Archive for November, 2015

Core Engineering Covets Top IIT Talent But Does Top IIT Talent Covet Core Engineering?

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

iitbd1-02According to Economic Times, IIT Bombay has acceeded to the government’s request to open up first day of placement season to core engineering industries. This is despite the fact that these industries offer only “half of the average Rs 30 lakh (~US$ 46K) salary” benchmark set by Day 1 prima-donnas like investment banking, ecommerce, management consulting and technology industries.

Readers of Michael Lewis’s “The Big Short” would know how banks made a fortune before sparking off the Great Financial Crisis. Here’s a short version for others: Investment banks created structured financial products that no one understood, packaged subprime mortgages into derivatives, hoodwinked Moody’s and other leading CRAs into rating MBS, CDO, and other structured products as prime assets, secured the necessary regulatory approvals, and sold them off to all and sundry, including conservative pension funds. In the process, they made boatloads of money and could reward themselves $$ bonuses – heck even one or two $$$M severance packages. In the end, when everything went belly up, they managed to get bailed out with taxpayer money. Amazingly, they managed to do all this amidst dire warnings from the likes of Warren Buffett that derivatives are weapons of mass financial destruction.

Anyone who has been following the ecommerce industry in India would know about this cab aggregator company founded by two IIT Bombay engineering graduates that was recently named as Best Startup of the Year and reached an astounding US$ 5B valuation within just five years of existence – with little revenues and massive losses.

Investment banks and ecommerce startups have challenged established norms and rewritten many rules of the game. In the process, they have earned fame and fortune without breaking any laws. Without going into the ethics and sustainability of their actions, their accomplishments require top notch talent in its own perverse way. Lots of it.

iitbd1-05Why it has to be drawn from IITs is up to the individual companies to decide. And decide they have: According to this article“IITians are stealing a march… over MBAs. Start-ups and large e-commerce companies such as Flipkart, Ola, Oyo Rooms, Jabong, CarDekho.com, Shopclues and Bewakoof. com, plan to hire more engineers this year in corporate and managerial functions.”

Not surprisingly, banking and ecommerce dominate Day 1 placements at the IITs.  

Now, coming to “core engineering”, I joined the IT industry soon after I graduated from IIT Bombay in 1985. Therefore, I’m out of touch with the minutiae of the jobs offered by these industries to engineering graduates. However, I do know that cars are still made out of the four stroke combustion engine invented in the early 20th century and soda ash is still manufactured using the Solvay process developed in the 1860s. Therefore, I’m somewhat puzzled at why core engineering is coveting top notch talent from the IITs. The aforementioned article says A-leaguers would give impetus to the government’s “Make In India” initiative. While that’s politically correct, it seems quite lame.

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But that’s not the point – if core engineering is coveting top talent from the IITs, it is.

What really matters is, will top notch talent from the IITs reciprocate core engineering’s love for them and accept the jobs offered by steel, electronics and heavy engineering companies on Day 1? That’s the million dollar – er, $46K – question. We’ll know the answer soon, when placements get over by the last week of December.

How About A Passport With Lifetime Validity?

Friday, November 20th, 2015

4842918652950403949_OrgWhen I’d visited the local Passport Seva Kendra (PSK) to renew my passport around a year ago, I was thrilled with the experience: The staff was courteous. From a photocopier on premise through to a well appointed waiting area and a modern display system, there were enough indications that PSK was fulfilling its vision statement, one adjective by one-too-many adjective.

To deliver passport services to citizens in a timely, transparent, more
accessible, reliable manner and in a comfortable environment through
streamlined processes and committed, trained and motivated workforce.

Cue to now. I visited the same PSK recently for renewal of my daughter’s passport and had a miserable experience.

The counters issuing the token and carrying out scanning of the documents (Counter A) appeared to be manned by employees of the outsourcer Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). The next two counters – Counter B for Verification and Counter C for Granting – seemed to be staffed by government officials.

On Day 1, the TCS person at the token counter asked me for a certain Annexure H. I didn’t know what it was. He gave me a blank form and told me to get it photocopied. While doing that, I noticed that this form was to be signed by “father / mother / legal guardian”. I pointed out to the person at the counter that, since only one parent was allowed to accompany a minor child, my wife hadn’t accompanied us, so her signature wouldn’t be possible. Pointing to the “/” between the father / mother / legal guardian in the form, he assured me that only one parent’s signature sufficed. After signing it, I proceeded to the next counter, which scanned all the documents.

Three hours later came my turn to go to the Verification Counter. The person here told me that he was putting my application on hold since it didn’t have the mother’s signature on Annexure H. I told him that I’d specifically raised this point at the earlier counter and appraised him about the response I’d received there. I pointed out that, had the previous person told me that both parent’s signature was mandatory, I could’ve called my wife over much earlier. He agreed with me and told me to share my feedback with the Assistant Passport Officer. The APO agreed with me about the need to ensure that all counters provided consistent information but regretted that it was too late in the day for me to call my wife over. She promised me that if I came back the next day, everything would be done in half an hour.

Turned out to be an empty promise.
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I went home and took my wife’s signature on the Annexure H. Not wanting to take a chance, I decided to take her along the next day. But the security officers at the gate allowed only one parent to enter. For the sake of continuity, I went inside, leaving my wife outside to be summoned up urgently if required.

We had to wait for two hours just to get the token. Out went the APO’s promise for getting everything done in a half hour. After another wait of 45 minutes came my turn to meet the officer at the Verification counter (different person from the previous day). This guy took a look at my application and told me that proof of address was required. I pointed out that I’d already included it in my application set and that the front office guy had removed it. Luckly, I’d still carried it along, so I could produce it immediately. But I’d to go back to Counter A to get it scanned it and have a photocopy stapled back into the application docket. This set me back by another 45 minutes.

While I was standing in the various queues, I spoke to a few others around me and found out why their applications were put on hold. Reasons included:

  1. Birth certificate has one extra name compared to the passport application. No, you can’t change the name on the application now.
  2. Bank passbook does not have rubber stamp of the bank. My bank never puts a rubber stamp on the passbook.
  3. Proof of address document is less than a year old.

Even if these points are highlighted on the PSK’s website – which I strongly doubt – they’re very flimsy grounds for holding back applications and asking people to make another visit, especially when many of them visit from out of town locations. There’s also something not quite right with a process that’s meant to grant / renew what’s essentially a fundamental right of a citizen if it ends up putting 100 out of 600 applications on hold.

I hope my case was an aberration and doesn’t presage the return of the traditional public service attitude of “come back tomorrow”.

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Reflecting on my experience, my thoughts drifted to my EU Drivers License that never expires. I wondered if the government could consider passports valid for lifetime. While it may be unprecedented,  a passport with lifetime validity would improve citizen experience considerably. And, since people might be willing to pay higher fees for it, issuing lifetime valid passports could become an additional source of revenue for the government.

Is anyone in the government listening?

What Drives Cult Loyalty?

Friday, November 13th, 2015

Cult loyalty is the highest tier of loyalty. Consumers at this level not only keep patronizing the brand forever and recommending it to everyone around them but also talk about it well outside the context of the product, as though the brand is a part of themselves.

What drives cult loyalty? Is it the product? Is it customer service? Is it data-driven engagement? Is it all of the above? Or, is it something else altogether?

In this blog post, I’m going to try to find the answer to this question by taking a few brands I love and examining if there’s a common set of factors that drive my near-cult loyalty status towards them.

#1. 3M

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3M Products

Post It. Scotch Tape. Scotchgard. Surgical Tape. Traffic Tape. Etc.

All these 3M products reflect a common theme: Technology must work for the welfare of mankind and innovation must add value to customers. This resonates very strongly with the ethos I picked up at my alma mater IIT Bombay. For the sake of clarity, I don’t mean “welfare” in the sense of social welfare or corporate social responsibility. To me, anything that has one of the following qualities provides welfare: It helps people to do their jobs better; it lets people extract more value from their possessions; it alleviates pain. Ergo all 3M products: Art Fry invented Post It to anchor bookmarks in his hymnbook when he saw that the slips of paper used by choir members on various pages of the book would fall off in the middle of the concert, causing major chaos in the process! Scotch Tape helped people make simple repairs to household items during the days of the Great Depression when they couldn’t afford to throw stuff away; 3M’s surgical tapes eliminate the need for invasive procedures to remove surgical sutures.

#2. Amazon

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Amazon Remembers!

I’ve been shopping on Amazon for nearly 15 years in Germany, UK, USA and, finally, India, during which period I must’ve bought at least 100 items from it. Knock on wood, Amazon hasn’t even bungled a single order so far! Amazon also remembers all my addresses across the four countries since circa 2000. I realized how heavily Amazon must’ve invested to accomplish this level of customer-centricity only when I interacted with this leading IT company recently. Among other things, this IT giant manufactures computers, printers and storage systems. I’ve been a customer of this company for over a decade. However, every time I call its customer care, I need to provide all my contact info for registration. Turns out that the company purges all customer information once in three months because it doesn’t want to allot more capacity to store data for longer periods!

#3. SBI

India’s largest bank exhibits thorough knowledge of banking. Its bankers have guided me on various occasions with tricky money management questions e.g. Will I gain by breaking my fixed deposits and redepositing them at higher interest rates when such a restructuring would attract penalty for premature termination? SBI even made a snap offer for mortgage when I encashed my FDs to fund a house purchase (click here for more). I’ve also had the experience of selling various IT products and services to SBI, during which time I was exposed to some of its extremely high caliber employees.

Apart from 3M, Amazon and SBI, I’m extremely loyal to Cleartrip (Online Travel Agency), Coca Cola and Deutsche Bahn (German Railway).

  • Cleartrip: In the past 10 years of booking tickets and hotel rooms online, I’ve used Expedia, Make My Trip and HRS. But ever since I discovered Cleartrip 7-8 years ago, I haven’t gone anywhere else. Nor do I Google for tickets or hotels anymore. I like the clean design of Cleartrip’s website. Once, when I’d canceled tickets booked on Cleartrip, I was pleasantly suprised to find the company following up with me to verify that I’d received the refund!
  • Coca Cola: I’ve absolutely no idea why I’m fiercely loyal to Coke.
  • Deutsche Bahn: I like DB for its high speed ICE trains with their great dining cars, awesome railway stations like Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, hourly connections between major cities in Germany and for performing the stunning feat of operating trains without a single stop over 500 kms (e.g. Berlin-Frankfurt).

*****

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My Cult Loyalty Brands

If I look at the above brands, good product is tablestakes across all of them. So, it’s certainly not the driver of cult loyalty.

Half of these brands don’t even know of my existence, let alone gather insights about me and engage with me with relevant, targeted offers. So, engagement based on data is also unlikely to drive cult loyalty.

But all of their product stories illustrate the use of technology for the welfare of mankind. All of of their owners have a consistent track record of providing superior customer experience. With this combination of their raison d être and operating excellence, each of them has managed to bond with me at an emotional level. I believe such an emotional bond is the driver of cult loyalty.

I concede that my assessment is highly subjective. I’m quite sure that each one of you has your own list of brands towards whom you exhibit cult loyalty and your own reasons for doing so. I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below.

Hiding Your Secret Sauce

Friday, November 6th, 2015

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They say every product or service must have a secret sauce. Some startups take the secrecy part of this advice to the extreme by going into stealth mode until they launch. While others point to today’s open world of startup events, mentoring sessions, Twitter and TED talks and question if it’s even possible to have anything secret.

Before sharing my perspective on this topic in this post, here’s a disclaimer: Frequent readers would be aware that this blog doesn’t distinguish itself with rigorous research and analysis. Even after making that admision, I must warn readers that I’ve taken personal observation and connection of random dots to unprecedented heights in this post. Proceed with caution.

For those who’ve come this far, I’m convinced that it’s possible to hide your secret sauce. My conviction comes from my recent deep-dives into a few products / services.

#1. SQUARE

By launching a card reader attached to a smartphone and accompanying POS software, SQUARE expanded the market for debit and credit cards to merchants who were hitherto restricted to cash. In the early days, it appeared that Square was successful because it obviated the need for merchants to buy costly point-of-sale terminals to accept card payments. Later on, co-founder Jack Dorsey talked up the company’s success to the deep insights delivered by the Square POS software to merchants.

Square-Mobile-PaymentsWithout belitling these critical success factors, Square took off for a different reason: It was the first product / service that allowed merchants to accept accept card payments without a merchant account. For the uninitiated, this is a line of credit extended by an acquirer bank and it carries the risk of merchant going insolvent. While you can find more details here, the key source of acquirer risk is fund reversals. Merchants targeted by Square are micro and small businesses that wouldn’t qualify for merchant accounts from banks because of their higher risk profiles. Against this backdrop, Square stepped in between the acquirer bank and merchants and, using its well-funded status, got a merchant account for itself. It then signed up individuals and small businesses with minimum fuss and took the risk of letting them accept card payments – without having to “toil hard to get this privilege”, as an investor in a Square-clone startup writes in this MEDIUM article.

With this innovative model, Square created a win-win situation for everyone: Merchants who left business on the table before because they couldn’t accept cards were now able to win those sales. Banks who earned nothing from such merchants’ cash transactions in the past now started getting incremental merchant fees without the additional acquirer risk. Square has, of course, become a modern day payments legend.

Update: I just chanced upon this GigaOm article that explains SQUARE’s USP:

One of the payment back end capabilities that was revolutionary behind Square was the extension of the merchant aggregation model for credit card acceptance from the internet (which Paypal has used so well) to the real world through an elegant point of sale solution.

The merchant aggregation model is explained in detail in this Digital Transactions article.

#2. GPSVoice

This GPS-based app helps parents track their children without draining battery. I’ve written a blog post about how it manages to do that. Suffice to say that the app increased its appeal by actually removing a few features.

#3. PayTM

PayTM is a mobile wallet prefunded by debit or credit cards (or bank accounts) of users who can use the credit to pay electronically at participating merchants’ sites without undergoing the friction of entering credit card information for every transaction on merchant websites. Tired of failed payments, consumers lapped up the frictionless alternative offered PayTM quickly. The initial success of PayTM inspired a lot of clones. However, with 100 million users, PayTM is clearly the biggest mobile wallet player in India. Its leadership position is often attributed to early mover advantage, massive funding and superior execution.

Without undermining these factors, I attribute PayTM’s popularity to a major difference in how it operates compared to the other mobile wallets. To illustrate this with an example, let’s say I initiate a payment of INR 1000 to a merchant when my wallet balance is only INR 700. My transaction would fail on all other mobile wallets because of insufficient balance. I’d have to quit the payment, go back to prefund my wallet with the deficit of INR 300 (being 1000 – 700), and then come back and reinitiate the transaction. What a pain! In sharp contrast, PayTM seamlessly switches over to its other role of electronic payment gateway, takes me to my funding source, asks me to fund the additional INR 300, and completes the payment in a single smooth pass. No error message. No need to retrace my steps. Very frictionless.

*****

As the above examples illustrate, the secret sauce of a product or service could be hidden in a

  • New business model that empowers people to do something they couldn’t before, or
  • Tweak in product architecture that solves the Achilles Heel of an entire product category, or
  • Change in customer journey that delivers superior CX.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, it’s varied enough to show that it’s possible to have a secret sauce and hide it too.