Archive for November, 2016

What Happens When You Use Excel To Collect Data For Your Software

Friday, November 25th, 2016

In Why Overcoming The Tyranny Of Excel Is A Lousy Positioning Theme, we’d cautioned software companies from pitching their software as a replacement for Excel.

Since then, we’re happy to see more innovative positioning around Excel by technology providers. For example, BI vendor Domo pitches its suite of data visualization products as complementary to – not substitute for – Excel.

Kudos to Domo, even if we say so ourselves!

In this blog post, we’ll cover another disturbing trend in software: Telling the customer to use Excel before they can use the software.

This was a common practice in the mid 1990s when ERP vendors used to circulate Excel-based “Master Data Collection Forms” for collecting bulk data like customer master, item master, vendor master, and so on. We’re dismayed that, despite the availability of far more advanced technology 20 years later, vendors in many product categories still use Excel sheets for the same purpose.

There are at least two reasons why this is not a good thing:


dilbert-cognitive-dissonancePut yourselves in the customer’s shoes.

You’ve just bought a software after listening to a vendor tell you how it’s better than Excel (among other things). Then you’re told to use Excel before you can use the software. If you’re like most customers, you’d feel let down badly, or undergo what’s called “cognitive dissonance” in Consumer Behavior.

In the days of onprem software, enterprises were committed to the success of the implementation because they’d paid the license fee for the software upfront, so software companies didn’t have to bother too much about cognitive dissonance. However, in the SAAS world, a customer that suffers from cognitive dissonance is a customer that’s likely to cancel their subscription by the end of the month. So cognitive dissonance has become a critical issue now.


Excel is error-prone. In almost every onboarding we’ve seen, Excel uploads have eventually led to poor data quality, incorrect classification of hierarchical entities and additional efforts for reconciling Excel-inputted data with “true” data. In some cases, errors in Excel have caused catastrophes, as highlighted by GTNews in “The Perils of Excel”: “Elementary spreadsheet errors have in this case potentially impacted the economic well-being of perhaps billions of people, who have been exposed to austerity policies based upon false data.”

This threatens onboarding and, thus stymies revenues of a SAAS company.


It’s therefore clear why software companies should eschew the use of Excel for collecting master data.

But that’s easier said than done, given the widespread usage of the practice. Before we propose a solution for this apparent conundrum, we need to understand why Excel is so popular in the first place.

excel-data-entry-fiFrom personal experience and discussions with several companies, Excel is used widely for collecting master data for the following reasons:

  1. In Excel, you can enter data at high speed from the keyboard. In software frontend, you need to look at the screen and use the mouse. This slows you down.
  2. After entering a row in Excel, it’s easy to hit the Enter key to go to the next row immediately. On a software frontend, you need to hit the Submit button at the end of a screen and wait for the screen to be refreshed and the next blank screen to come up.
  3. Excel accepts anything. Software throws out errors when its validation logic spots a discrepancy between the data entered and the field definition. For some fields, software allows you to only select entries from a drop-down box. If you can’t find your data on the list, you’re stuck.

In short, Excel is faster for bulk data entry and does not ground you with fatal errors.

Against this backdrop, any alternative for Excel should address these fundamental issues.

mde01The key to doing so is the realization that screens in software are designed for entering small amounts of transaction data over a long period of time rather than for entering huge amounts of master data over a short duration. Using the same screen for onboarding causes all the problems that have established Excel’s predominant position in the process of collecting master data.

To address this, we recommend development of a separate set of screens that mimics the way Excel works in gathering bulk data. Each screen should allow entry of data without validation, which should be run on a batch of data instead of when each screen is saved, as most software products do today. In other words, validation should happen “offline” instead of “online” as in the current design. The same error queues and messages used for validating Excel-inputted data should be reused for validating data entered via frontend screens. This will ensure that master data can be inputted using the software as easily and with equal – if not better – quality as via Excel.

We admit that development of this separate “Onboarding UI” will increase development efforts. But it will also eliminate cognitive dissonance and minimize onboarding failures. From the experience of a customer that has followed this approach in their software, the incremental efforts will pay back many times over by reducing churn and enhancing CX over the lifetime of the SAAS software.

PSA: Don’t Get Defensive About Not Going Cashless

Friday, November 18th, 2016

psa-cashless-fiThe Indian government recently demonetized the INR 500 and 1000 notes and announced plans to introduce new design notes in INR 500, 1000 and 2000 denomination. In the wake of this move – trending as #CurrencySwitch among a few other hashtags – many people have been asking why India hasn’t taken this opportunity to go totally cashless.

Many Indians have been replying with statements like “Indians are illiterate” and “Indians are not tech savvy”.

This is a Public Service Announcement to Indians to stop going on the defensive on this subject.

Not just because literacy levels in India have improved considerably in recent times or because Indians are far more willing to try out new technologies.

But because going cashless is less about literacy or tech-savviness and more about hurdles related to business model and consumer behavior. Obstacles include high MDR cost, friction of making cashless payments, aversion to being tracked, fear of overspending, reluctance of banks to issue merchant accounts, and so on.

I’ve blogged about these challenges here and on Finextra  over the past few years. Here’s a quick recap, updated with recent developments following the announcement of #ExchangeSwitch on 8 November 2016.

#1. High MDR Cost

“Merchant Discount Rate” or MDR refers to the fees paid by merchants for being able to accept cashless payments. For credit cards, which are the most popular form of cashless payments in India, MDR is around 2%. For many categories of merchants, this is a prohibitively high cost e.g. khirana stores (India’s equivalent of mom-and-pop grocery stores) who work at around 5% gross margin. There are other forms of cashless payments such as mobile wallets, prepaid cards, and so on. While they may charge lower fees, they come with their own challenges related to friction, speed, concerns around shareholding pattern, etc.

#2. Friction

Online card payments are subject to two-factor authentication. While 2FA has the noble intent of increasing security, it makes the payment journey tortuous and causes very high levels of failed payments.

Offline – or instore – payments are subject to PIN. While friction in offline payments has reduced since the Chip+PIN regime was introduced last year, hooded POS terminals are few and far between. As a result, there’s no privacy while entering PIN.

Online or offline, even tech-savvy people have gone from card to COD payments.

#3. Aversion To Being Tracked

Every cashless payment involves a third-party apart from the consumer and merchant. This means every purchase made with a cashless method of payment is being tracked. Even if people have nothing to hide, they tend to get put off by spam when their purchase information – what, where, how much for did they buy – falls in the wrong hands.

#4. Fear of Overspending

Cash is tangible whereas cashless MOPs are intangible. It is widely perceived that credit / debits can lead to overspending. As Santosh Desai points out in Times of India,

It is easier… to spend money using a credit card, for the outflow seems more theoretical than it does when paying in cash. The difference between Rs 2,000 and Rs 20,000 is a slip of the pen in one case and a complex exercise involving withdrawing money from the bank, carrying it in one’s wallet and counting it (twice) before handing it over.

Overspending is not a concern in my 25+ years of using credit cards because I maintain a meticulous record of all charges I put on my credit card. However, that’s only me and I can appreciate why most people do believe card payments can lead to overspending.

#5. Reluctance of Banks to Issue Merchant Accounts

To accept card payments, merchants need a POS terminal, telephone connection and a basic knowledge of operating the PIN keypad. Most merchants I come across can handle all this. But they’re not enough. One major prerequisite of accepting card payments is a merchant account. For the uninitiated, this is a contract between a bank (“acquiring bank”) and a merchant. Because of their conservative risk management norms, banks have traditionally shied away from issuing merchant accounts to khirana stores, vegetable vendors, cabbies and other so-called “micro merchants”. As a result, many merchants from whom consumers make everyday purchases are unable to accept card payments even if they wish to despite #1 above. Going by post-#CurrencySwitch announcements from State Bank of India, India’s largest bank, this may change going forward but it’s still early days.

#6. Delays in Receipts

Because of #5 above, taxi drivers are unable to accept card payments on their own. They do accept card-linked mobile wallet payments via their aggregator company e.g. Uber, Ola. If you thought this would easily push one big category of everyday expense to cashless payment modes, you’d be mistaken. As a cabbie once told me:

When customers pay by cash, I get the money immediately. However, when they pay by card, the money goes to the aggregator. It takes me anywhere from a week to a fortnight and a couple of fareless trips to the aggregator’s office to collect it. So, accepting electronic payments is not good for my business.

As a result, most cab drivers are reluctant to accept cashless payments.

This problem has only escalated since #CurrencySwitch:

#7. Card on Delivery Limitations

Because of friction in online payments, I’d gone back to Cash on Delivery for online shopping. Then Amazon India and a couple of other ecommerce companies started offering Card on Delivery. With this payment mode, I can avoid paying online but still pay with my card when the consignment is delivered. I’d rate this as the most convenient method of payment for online shopping. It also saves the ecommerce company a load of trouble of handling cash. Given these two benefits, I’ve been expecting this win-win MOP to go mainstream. But that hasn’t happened.

It was only from this post-#CurrencySwitch article on Economic Times that I learned why:

Therefore, ecommerce companies that outsource deliveries to third-party logistics firms can’t offer Card on Delivery.

currency-in-circulationTo paraphrase Hamlet, there are more things that come in the way of going cashless than are taught in an engineering course.

India is not alone.

No country has gone cashless. 85% of world’s transactions happen in cash according to Business Insider. Currency in circulation in USA has actually risen according to The Wall Street Journal.

So let’s not put ourselves down about not going cashless. For a cashless – or even less-cash – regime to happen, many more things need to fall in place than just literacy and tech-savviness. My post How To Really Kill Cash provides a few pointers.

Jai Hind!

Do You Face Online Jingoism? I Do

Friday, November 11th, 2016

face-jingoism-fiThe Internet is full of jibes of people’s nationalities. They appear on articles, blogs, reviews and comments. Often sarcastic and sometimes venomous, they run down the author’s or commenter’s nationality without any provocation.

Let me quote a few personal examples of where I’ve come across such remarks in the recent past:


The Finextra article titled Brits expect cashless society within 20 years is about Britain, so Brit-specific comments are okay. Country-agnostic comments are also okay e.g.

John Candido – Black Cabs – Melbourne

I agree that the end of cash is not expected tomorrow or even next year. But the prospect for a cashless society’s eventuality is clearly inevitable to me, even if it isn’t something that a lot of people cannot foresee for the time being. There are just so many signs of cash’s inevitable decline that I don’t give cash a snowball’s chance in hell to survive the next let us say 50 years or so.

Now let’s take the following response to the above comment:

A Finextra member

Please tell me the signs of cash’s inevitable decline in the United States, Germany and the Arab world, where cash is still king and does not show any signs of declining in the foreseeable future. It may be the case in Australia, where less than half of one percent of the global population resides, but in many large, and often sophisticated countries, cash is still the preferred apyment (sic) method.

The reference to Australia in this comment is entirely unwarranted. It’s quite likely that the anonymous commenter picked it up from the reference to Melbourne in the earlier commenter’s profile.

Like his or her name, the anonymous commenter’s nationality is also undisclosed. This makes it a non-level playing field.


Let’s take this thread on Twitter, which began with the following tweet from @BenedictEvans of the tech VC firm Andreessen Horowitz:

I retweeted it with my comment:

Now look at his reply:

Duh, how does “emerging markets” come into the picture?

I suspected where he was going with this but I replied, tongue-in-cheek:

Now he came to the point:

Maybe it’s only me but the implication that people in emerging markets only have low-end devices is obviously racist.


linkedin-jingoismIn this post (, LinkedIn member Susana Joseph writes about how fellow member Ian Viner sent her a promotional message to get her CV written and, when she declined his offer, made the following remark:

You wouldn’t have a clue how to write a CV – nor would anyone else in India either.

I don’t think the xenophobia in this message needs much explanation.

When I tried to locate this post now, I got the following error message: “Sorry, this update isn’t available. It may have been deleted.”

Maybe Susana Joseph has deleted her update. Maybe LinkedIn really retains members’ posts only for one month as I remember reading somewhere. Or whatever. But you probably won’t be able to find this thread.


The above remarks display racism or xenophobia or nationalism or whatever this behavior is supposed to be called. Despite looking up a thesaurus and consulting an MFA graduate in creative writing, I wasn’t able to find a single word for it. Therefore, I’ve used the term “jingoism” as a catchall phrase to refer to this behavior in this blog post.

If you have a better word than jingoism to collectively describe racism, xenophobia and nationalism and / or come across the behavior on blogs and social networks, please share in the comments below.

If jingoism gets your goat and / or affects your business, you might want to fight it. In a follow-on post, I’ll describe five ways to do that. Watch this space.

Strange Happenings In Amazon

Friday, November 4th, 2016

I exhibit cult loyalty for Amazon among a few other brands. As I wrote in What Drives Cult Loyalty?,

I’ve been shopping on Amazon for over 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!

I think I didn’t knock hard enough. As if to make up for a decade and half of excellent Customer Experience, I faced problems with almost all of my recent orders on Amazon India.


amazon-india-raksha-bandhan-01My wife placed an order for a Raksha Bandhan gift for her brother. This Indian festival celebrates the love and duty between brothers and sisters. To ensure that the consignment reached before the festival – it fell on August 18 this year – she paid extra freight charges. Lo and behold, instead of her brother, I got the gift on the morning of Raksha Bandhan! As befits a gift order, there was no invoice on the package. However, there was no mention of Amazon anywhere on the package either. In fact, the gift was delivered in the packing of another ecommerce company. Several months later, my Amazon buyer dashboard still shows the order status as “Dispatched. Expected 23-Aug-16”, which is strange since it’s already November!


Amazon recently launched its Prime program in India. I quickly signed up for it. While Prime promises 1-2 day free delivery, Amazon committed nothing earlier than 5 day delivery period when I actually placed my orders. And, in a recursive twist, the delivery of Amazon Prime Welcome Kit itself took over 20 days!



While shopping for razor cartridges, I went to the product page and selected the COD (Cash on Delivery) payment option. I saw a fairly long list of sellers. I clicked the one in the Buy Box and proceeded to checkout. In the penultimate step, Amazon informed me that COD was not available for this seller. I thought this was strange – if COD wasn’t available, why did Amazon show this option to me in the first place when I’d set my filter to COD? All my cult loyalty for Amazon couldn’t stop me from feeling cheated on this occasion. I abandoned the shopping cart, went over to another ecommerce website and placed my first order there. Now, this competitor of Amazon has been wooing me for 5+ years, but I’d stayed loyal to Amazon India. But this one shady act of Amazon India achieved for the competitor what five years of its special offers could not. At the time, I thought this was something specific to Amazon India. It was only when I read Amazon Says It Puts Customers First. But Its Pricing Algorithm Doesn’t about Amazon USA a month later that I realized that I probably had my first taste of Amazon’s dodgy algorithms.


After 15+ years of being loyal to Amazon, it may be too early for me to give up on the ecommerce giant. But companies are known to give CX the short shrift when shareholders ask too many uncomfortable questions about their revenues and profits.

So I’ll keep my fingers crossed.