Archive for August, 2013

Mera Bharat Mahan!

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

From: S Ketharaman [s.ketharaman@gtm360.com]
Sent: Thursday, August 15, 2013 11:31 PM
To: ‘editet@timesgroup.com’
Subject: Mera Bharat Mahan! | Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor of The Economic Times:

Kudos to Ms. Rama Bijapurkar for her brilliant article “Of Course We Have, and Here’s to Much More” carried in today’s Economic Times.

I’ve lived abroad almost half my working career of over 25 years in countries like Oman, Germany and UK. I’ve always had the option of settling down overseas but I always chose to return to India because, as Ms. Bijapurkar says, I “love this crazy, flawed, impossibly hard-to-deal-with-land of ours”.

Apart from The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, NREGA and the other public service programs mentioned by Ms. Bijapurkar, I want to call out the revolution of sorts in Indian healthcare.

A year ago, my father was admitted to the ICU of Jehangir Hospital in Pune. As his “attendant”, I’d to spend extended hours in the waiting room just outside. Almost 75% of the people there were from the lower strata of the society. If they were able to admit their family members to one of the most premium hospitals in the city, and that too, in the high cost ICU, it’s only because of the support they were getting from the government. While my father was a “full fare paying” patient, I was reassured that my tax Rupees were being put to good use by the government in providing quality healthcare to the weaker sections of the society.

While I’ll always “rave and rant about what we can do better”, we must give credit where credit is due.

Jai Hind!

Thanks and Regards.

Ketharaman Swaminathan

The Severe Identity Crisis On Twitter For Digital Marketers

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

This Finextra article highlights a major challenge facing digital marketers using Twitter for business development:

How do you determine the veracity of a Twitter account? Put in another way, how do you verify if a certain Twitter handle really belongs to the person to whom you think it does?

Since marketers don’t want to waste their time “listening” to the wrong guy, this is a big problem. For example, if you wish to keep abreast of news and views from NatWest Bank, you might simply follow @NatWest. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work: This Twitter handle belongs to one Ms. Natalie Westerman. According to this story on The Telegraph, when NatWest Bank’s Internet Banking portal crashed recently, millions of its customers tweeted to @NatWest to vent their anger, wrecking havoc on Ms. Westerman’s timeline in the process!

A thorough marketer – and customer – could’ve visited NatWest Bank’s website and picked up its correct Twitter handle (@NatWest_Help).

However, this approach doesn’t work with companies who shy away from displaying their social media buttons on their websites, presumably because they’re wary of linking their websites to  third-party sites that lie outside their control. For example, you won’t find @IDontLuvUMovie anywhere on the movie’s website (I found it on its print ad, BTW).

While companies like that might be rare, individuals are an entirely different ballgame. Very few people have private websites. Twitter Search is not foolproof since many famous – and infamous – individuals attract droves of squatters with similar-sounding handles. For example, there are reportedly more than 100 Twitter handles impersonating  Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the governor of Central Bank of Nigeria.

At this point, Twitter does not seem to enforce anti-squatting rules. You can claim to be God and, as long as the @god handle is available, Twitter will allocate it to you without verifying that you’re indeed God. Okay, just joking. But you can virtually claim to be @anyone on Twitter and get away with it.

An extreme example of Twitter’s first-come-first-serve policy in alloting handles can be found in @jackdorsey. While the owner of this handle – one Mr. John Pitts – is a “Father/Husband, Manhattanite, Peace Corps alum, book publishing veteran, dabbler, tinkerer, thinkerer”, he’s certainly not the illustrious founder of Twitter (who goes by @jack presumably because he got pipped to the post by Mr. Pitts).

As if marketers don’t have enough headache filtering out imposters, they face a much tougher task when they try to follow influential bloggers and company CXOs on Twitter.  A lot of them use handles that are completely unrelated to their names viz.:

  • @parislemon (MG Siegler)
  • @quixotic (Reid Hoffman)
  • @finkd (Mark Zuckerberg)

Maybe they use different – and more intuitive handles – while tweeting on business? No, siree, the following announcement of a new Facebook feature was found on @finkd:

While Twellow and other third-party directories can help, they can’t  weed out squatters – impersonators on Twitter are also impersonators on Twellow.

LinkedIn is a great source for searching for individuals and finding out their Twitter accounts, especially in B2B. However, like Twitter and other social networks, LinkedIn uses the User Generated Content paradigm when it comes to content submitted by its users. Therefore, you can create a profile claiming that you’re the head honcho of a certain company without even working there and LinkedIn will pretty much display it as is. As a result, marketers are not assured of the authenticity of the information they find on a person’s LinkedIn profile. If this goes against what you’ve heard about LinkedIn, I came to this conclusion only when I spotted two people’s profiles mentioning my company’s name when they didn’t work with me. If this can happen in a small company like mine, you can imagine the amount of impersonation that must be going in in the case of large and famous companies. So, the Twitter identity crisis remains even after putting LinkedIn to use.

A couple of weeks ago, Twitter announced a few enhancements to its premium product Promoted Tweets. At first glance, it appeared that the identity crisis problem has finally been solved. Alas, it was not be be. When I looked under the hood, the solution turned out to be partial: While Promoted Tweets now supports email retargeting, it doesn’t give you a list of Twitter handles of the people who were exposed to messages sponsored by your company.

I encourage readers to use the comments box below if they know any other solution for this problem.

The Experience That 99% Of Air Travelers Won’t Even Have Once In Their Lifetime

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

I traveled on seat 6E on a recent Indigo Airlines flight from PNQ to MAA. This is a common seat number on all flights. It’s not even one of the most preferred seats selected by frequent flyers. So, what’s the big deal?

6E also happens to be the airline code of Indigo Airlines.

Of the 20-odd airlines that I must have flown by over the years, I’ve never been on a single flight where my seat number matched the airline code. So, the match that I experienced on this Indigo trip was a first time occurrence for me. A little bit of back-of-the-envelope analysis would show that it’s extremely rare for anyone in the world.

Seat numbers are alphanumeric, with the row number followed by a letter denoting the position of the seat on the given row e.g. 6E. Therefore, they can’t match airline codes that are purely alphabetical e.g. AI (Air India), AA (American Airways), BA (British Airways), DL (Delta), LH (Lufthansa), SQ (Singapore Airlines) and SG (Spicejet), to name a few.

Now, coming to airlines that have alphanumeric codes.

We can skip Air Sahara (S2), GoAir (G8), Paramount Airways (I7) and other airlines that have codes beginning with a letter since seat numbers must begin with a numeral.

Next, if we look at airline codes that begin with a number and are followed by a letter, we can rule out the following airlines from our list:

  • Amber Air (0A) and others whose codes begin with zero, since seat numbers can’t begin with zero.
  • Airlines whose codes contain L to Z since the widest body aircraft currently flying has no more than ten seats in a row, thereby making K the last letter used for identifying seats (Source: Wikipedia). Examples of airlines in this category are Air Philippines (2P), Air Vegas (6V), Jet Airways (9W), and many other airlines.
  • Sky Trek International Airlines (1I), International Business Air (6I), Myway Airlines (7I) and a few other airlines that have ‘I’ in their codes. Since it could cause a mixup with the numeral ‘1’, the letter ‘I’ is generally left out of seat numbers.

Therefore, it’s only on airlines whose codes begin with a numeral between 1 and 9 and are followed by a letter between A and K (barring I) that a seat number can match the airline code. According to this list developed by me, there are only 73 such airlines globally, which constitute just 1.35% of the 5,666 airlines in the world. BTW, Indigo is the only airline from India on this list.

So, flying on a seat number that matches the airline code is very rare indeed. Almost 99% of air travelers will never have this experience even once in their lifetime.

On another note, when I reached my seat, I noticed that someone else was already sitting there. They’d obviously mixed up the airline code printed on the boarding card for their seat number. I can bet that *this confusion* is not so rare after all.

Running From Pillar To Post To Link Aadhaar Card To Bank Account

Saturday, August 10th, 2013

On my last few visits to the Internet Banking portal of this bank – a Top 3 private sector bank in India – I’d been seeing the following banner notice requesting customers to link their Aadhaar Number to their bank account at the earliest.

(For the uninitiated, Aadhaar Number is a 12 digit individual identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India on behalf of the Government of India. This number will serve as a proof of identity and address for Indian citizens. Even as it has just crossed the 20% mark on its way to eventually enroll all 1.2B Indians into Aadhaar, UIDAI has already become the world’s largest biometrics program.)

Until recently, I hadn’t paid too much attention to this banner because I never thought that I was eligible for any government benefits or subsidies.

All that changed a couple of weeks ago when my cooking gas distributor asked me to re-enroll for its service. Among other things, this involved submitting details of my Aadhaar-linked bank account. I’ll spare readers the gory details of how LPG cylinders, bank account and Aadhaar Card are related to one another. Google for “Government Monopoly in LPG Cylinders in India”, “LPG Subsidy” and “Direct Cash Transfer” to connect the dots if you’re interested. Suffice to say that, had I  ignored my LPG distributor’s instructions for much longer, my home fires would’ve stopped burning, the kettles would never have started boiling and the master of the house would’ve been sent far away.

Therefore, I decided to finally heed my bank’s missive and visited my nearest branch with my Aadhaar Card, expecting to be ferried past a smooth, well-oiled process and get out of the place in a few minutes.

I was in for a rude shock.

As soon as I entered the branch, my Relationship Manager bumped into me and took me straight to one employee (let’s call him Mr. A) who was supposed to own the Aadhaar linking procedure. After listening to me, Mr. A told me that this whole thing was only applicable for public sector banks and that, since his bank was a private sector bank, there was nothing to be done. I was flabergasted and, when I recovered from what I’d heard, I politely pointed out that I’d learned about “this whole thing” from his own bank’s website. I also showed him a printout of the website banner pinned on the notice board located five feet away from him.

Not one to admit his ignorance gracefully, Mr. A shrugged his shoulders and immediately told my RM to contact “Madam”, who, as Branch Operations Manager, was responsible for “all such things”. When I explained the purpose of my visit to Ms. B, as I’ll call this lady, she creased her forehead and pondered for a few moments. Then, suddenly, she seemed to have a eureka moment and recalled receiving an email on this subject a few months earlier. She asked my RM to pull out this email and do the needful immediately.

Fifteen minutes later, the RM couldn’t locate the said email. It was already 30 minutes since I’d entered the branch. Luckily, Ms. B had managed to find the said email in the meanwhile and had fired a printout of a form that had to be completed by the RM and me. She handed over the form to my RM and asked him to complete the procedure. Friendly as he was, it was obvious that the poor chap had never seen this form before.  To save him further embarrassment and myself, further delay, I took the form from him, completed it, and showed him where he had to sign. I also asked  him to place the bank’s seal to confirm that I’d signed the form in his presence and handed over a copy of the Aadhaar Letter to him. After doing all this, my RM nonchalantly put the form in his drawer and was about to get up and go. When I managed to edge in my question about how long it would take for the procedure to be completed, he gave me the stock answer, “7 working days”. All told, I was in the branch for over an hour.

It was evident that none of the bankers who I’d interacted with during this visit had been trained on this subject or had ever carried out this procedure before.

But, I’m not too bothered.

I’m simply going to quote this bank account in my gas company’s enrolment form. I’m sure everything will eventually work out fine. Over several years of dealing with this bank – and many of its private sector brethren – I’ve learned to be patient and have developed my own version of Bill Gates’ famous saying: “We always overestimate what banks can do in seven working days but underestimate what they can accomplish in one year”. Even if the bank gets it right only after a few more reminders and escalations from me over the next couple of months, it’s okay since the subsidy payments won’t be remitted to the aforementioned Aadhaar-linked bank account for another 10-12 months.

I know that Bill Gates’ quote refers to change but, sadly, in the context of many banks, my paraphrased version applies even for simple and standard operating procedures. Call me cynical but, with bank branches struggling with such mundane transactions, I’ve a good laugh whenever I hear digital pundits wax eloquently about how the bank branch of the future will transcend everyday tasks and help customers with advice related to complex products and services.

3 Ways To Execute Government Technology Contracts Profitably

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

There’s a lot of buzz in the media about how delays in realizing payments are making life difficult for vendors selling servers, laptops, tablets and other IT hardware to the government. Click here to see a recent article on this topic. While the industry is aware that government generally takes longer to settle invoices than the private sector, apparently not many suppliers are willing to accept DSOs that exceed 730 days (i.e. 2 years) of late. As a result, some vendors (like Zenith) have pulled the plug on government business.

While they might be right in their actions, this took me back to a time when I used to work for an IT company that faced a similar challenge. For exactly the same reason cited by an executive from HCL Infosystems in the above article – “The government is the biggest buyer of IT products and services” – staying out of the government business was simply not an option for us.

Therefore, it was down to me and a few of my colleagues to huddle together and devise a new strategy for making money from government contracts. As soon as we sat down to work on this mission, we spotted a few attributes that were common to almost all government procurement scenarios:

  1. Shipments are made to end users located in multiple locations over an extended period of time.
  2. However, the vendor needs to submit a single invoice for the entire contract to a central payments authority, which is several layers removed from the actual end users. And, generally, the twain doth not meet
  3. Delivery takes place 5-6 months after tender opening.

Turning our attention to how our company was geared up to respond to these harsh realities of government business, we saw a dismal picture.

We discovered that our invoicing used to get delayed – or, in the worst case, missed out – whenever staggered shipments were made to different locations. We resolved this problem by enhancing our accounting software such that it automatically recognized the point at which an order was fulfilled completely and generated the invoice without any manual intervention.

Because of attribute #2, it was not possible for our debt collectors to ask the customer’s central payment authority for payments by physically pointing out to the goods as proof of delivery and installation. To get around this issue, it was necessary to have flawless documentation. No minutiae – e.g. receiver’s signature should be on the LHS of the delivery note, organization’s seal should be on the RHS of the hardware installation report, etc. – was too small when it came to these payment authorities. We tried many ways of perfecting our documentation. In the end, what worked was for the salesperson to travel in the delivery truck and get all customer acknowledgments as soon as the goodies were delivered. Initially, many sales guys (and gals) protested about this “menial work” but all their objections vaporized when they found out how their “delivery chaperoning” activities expedited payments and helped them collect their sales commissions faster (of course, this presupposes the existence of a robust enterprise incentive management system like this one, but that’s a topic for another day).

As for the third attribute, it looks like nothing much has changed in the government procurement process since one of the vendor executives interviewed in the aforementioned article says, “Companies commit to a price on day one but deliver about 180 days later”. While this sounds like a challenge, it’s actually a great opportunity in the IT hardware industry where component costs are deflationary. If a certain CPU – an integral part of a computer – costs (say) US$ 200 on the date of submission of the tender, its sticker price would inevitably drop to (say) US$ 155 by the time it needs to be purchased. Future cost of the CPU can be predicted by carrying out a regression analysis based on historical costs, like we’d done at the time.

From this predictive costing model, we were able to predict the future cost of the component with more than 98% confidence level. By recomputing selling prices based on reduced component costs, we were able to secure higher margins on government contracts. Of course, this is not possible in private sector deals where quote-to-delivery cycles are much shorter (typicaly 2-4 weeks) and component cost reductions are accordingly insignificant. While exchange rate risks can adversely impact profitability where components need to be imported over an extended period of time, they can be mitigated by using currency hedging strategies. More on this approach can be found in our case study titled Middle East Hardware Distributor Sees Sharp Upsurge In Sales From Government.

While technology business from the government is fraught with challenges, it’s still possible to execute it profitably. What it takes is a fresh look at your “Quote-to-Cash” process spanning configuring, pricing and quoting through delivery, invoicing and collection activities.