

This CSR did nothing to justify his being considered intelligent by virtue of being a human being. Any humble virtual agent integrated with a rudimentary knowledge base would perform better.

Of course, I concurrently went through a delightful experience with the support personnel of an online media network called Lijit Networks. My support ticket pertained to issues related to publishing their widget on my blog. Despite the fact that it took 4-5 emails over so many days for my problems to be resolved, at no stage did I get the feeling that there was a brainless nitwit sitting on the other side. For those interested, the full email-trail between me and a highly customer-friendly Lijit CSR by the name of “Jeff” can be found here.

In the final analysis, we believe that virtual agents show tremendous promise and could easily supplant lower-end call center staff. Of course, as web robots, they come with the natural baggage of being perceived as “dumb machines”, so marketers of the technology have to use innovative packaging and appropriate use cases so that they can exploit the full potential of virtual agents to penetrate larger markets. Otherwise, they risk seeing the new generation of virtual agents go the same way as the humble paperclip that Microsoft discontinued from Windows XP.

Free SAP Customer Contact of the Day!

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Back after three days. Making up for the absence with 3 free contacts today.

Click here for the Free Contact of the Day from

Sacramento Municipal Utility District

Drury Inns Inc

Thomas Cook UK Ltd

 

How Humanlike Are Virtual Agents?

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

From their early – and much parodied – avatar of the animated paperclip in Microsoft’s Clippit, virtual agents have come a long way.

Virtual agents are intelligent Web robots with humanlike persona that have the ability to interact with website visitors in automated dialog, understand users’ needs, guide them to Web pages without navigation, cause images to pop up, highlight portions of their screens – anything to help customers get the information they need and complete the transaction they want to. Virtual agents can even operate as a virtual sales assistant, identifying cross-sell and up-sell opportunities. If they cannot answer a question, they can instantly escalate the query to a human customer service assistant via live-chat, e-mail or call-back, using existing call centre management software.

While they’re still not as ubiquituous as search bars or live chat windows, virtual agents can be spotted with greater frequency on the websites of airlines, e-commerce, financial services, retail, telecom and other categories (though not healthcare or industrial goods). Leading users include medium and large companies like Aetna, Alaska Airlines, BBC, BT, Continental Airlines, eBay, Finaref, IKEA, London Olympics, Merrill Lynch, O2, PayPal, SFR (Telecom), and Yorkshire Building Society.

Virtual agents seem to be ideally suited for website visitors’ questions related to product selection (e.g. Do you do buy-to-let?), pricing (e.g. What’s your best price for Boston to Juneau?) and customer service (I left my BlackBerry on the flight, what should I do?).

According to the marketing material of the leading providers of this technology – VirtuOz, NextIT, Synthetix and CreativeVisual, to name a few – virtual agents are positioned somewhere between search and live chat. We recently took a test drive of a couple of virtual agents to get a first hand experience of how humanlike and helpful they are.

VirtualAgent_AA_1_101_250wOur first destination was Alaska Airlines which calls its virtual agent “Jenn”. Check out some our questions and Jenn’s replies below:

———————————————-

You Asked: What is your best price for a ticket from Seattle to Juneau?

Jenn: Pulls up a screen that displays various choices of flights from Seattle and Juneau.

You Asked: Do you fly to NYC?

Jenn: Alaska, Horizon, or at least one of our partners has service to that city.

———————————————-

When told that Alaska Air doesn’t fly to Mumbai, we asked the following stupid question just to test Jenn’s reaction:

———————————————-

You Asked: Why don’t you fly to Mumbai?

Jenn: Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air offer international flights to and from the United States and select destinations in Canada and Mexico. Choose a link to see a display of the cities we serve. For tickets to destinations our partner airlines serve, please fill in your departure cities and travel dates.

———————————————-

Wow, Jenn was not fazed!

VirtualAgent_YBS_1_part2_300wConvinced that Jenn was quite humanlike and helpful, we decided to up the ante with another virtual agent. This one, simply called “Ask”, can be spotted on the Yorkshire Building Society’s website.

Instead of a straightforward question about their product range, we decided to check whether they offered “buy-to-let”, which is a mortgage product I’ve come across only in the UK. Under “buy-to-let”, people borrow money to buy homes for the express purpose of renting them out and use the monthly rentals to cover the mortgage repayments.

Ask replied that YBS regretfully no longer offered this version of mortgage. Although it took one extra mouse click than strictly necessary, Ask’s response had the most appropriate tone considering that most banks and building societies in the UK exited the highly lucrative buy-to-let category on the back of negative publicity it attracted amidst accusations of having contributed to the recent subprime mortgage crisis.

In Part-2 of this post, we’ll describe our experience with another virtual agent in the e-governance area. We’ll then narrate a couple of recent experiences with live operators of two different websites – one, that of a leading Indian private sector bank, and another, of an American online media network. We’ll then weigh in on the current positioning of virtual agent technology between search and live chat. Spoiler: Technology and systems integration vendors have a great opportunity to re-position their offerings to achieve even greater market adoption of the virtual agent technology.

Today’s virtual agent technology has evolved from the days of Microsoft’s Clippit. Clippit was
among the earliest interactive assistants. It was an animated paperclip that integrated with Office
help content. It first appeared in Office 97 when the program determined that a user might need
assistance searching help or using Office features (see Figure 4). Arguably, one of the measures of
Clippit’s impact is in the number of parodies it inspired, and the feature was ultimately not included
in Office XP. Today, we find that:

Free SAP Customer Contact of the Day!

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

Click here for the Free Contact of the Day from

San Antonio Water System

Free SAP Customer Contact of the Day!

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Click here for the Free Contact of the Day from:

Hitachi Consulting Corporation

Get A Free SAP Customer Contact Every Day

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

logo_sapml_300dpi_200wIn continuation of our recent launch of v2 of our SAP MAILING LIST, we’re pleased to launch our Free Contact of the Day! program, in which we’ll be giving away one SAP customer contact every day – absolutely free. Contact information will include Last Name, First Name, Title, Company, Telephone, Email, and Country.

While you’re welcome to visit the SAP MAILING LIST page of the GTM360 website to collect the free contact of the day, we’ll also be distributing it via Talk of Many Things. Each day, we’ll post the URL of the page from where you can download the contact as a CSV file. To automatically have the blog post delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe to Talk of Many Things by using the subscription option on the homepage of the blog.

For those who prefer to try out their luck at bigger things, we’re simultaneously launching another program to give away 100 SAP customer contacts (worth $200) absolutely free every week. Details of this program can be found on the aforementioned page.

We hope business development executives of SAP and other ERP service providers will find this mailing list useful in their efforts at targeting existing SAP sites for upgrade, support, replacement and other offerings.

Click here for Free Contact of the Day from: Delta Air Lines, Inc., USA

Suggestions For The Indian Software Product Industry

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Lamenting on the declining revenues of the Indian software product industry, this article in today’s Economic Times puts the blame on long sales cycles and lack of preferential treatment for this industry in Indian government procurement contracts. It goes on to share a few thoughts – increased R&D funding, government subsidies, and so forth – for driving greater success rate for the industry.

I found a few points conspicuous by their absence and had wanted to highlight them by way of comments to the original article. However, since I couldn’t get the commenting feature on the website to work despite several attempts, let me use this blog as the bully pulpit from which to air the following suggestions.  

  1. Marketing, marketing, marketing: According to anecdotal evidence, for every $X invested on product development, a typical American product company spends $3X on marketing. Whereas most Indian product companies seem to begin with the misguided notion that “if you build, they will come”. By the time they realize its importance, there isn’t much money left for marketing (or for anything else, for that matter, as it appears from the fact that almost 20% of companies in the industry reportedly downed their shutters last year). Instead of reaching out to external marketing solutions providers and treating them – including my own company GTM360! – as commission agents at that late stage, product companies would do well to factor in some marketing dollars right upfront into their business and funding plans. 
  2. Realize fundamental differences with the services model and stop asking prospective customers about their requirements during the initial interactions with them. Since products come with prebuilt functionality that prospects expect to find useful regardless of their specific situation, requirements gathering should be postponed to the later stage when the vendor is required to submit a fixed price proposal for implementation and customization services.
  3. Appreciate that customers buy a product not for the sake of the product / technology but to drive a certain business process, which can only happen when the product lands safely into their system landscape that comprises of many existing applications. To do this calls for deep systems integration skills. Since the typical DNA of many product firms precludes development of such skills inhouse, most of them would be better off by striking partnerships with third-party SI specialists.

Having worked for and advised some of India’s leading software product companies, I believe that implementation of the aforementioned suggestions would help improve the success rate of the Indian software product industry. Click here to find out more about GTM360’s offerings for this industry.

Win 100 SAP Customer Contacts Every Week

Monday, November 8th, 2010

logo_sapml_300dpi_200wIn continuation of our recent launch of v2 of our SAP MAILING LIST, we’re pleased to launch our program to give away 100 SAP customer contacts (worth $200) every week. Contact information will include Last Name, First Name, Title, Company, Telephone, Email, and Country. Details of this program can be found on the SAP MAILING LIST page of the GTM360 website.

For those who prefer the guarantee of a steady flow of contacts, we’re also simultaneously launching the Free Contact of the Day! program, in which we’ll be giving away one SAP customer contact every day.  While you’re welcome to visit the aforementioned page daily to collect the contact of the day, we’ll also be distributing it via Talk of Many Things. Each day, we’ll post details of the URL of the page from where you can download the contact as a CSV file. To automatically have the blog post delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe to Talk of Many Things by using the subscription option that can be found on the homepage of the blog. 

We hope business development executives of SAP and other ERP service providers will find this mailing list useful in their efforts at targeting existing SAP sites for upgrade, support, replacement and other offerings.