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Thriving On Chaos Of SMAC Architecture

Friday, February 24th, 2017

If you follow this blog, you know that I mostly write about fintech, marketing, product management and customer experience. IT architecture is a new topic. I was prompted to write about it after witnessing a series of chaotic happenings with modern SMAC architecture during the last few months.

For the uninitiated, SMAC stands for Social-Mobile-Analytics-Cloud. SMAC applications are typically built using cloud hosting, app stores, web services and APIs.

This is how I encounter the building blocks of SMAC in my everyday life:

Cloud Hosting: My company’s website, including this blog that you’re reading, are hosted by HostGator, a leading hosting services provider.

App Stores: GTM360’s mobile apps are published on Google Play Store.

Web Service: Every time I publish a new blog post, a web service called Twitter Feed automatically tweets a link of the post to my Twitter feed along with the first 100 characters. Every time somebody likes, retweets or replies to my tweets, another web service called IFTTT adds them to a Twitter List called skr-engagers.

Third Party APIs: This blog is published using WordPress. The world’s leading blogging platform uses an array of APIs to perform various functions like validating the blog to third party plugins like Disqus (comments) and Akismet (spam protection).

SMAC architecture helps non-technical people do stuff they otherwise can’t dream about. For instance:

SMAC architecture also helps technical people cut down time-to-market of new applications by letting them deliver new functionality readily using preexisting web services (and open source code) instead of developing them from scratch. As Fortune says:

Fewer companies are releasing bloated, monolithic apps that take months or even years to revise. Instead, they are breaking them up into individual components or “microservices” that handle specific processes. For example, a bank might create one authentication system for creating accounts or for verifying a person’s identity that is used across all of its systems and apps. In theory, this lets organizations update software more quickly.

With that out of the way, let me describe the kind of chaos I witnessed with SMAC systems in the recent past.

#1. Failure of ‘Set and Forget’

Most SMAC services are designed to work on the “set and forget” principle. Most of the time, they deliver on that promise.

The chaos begins when they break that promise.

Like Twitter Feed did.  I recently noticed that the tweets posted by Twitter Feed didn’t contain the link to the post (although they did display the 100-character text). Because the web service had been working on “set and forget” mode ever since I installed it over five years ago, I’d totally forgotten how to configure it! I’d been wondering how to fix this problem. But, lo and behold, while I was trying to take a screengrab of one of the problematic tweets to use in this post, I noticed that the last three tweets do have a bit.ly link!

Problem solved. Without me doing anything about it.

Unfortunately, not all problems get solved automatically.

#2. Premature Death

So many web services are developed without a business model. Some of them acquire huge distribution by word-of-mouth. Then, they suddenly die. Like the aforementioned Twitter Feed and IFTTT recipe. Leaving thousands of applications built on top of them in the lurch. Now, I need to look for another auto-tweeting service for my blog and find some other way to update ‘skr-engagers’ whenever someone likes, retweets or replies to my tweets.

#3. Frequent UI Changes

We’ve all been through perplexing moments when familiar software suddenly looks strange, with screens, links and buttons vanishing into thin air. This happened with Windows Vista a few years ago. It happens with virtually every SAAS software nowadays. It’s easy to spout philosophical statements like “change is the only constant” and all that, but the chaos caused by frequent changes to user interfaces shouldn’t be underestimated, especially if the software is used by large teams and / or time-poor executives.

#4. Too Many Moving Parts

SMAC applications tend to use open source code, third-party APIs, and so on. This has introduced a lot of moving parts in software. As a result, companies are dependent on app store passwords, API keys and more. Since wide circulation of this critical information leaves the system open to attack from multiple threat vectors, the security best practice is to restrict its circulation. But the people who do know this information needn’t be permanent employees in today’s world of distributed development teams – they could be contractors or supplier employees as well. As a result, it has become quite hard and time-consuming to recover from a defect or attack, whether they’re caused by a poorly trained employee or disgruntled team member. As the aforementioned Fortune article notes:

The downside is that a company’s chief information officer might not have a centralized view into all of these different projects. If an app falls down on the job, it’s tough to pinpoint the cause.

I can testify to this from first hand experience:

An ecommerce customer’s employee consciously deleted a few duplicate records in the database without knowing that this piece of housekeeping would cripple the open source search function used by the software. As a result, the website came crashing down. Had the system been developed and hosted internally, it would have only taken a few minutes to troubleshoot the problem and restore the website. However, the website had used many building blocks of SMAC architecture and the only person who knew all the passwords and keys was no longer working for the company. Luckily, the present development team was able to locate him and secure his help to fix the problem. All’s well that ends well but it took four days to resolve a five minute issue. Needless to say, the company suffered a significant loss of revenues and severe damage to its reputation as a result of this outage.

The last, and perhaps the most serious, source of chaos is caused because SMAC hype has overtaken reality by leaps and bounds.

#5. Excessive Hype

Hype is no stranger to the IT industry. However, in the case of SMAC architecture, it’s gone a bit too far and is causing a lot of operational chaos.

I got a glimpse of this when I recently visited a healthcare center in my neighborhood. I was asked to fill a registration form. I told the receptionist that I’d already registered with them during my previous visit. He told me that they’d lost all customer data when their server crashed two months before without any backups. But he assured me that they won’t have any problem from now onwards because they’d “shifted everything the cloud”. Obviously, he assumed that the cloud service provider would take care of backups and make the data available 24/7/364.

Big mistake.

I hope the CIO of this company knows better. But I strongly doubt it. Because it’s not just this random healthcare center.

Australian ATM networks recently went down because their cloud service provider suffered an outage. According to Finextra, there was no backup. Apparently, the leading banks to whom the ATM network belonged thought it was the responsibility of the cloud service provider to take the backup. And the cloud service provider countered by saying the banks’ hosting plan didn’t include a backup.

When such things happen even to seasoned technology users like banks, you know that the “cloud gets rid of all infrastructure worries” hype has gone a bit too far.

 


Just to be clear, it’s not my intention to discourage enterprises from implementing new SMAC systems or migrating their legacy systems to SMAC architectures. I’ve highlighted the topic of chaos only to underscore the need to plan for measures to manage it while embarking upon SMAC implementations and migrations.

And I’m not alone. Yvette Cameron, Gartner Research Director, offers similar advice on the right!

Innovative Fintechs Don’t Need No Open Banking Regulation

Friday, February 17th, 2017

Pink Floyd fans won’t need any explanation for this post’s title*. 

The recent buzz around Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning has spawned the next generation of Personal Finance Management applications. While the forerunners in the cateogory like Mint (now part of Intuit, Inc.) are still available on the web, most of the new players are mobile-only. Going by monickers such as Mobile Money Management App and Money Management Bot – herewith termed MoMMA for the sake of convenience – they all require access to their users’ bank account information.

This has become a bone of contention of late with banks reminding their customers that their TOS forbid them from handing over their online banking credentials to third parties (I don’t know what took all but a handful of banks so long to assert an old clause in their terms of service – actually, I think I know, but that’s a blog post for another day).

As a result, MoMMAs have been looking to “Open Banking” regulations like PSD2 to give them a leg up. For the uninitiated, PSD2 mandates banks to allow fintechs to access banking data of customers.

But banks are not taking this lying down. According to Financial Times, big banks are lobbying to reduce access to customer data envisaged by PSD2, which would substantially dilute the original provisions of “open banking”. According to Sebastian Siemiatkowski, chief executive of Swedish online payments company Klarna, quoted by FT, “If it (PSD2) goes ahead as currently written it will not create open banking as the law originally envisaged.”

Fearing an existential crisis, fintechs are fighting back.

They shouldn’t.

In fact, they should stay away from regulation. As I’d highlighted in Fintechs Need Marketers And Lobbyists – Not Lawyers and Fintechs Need Guts More Than Lawyers!, many successful startups have flourished by leveraging “regulatory gaps” rather than regulation.

Instead, MoMMAs should become truly innovative and enhance their value proposition.

Intuitively, everyone knows that “earn more, spend less” is all the money management mantra they need. To get people to use a MoMMA to practice this principle is a tough sell, made even tougher by what the current crop of MoMMAs currently do:

  1. Transform the customer banking experience by enabling consumers to compare and save on current accounts, … look for mortgages more easily and access better terms for loans (Source: Finextra article titled Consumers unaware of Open Banking – Equifax)
  2. Answer questions like “How much have I spent on Uber this month?” and “Can I afford to go for dinner?” (Source: Finextra article titled Personal Finance bot Cleo)
  3. Protect customers from bankruptcy by telling them not to buy that $4.50 coffee. Okay, I’m joking about the bankruptcy but the part about the coffee is true.

IMHO, these existing features are quite lame because:

  • MoneySuperMarket, Which? etc. have been letting us do comparison shopping for current accounts and mortgages for ages without needing any access to our banking info.
  • What can we do about the money we’ve already spent on Uber?
  • If we can’t go for dinner, do we starve?
  • We don’t need a fancy MoMMA to tell us that a coffee costing $4.50 is a big rip-off that’s worth avoiding even if we’ll stay within our budget by buying it.

Okay then, how can a MoMMA use innovation to offer true value to its users?

A few ways of doing that would be for a MoMMA to:

  1. Give truly useful money management tips e.g. Earn $$$ more by sweeping X amount from a checking account to a savings product.
  2. Indemnify customers from losses caused by data breach arising out of third party access to customers’ banking info.
  3. Access only the info customers permit them to access – nothing more, nothing less. Screen-scraping via online banking password, which is currently the most widely used technology, fails this test because, once they’ve given away their online banking passwords to these apps, customers have very little control over what info the app can and cannot access.
  4. Make data sharing activity frictionless. OFX is one prevailing technology that lets the user download only the info they explicitly want to supply to the money management app or bot. However, most apps and bots require frequent updates of transaction info, which means users have to log in to their online banking portals frequently to download the latest version of their transactions. This can be painful.

#1 is related to consumer behavior and product management. #2 has a legal angle.  They’re both within the control of the fintech.

#3 and #4 are related to technology. As I’d highlighted in P2FM Services Walk The Tightrope Between Convenience and Security and How Many More PFMs Do We Need?, data access modalities have posed major challenges to the viability of the first generation of PFMs 8-10 years ago. But, all that’s history now. OFX-API seems to have cracked the Holy Grail of data access, going by the gung-ho views expressed by executives of JPMorgan Chase and Intuit when they recently announced their data partnership agreement based on this technology (Source: American Banker).

As a result, fintechs are closer than ever before to being able to leverage their innovativeness to develop a compelling value proposition for PFMs. If they achieve that, they can kick off their ‘open banking’, PSD2 and other regulatory crutches.

In return for the ability to make frictionless payments, tens of millions of otherwise security-conscious customers make payments with India’s largest mobile wallet app PayTM without entering a single password or PIN.

If MoMMAs give them a similarly compelling value proposition, people won’t care about sharing their online banking credentials with them – with or without PSD2.

I’m not alone in holding this view. As Steve Ellis of Metia says on Finextra, “…the question on sharing personal data is the wrong way round. No-one agrees to share personal data without being offered some kind of fair value exchange for it. Show the consumer a compelling value proposition and they will do it in the blink of an eye.”

Let me conclude by paraphrasing another Pink Floyd line:

Hey! Fintechs! Leave Them PSD2 Regs Alone

*: As for the others… well, it’s never too late to become Pink Floyd fans!

Figuring Out What Will Sell Where

Friday, February 10th, 2017

A Quoran recently asked me where he could sell his email list in India.

Normally, my Quora answers are quite concise. And, after seeing the following reply by Quora’s Founder Adam D. Angelo, I stopped worrying if I was too terse:

But the said question about email list gave me a chance to throw light on the differences in buying behaviors in different countries. Therefore, I wrote a rather long answer and, because these differences can shape the GTM strategies of B2B technology providers, I thought of repurposing it into this blog post.


Where can I sell an email list in India?

Short answer: Nowhere.

Long answer:

I’m assuming your list is targeted at a B2B company (e.g. CRM product vendor or ERP implementation service provider) rather than at a B2C company (say, retailer).

With that preamble in place, let me explain my answer with a personal example.

My company offers an email list that can be used for business development by SAP ISVs and Services Providers all over the world. This product has been selling briskly in USA ever since we launched it seven years ago. During the same period, we’ve received countless leads for this product from companies India. However, not a single one of them has converted into a deal so far.

Seven years is a long enough period. Why is there such a drastic difference in sales of the same product that’s prima facie valuable for both markets?

I tend to believe it’s because there’s a fundamental difference in the way technology companies do business in these two markets.

When they first look at this list, both American and Indian companies believe they can compile it by themselves. They’re right – we say so ourselves on our website.

Companies planning to launch campaigns to existing SAP sites can always build a lead list internally. However, there’s no single – free or paid – source of contact information regarding SAP installed base. As a result, they need to spend a lot of time and money to gather company names from one source, identify decision makers from another source and buy contact information from a third source. By the time their lead list is ready, their sales team’s enthusiasm might start waning, their window of opportunity might pass, or both.

However, from here, their approach diverges. At the risk of taking a major leap of faith, I think the former is driven primarily by revenue whereas the latter is driven primarily by cost.

Revenue-driven approach: Wow, now that I can buy it, I don’t need to spend the next 2-3 months to compile the list inhouse. By buying this list, I can launch an outreach campaign immediately and win a few deals within a couple of months. Therefore, I can earn revenues even before I’d finish compiling the list internally. Therefore, I’ll buy this list. Ergo, we bagged tens of deals for SAP Mailing List.

Cost-driven approach: Why should I incur a cost when I can put my people on the job to compile it inhouse? Therefore, I won’t buy this list. This approach ignores the opportunity cost of not earning revenues earlier caused by the delayed launch of the outreach campaign. Ergo, we bagged zero deals for SAP Mailing List.

Nothing right, nothing wrong, each to his own way and all that but that’s why our email list sells in USA and doesn’t sell in India.


I tend to believe that this is a deep-rooted reason that will influence the purchase behavior of all technology products and services in every market. IT product and services vendors might want to use it to figure out what will sell where while navigating the uncharted waters of formulating their market entry plans. While Confucius won’t think highly of them, it will help them allocate their marketing budgets in such a way that they will get the maximum bang for their buck.

Like we did – we stopped advertising for SAP Mailing List in India and increased the ad spend in USA.

Why Social Media Has Become My First Port Of Call For Customer Service

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

On a recent tweetchat about social media customer service, many tweeples felt that the channel was only suitable for escalation.

Not me.

I admit that it was for escalation that I first used social media a few years ago – it was to get my malfunctioning printer fixed.

But nowadays, social media has become my first port of call. That’s because I find it more frictionless and faster than telephone, website, mobile and the other traditional customer service channels:

  • Telephone means having to listen to hold music and navigate through convoluted phone trees. This is painful and time-consuming.
  • Website means trying – mostly in vain – to fit my problem to the list of options available on the site.
  • On Twitter, I just need to find the brand’s handle and fire away my query, request or complaint.
  • Maybe because no one likes their dirty laundry to be aired in public, brands respond to social media complaints quite fast. My problem is often solved on Twitter by the time I navigate a phone tree or select an option from a dropdown box to log a ticket via phone / website.

You can find more details in Customers Of The World Unite, You Have Nothing To Lose But The Call Center Hold Music.

I recently discovered another facet of social media customer service that has made me even more determined to choose it as my go to channel than before. This happened during a train journey from Pune to Renigunta / Tirupati last year. For the uninitiated, Pune is a city in West India and Tirupati is a temple town in South India.

Soon after boarding the train, I found out that there was no water in the toilet. Passengers inside the coach were complaining to the Train Ticket Examiner (TTE). For the uninitiated, the TTE is the seniormost-ranking railway official on an Indian train, with powers to check tickets, levy fines and accommodate passengers without reservation. Flaunting his authority, the TTE pushed back with the excuse that he’d requested for filling water in the toilet at the previous station (Surat) but it didn’t happen. He tried to shoo off the passengers saying he couldn’t do anything more. In turn, the few bold ones among the passengers pointed out that it was his responsibility to get things done for passengers. To which the TTE shot back saying they had no right to tell him how to do his job.

I realized that this was going nowhere and returned to my seat.

I vaguely recalled reading somewhere that Indian Railways provided support on Twitter. I Googled for the handle on my smartphone – luckily the train was passing through a place with good network coverage – and sent out the following tweet:

A few minutes I got a reply:

An hour or so later, the TTE came to me to explain the action he’d taken and assured me that watering would definitely happen at next stop (Solapur). (It did).

End of complaint.

But it was the start of my realization that there was another angle to social media customer service that hadn’t caught my attention before.

I had my ephiphany moment when I read about the details of Indian Railways’ Twitter customer support on Economic Times. According to this article, the @RailMinIndia Twitter account is monitored at a central war room at the Rail Bhawan in New Delhi. As soon as it receives a tweet from a passenger, the team goes into action. From the PNR number, it identifies the train, finds out where it is, maps its location to the railway division responsible for managing the train on that stretch and forwards the tweet to the Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) of that division. In parallel, someone from the team calls up the TTE and the DRM to follow through on the tweet and tweets an acknowledgment back to the complaining passenger.

In my case, this happened in four minutes. This is amazing, given the size of Indian Railways’ network and the federated manner in which the organization is run.

According to Wikipedia, Indian Railways runs 12617 passenger trains and 7421 freight trains daily across one of the world’s largest railway networks comprising 115000 km of track and 7112 stations. It’s administratively divided into 16 Zones, which are subdivided into 70 Divisions. Each Division is headed by a Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) (Source: Wikipedia). During its journey, a train traverses one or more zones and divisions. Depending upon where exactly it is at a given point in time, it comes under the administrative control of the Divisional Headquarters that has jurisdiction over the given stretch of track. For example, during its 960 kms journey, my train went through two zones (Central Railway and South Central Railway) and three divisions (Pune, Solapur and Guntakal).

But I digress.

After reading this article, it was clear that my tweet to @RailMinIndia had set off a sequence of events in the background that included a nudge to the TTE from his superbosses at Rail Bhawan.

Not surprisingly, the same guy who was flexing his muscles with the other passengers took a very conciliatory approach with me.

It was no longer the case of a hapless passenger trying to get heard by a supercillious government authority.

I realized from this experience that social media empowers customers to upend traditional power equations and change the basic paradigm of customer service. This is easily visible during social media interactions with public sector companies like my specific instance with Indian Railways. But, going by my first ever experience of using the channel to get my printer repaired a few years ago, social media empowers customers in a similar manner even with private sector brands, just that it does its job behind the scene.

On a related note, any communication medium that becomes popular tends to get abused. Social media is no exception. However, unlike other channels, social media is open and this basic trait can be used to control its frivolous use.

Whether or not companies leverage social media to publicly name and shame offenders, the channel does have the built-in capability to curb abuse.

How Do I Run An Email Campaign To Generate B2B Leads?

Friday, January 27th, 2017

This is a slightly edited version of my answer to the following question on Quora:

How Do I Run An Email Campaign To Generate B2B Leads?

Most email campaigns I’ve come across provide a great answer to the question “What does your company do?”

Not surprisingly, they fail to generate leads.

Because people receiving those emails are not asking that question.

If you look at it another way, these emails respond to leads. Therefore, they can’t generate leads. (For the purpose of this post, a lead is defined as a company that has shown interest in knowing more about a vendor’s product / service).

Called “suspects”, people receiving these emails may not even know about the existence of the vendor sending them out. Even if they do, located at the “top of the funnel” (TOFU) in marketing-speak, these people don’t really care about the vendor – at least not yet. Added to that, they’re not expecting this email, so it may interrupt what they’re doing.

No wonder suspects don’t open – let alone respond to – such emails.

This is not a failure of email marketing. It’s a wake up call for marketers to rethink the content of their leadgen emails.

A leadgen email should answer a different question:

“Why should I care about your company?”

To do that, it should follow an “outside-in” approach. By which I mean its content should be oriented such that it looks at things from the prospect’s perspective. Specifically, it should first outline the pain areas and hot topics faced by the target company and then describe how the vendor’s offering can address them. In other words, it should give a few good reasons why the prospect should be interested in knowing more about the vendor’s product or service.

While “inside-out” elements used in most email campaigns – like features, benefits, case studies, capabilities, etc. – are important, they shouldn’t take the center stage in a leadgen email. The trick is to reorient these elements such that they reinforce the core message.

The same “outside-in” approach is also required in target lead list compilation, cold calling, rebutting objections, and all other activities performed at the top of the funnel.

We help B2B technology vendors generate leads by creating email flyers based on what we call “Marketable Items”, which package a vendor’s strengths and differentiators into a compelling reason to buy / adopt that resonates well with the pain areas and hot topics of the target market. Please find below a few examples of Marketable Items and a sample Email Flyer.

As you can see, Marketable Items consciously leave out more things about a vendor’s product / service / company than they include! To that extent, creating Marketable Items is an “exercise in sacrifice”, as Gartner analyst Jake Sorofman characterizes positioning in Six Reasons Why Your Positioning and Messaging Probably Isn’t Working. “Increasingly, who you are is defined by who you aren’t. What you become depends on what you’ve left behind.”

Before closing, let me hasten to add that the vendor should abandon the above approach once a lead is generated! Because, if they belabor business value beyond a certain funnel stage, they may lose the deal, as the vendor in this post learned to its dismay.

Five Reasons Why PayTM Is Miles Ahead Of Its Competition

Friday, January 20th, 2017

With over 100 million users a year ago, PayTM was way ahead of its competitors well before the Nov. 2016 demonetization of high value currency notes in India. On the back of the push for #CashlessIndia consequent to #CurrencySwitch, the Alibaba-backed mobile wallet has increased its lead over other mobile wallets (e.g. MobiKwik, PayZapp) and account-to-account money transfer apps (e.g. UPI). Today, PayTM boasts of 150M users (Source: Wikipedia).

Based on my personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I advance five reasons to explain PayTM’s overwhelming popularity.

#1. Ease of Onboarding Merchants

Merchants can sign up for PayTM without a bank account. They can receive money into their PayTM wallets without a bank account. They can even spend their wallet balance by shopping at other merchants that accept PayTM payments. It’s only when they want to cash out their money from their PayTM account that they need a bank account.

As a result, PayTM was / is able to sign up hundreds of thousands of merchants that don’t have bank accounts. These merchants could sign up for PayTM immediately after the demonetization announcement, start accepting payments and visit banks in parallel to open their accounts as their PayTM account balances were growing.

This was / is not possible with competing e-wallets, which insist that merchants link their bank accounts (or debit cards or credit cards) at the time of installing and onboarding their respective apps. As a result, PayTM’s competitors were not in a position to sign up financially-excluded micromerchants at the point they desperately needed to accept cashless payments. They lost this huge market to PayTM.

#2. Viral Distribution

When PayPal launched in the late 1990s, it incented existing users to send money to non users. When users sent money to their friends and family members (that were not on PayPal), PayPal sent them an email saying “Collect $$ by signing up for PayPal”. This give non-users a far more compelling reason to join PayPal than any direct advertising or PR efforts and generated a massive viral distribution for PayPal.

PayTM has copied this approach. And has reaped the rich rewards à la PayPal.

PayTM’s Viral Distribution Strategy

Surprisingly, PayTM’s competitors haven’t followed this approach. They insist that payments can be made only to people that have already signed up to their e-wallets.

To take the example of UPI, to receive payments, you need to have a Virtual Payment Address (VPA) from your bank. Assuming that you’re thorougly sold on UPI and decide to create your VPN, you’ll need to contend with your bank’s systems to actually generate one. This adds a big moving part, which doesn’t always work. Just today, I got an SMS from my bank saying they can’t issue new MMIDs – an integral part of IMPS, the payment rails on which UPI works – for the next five days. There’s no guarantee that you’d still be interested in UPI five days later.

A few PayTM competitors I spoke to told me that sending money to a non-user would be tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. Indeed, it would. But, as I’ve said time and again, Putting Cart Before Horse Does Work. PayTM and PayPal get it. Many of their competitors don’t.

#3. Feet On Street Approach

In the weeks following #CurrencySwitch, PayTM salespersons made daily rounds in retail hotspots asking storekeepers if they wanted PayTM.

I’ve seen this personally in my building storefront that’s dotted with teawallah, fruit juice vendors, pan-cigarette sellers and other micromerchants.

I also heard more details of PayTM’s aggressive merchant acquisition drive from a Uber driver.  According to this cabbie who accepts PayTM on his personal name – PayTM is also Uber’s official digital payments partner – PayTM sales reps ride on their motorbikes up and down a street near Pune Airport where hundreds of Uber and Ola taxis are parked, asking drivers if they wanted to sign up for PayTM. When a driver says yes, the rep connects the driver’s smartphone on his own 4G network using tethered WiFi hotspot, downloads the app, installs and onboards the driver on PayTM. All this in 5-10 minutes. Without being judgmental about whether the driver is tech savvy or not. And at no data charges to the cabbie. This Uber driver is so conversant with PayTM’s onboarding process that he even knows the PayTM rep’s sales quota (10 merchants a day)!

In sharp contrast, most competitors of PayTM haven’t harnessed the power of feet-on-street approach to recruit small merchants. To see just how detached they are from market realities, an investor in a digital payments company placed the focus of merchant acquisition of his investee company on self-service. In his MEDIUM article, he said,

Merchants should be able to go to an Amazon or Flipkart site or a Croma store and just buy a terminal at their own cost and link their bank account and start accepting payments.

Well tried. Even if they’re tech-savvy, crazy busy merchants just don’t have the time for self-service, especially when they’re busy getting pampered by the nation’s #1 mobile wallet company!

As a result, most micromerchants I’ve quizzed are not even aware of UPI, BHIM and other competing e-wallets.

#4. Frictionless Payments

By design or default, the Sign Out link in PayTM’s mobile app is buried deep inside the app. As a result, many users have never seen it and stay logged into their app all the time. This means they’re able to make a payment without a password or PIN.

This creates a significant security vulnerability in PayTM. But it also makes the mobile wallet’s CX that much more frictionless, which matters a lot when people need to use it to make payments several times a day.

Security is a hygiene factor. Convenience trumps security. Everytime. Even in India.

PayTM has capitalized on this element of consumer behavior. Its competitors haven’t.

#5. Miscellaneous

As I’d highlighted in Hiding Your Secret Sauce, PayTM preloads its wallet on the fly without user intervention. As a result, users wary of having to topup prepaid mobile wallets before initiating payments find the PayTM experience superior to that of mobile wallets, which bump them off with a message asking them to load enough money into their wallets first and then reattempt the payment.

PayTM is also very well funded and is able to absorb losses on every transaction.

While these factors contribute to PayTM’s dominance of the digital wallet space, I tend to believe they’re secondary to the aforementioned ways by which PayTM has differentiated itself from its competitors.


With PayTM’s lead over other e-wallets and the reasons for that out of the way, let me come to its detractors who point out that PayTM’s dominance is only a thing in the present. I agree with that.

Some of the detractors have gone to the extent of predicting PayTM’s demise in view of competition from BHIM, a government-sponsored m-wallet. I think that’s highly exaggerated.

That said, PayTM does face a few headwinds:

  • Sustaining relationships with merchants with daily sales of INR 50K+. This category of merchants includes vegetable vendors and fruit sellers among others who find its cap (INR 20K per month without KYC, INR 100K per month with KYC) too low. I know at least two merchants that have bailed out of PayTM for this reason. (Interestingly, they’ve gone back to cash, which suggests that PayTM’s competitors couldn’t recruit them either)
  • Willingness of PayTM’s Chinese backer to fund the company’s cashbacks and mounting losses.

As they say, past performance is no indication of future success. This maxim is as true for PayTM as any other company. Only time will tell how long India’s #1 mobile wallet will hold on to the top spot.

Should I Look For An Alternative To Amazon India?

Friday, January 13th, 2017

Since I wrote Strange Happenings In Amazon India, I went through another experience with Amazon India. It was so strange that it merits a separate blog post. Here goes.

I’d recently ordered a leather wallet from Amazon India. When I received it, I realized that it didn’t have a coin pouch. Therefore, I wanted to return it. I logged in to my Amazon India account to initiate the return. During the process, I was taken to the the refund screen where I’d to select whether I wanted the refund amount credited to a Gift Card or my Bank Account. I selected the second option. I was about to enter my bank account details when I saw two entries already listed there. I was shocked at this because:

  1. I’ve never set up any bank account on Amazon.
  2. The first entry was in my name but showed an account number that wasn’t mine.
  3. The second entry was in the name of “Mueller Schmidt” (for the uninitiated, this is the German-language equivalent of “Tom Dick & Harry”). Given that Amazon insists that the account must be in my name, I was wondering how such a wildcard account could be set up under my login.

All this reeked of a data breach and, that too, by an insider.

My suspicions were confirmed a few days later when I received an email from Amazon India stating “we discovered that your Amazon.com email address and password may have been compromised”.

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I deleted both the bank accounts in the refunds section. I also took the opportunity to delete all my credit cards on file in the payments section. This meant that I’d be even more resolved to use my preferred payment mode of Cash on Delivery in future. But I digress.

I then proceeded to enter the details of my bank account into which I wanted my refund amount to be transferred. The CONTINUE button at the bottom of the form was dimmed. I didn’t know how to proceed and bailed out.

I didn’t get any email or SMS confirmation for my return request. Nobody turned up at my doorstep to pick up the product, either.

It was obvious that my return request hadn’t gone through.

I went back to the returns screen and selected the Gift Card option instead. The CONTINUE button was now activated. I clicked on it and scheduled the pickup date and time per my convenience. This time, I did get a confirmation for my return request. A couple of days later, the collection guy landed up randomly without paying any heed to the pickup appointment selected by me. Luckily, since I was at home when he turned up, I was able to hand over the product to him.

This experience made it clear that Amazon was issuing refunds only in the form of store credits. In other words, it was forcing consumers to spend their refunds on Amazon.

I didn’t like this practice when India’s #1 ecommerce player Flipkart tried it earlier last year.

I didn’t like it when Amazon was trying to the pull the same trick on me now. It’s no different from the traditional practice of brick-and-mortar stores who are supposedly getting disrupted by Amazon and other new-age ecommerce sites.

This is not the kind of CX I expect from Amazon, a brand for which I exhibit cult loyalty.

If things continue like this, I may be compelled to end my 15+ years of association with Amazon and move my custom to another etailer. Luckily, “winner takes all” is not yet a thing in the Indian Internet services business, so I’ve a fairly long list of alternatives to Amazon India.

Putting Cart Before Horse Will Work In Achieving #CashlessIndia

Friday, January 6th, 2017

On the back of the demonetization of high value currency notes in India, the government has been aggressively pushing cashless payments. Trending on Twitter under the hashtag #CashlessIndia, the initiative has attracted criticism from the blogosphere and mainstream media on the grounds that India is not yet ready for digital payments. The average urban business-sensitive citizen seems to echo the same sentiment, judging by the results of the following poll conducted by Economic Times.

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See MediaNama article titled Cash vs Digital Money: why going cashless is going to be tough in India for a comprehensive coverage of this point of view.

I don’t disagree with this viewpoint. In fact, I’d highlighted a few more hurdles to going cashless in my recent post PSA: Don’t Get Defensive About Not Going Cashless:

#5. Reluctance of Banks to Issue Merchant Accounts (aka POS Machines)
#6. Cash-Out Costs & Delays
#7. Card on Delivery Limitations

Attempting to drive cashless payments without overcoming these hurdles is a classic case of putting “the cart before the horse”, as Harvard Business Review observes aptly.

Does it mean India should fix these fundamental issues first and only then attempt to go cashless?

No.

Why not?

Because some of these hurdles won’t go away anytime soon. Take infrastructure for example. Like physical infrastructure like roads, bridges, etc., network infrastructure also has a way of attracting more and more traffic until it becomes inadequate in a vicious cycle, reflecting the German proverb that translates to “The appetite grows as you eat”. Even in the Bay Area, which is the de-facto Mecca of technology, network connections are patchy at times. Core banking, card management & other payment systems break down not so infrequently everywhere in the world, leading to failed payments. That’s why waiting for 100% readiness of infrastructure to push digital payments is an exercise in futility. (I’ve always maintained that a robust business model is the real critical success factor for digital payments but that’s a blog post for another day).

Also because a certain degree of jugaad and leapfrogging of technologies has always been a part of the Indian DNA in several areas. For example:

  1. I once visited a village in Tamilnadu, a state in South India. This village got TVs first, then the electricity connection required to power the TVs! More on this experience in my blog post Putting the Cart Before the Horse Does Work!
  2. As the legend has it, doyens of the Indian IT industry set up their development centers in the Mariwala area of Bangalore in the early 1990s well before there was a paved road to access the facilities. It was only after they staged protests to call the attention of politicians to their employees’ plight that the local authority built proper roads in this neighborhood. Had they waited for infrastructure first, IT Services might not be a $140 billion business for India today.

IMO, we shouldn’t sacrifice our competitive advantage just to follow the Western left-to-right, top-to-bottom approach towards nation building.

Good news is, based on the following early indications in the last two months, India can easily achieve 50% reduction in the use of cash without necessarily waiting to overcome the hurdles in front of digital payments.

#1. Debit Card Activation

200M out of the 755M debit cards in India were activated only after the November 2016 demonetization.

What stopped them from being activated earlier?

#2. Card Promotion Campaigns

My bank ran an SMS campaign to promote card use two days after demonetization.

Why did this bank have to wait for #CurrencySwitch to stimulate card use when it has been in the card issuing and acquiring business for over 20 years?

vaishali#3. If Vaishali Can, So Can Others

This iconic restaurant in Pune started accepting card payments within a week of #CurrencySwitch.

Why was it hung up on cash for 40+ years of its existence?

#4. Factory Worker Salary Payments by Cheques

According to Times of India dated 12 December 2016, the Indian government has made it mandatory for wages of factory workers to be paid by cheques going forward. When I read this, I was, like, duh?

I began my career as a Graduate Engineer Trainee in a factory in 1985. I got my first paycheck by, well, cheque.

30 years later, why haven’t cheque – or the myriad other forms of cashless – payments become the norm for payment of wages for factory workers?

#5. Newspaper Vendor Accepts Cheques

Enough of questioning others. Time for introspection.

I’ve always been paying my newspaper vendor by cash. Prompted by the recent cash crunch, I asked him last month if I could pay him by some form of cashless payment. He nodded and pointed to a line in his bill that provides drawee details for cheque payments. I was shocked! His bill has remained unchanged ever since he started delivering newspapers to my home over ten years ago.

Why didn’t I notice earlier that he has always been accepting cheques?


While many people – including me – prefer cash for good reasons, the above examples suggest that there’s a vast segment of the Indian population that has shunned cashless methods of payments because, to put it simply, “old habits die hard”.

I won’t comment on whether a democratic government has the moral authority to force its citizens to shed their old habits and foist a new payment behavior on them. Personally, I’ve no hassles with cash. I foresee that, in the immediate term, the switch to digital payments will cause a lot of chaos due to failed payments, identity theft and cyberfraud. I’m not one of those people that naively believes that cash implies malafide activity and noncash implies guinuine activity.

But we do have a democratically-elected government that wants to push cashless payments. If we accept the reality as it is, the above examples make me confident that demonetization alone will provide the required stimulus to pump up cashless payment volumes from the present 2% to at least 50%.

I’m not alone in saying this. According to the aforementioned HBR article, “demonetization move is a welcome shock necessary to get a cash-intensive society weaned off its addiction and onto modern systems of digital payments”.

It’s only to raise cashless payment modes to levels beyond 50% that overcoming the fundamental hurdles to digital payments would be required.

In other words, putting the cart before the horse will work for now.

Yaay I Made It To The Financial Services Content Royalty List!

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

I’m happy to announce that I have been named to The Royalty of Insightful Financial Services Content list.

Compiled by Bryan Clagett, CMO & Investor in Geezeo, a proven white-label PFM provider for banks and credit unions, this list places me in the august company of Ron Shevlin, Jim Marous, Stessa Cohen, Brett King, Chris Skinner and seven other fintech titans largely in the United States.

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A big thank you to Bryan for this recognition.

Readers would be aware that I blog and comment frequently about fintech-related topics. There are 90 posts in this blog on the topic and some more in my personal blog before I started the company blog. In addition, I’ve left over 2500 comments on Finextra. The latest five posts on fintech on this blog are as follows:

  1. PSA: Don’t Get Defensive About Not Going Cashless
  2. Fintechs Need Guts More Than Lawyers!
  3. Enhanced Remittance Data Could Multiply Electronic Fund Transfer Volumes
  4. Five Ways For Banks To Boost Credit Card Use
  5. Banks Will Know Chipotle Is Going Bankrupt Before Chipotle

My deep involvement in finserv reflects my passion for the field and decades of experience in marketing, sales, delivery and program management of technology solutions for banking, financial services and insurance companies worldwide.

g360-marketing-collateral-library-pinterest-board-imageApart from the content published in the public domain, my company develops dedicated marketing collateral for fintech solution providers. Comprising of a wide array of items like flyers, offering detail presentations, account specific point offerings and social media updates, our content can be used at various funnel stages by growth stage fintech vendors to elevate the appeal of their offerings, grow their sales pipelines, spot new revenue models, increase ticket size, shorten sales cycles and multiply returns from their technology assets in many more ways. Click here to view our Pinterest marketing collateral board.

If you clicked through to Bryan’s article, you’d have noticed his question ‘What does the “S” in “S.Ketharaman” stand for?’ and wondered the same yourself.

Here’s a short answer: It’s meant to be a conversation starter.

Click here if you want to know the long answer.

Humility is not my strong suit – readers and followers might have noticed my customary omission of the H from IMHO in my blog posts, comments and social media updates. However, on this occasion, I’m truly humbled to be a part of a list which includes many financial services content giants.

Happy Holidays!

How To Keep Card Interchange Charges In Check

Friday, December 16th, 2016

In a recent editorial titled “How To Reduce Card Interchange Charges”, Economic Times advocates a combination of subsidy and competition to reduce merchant fees for accepting card payments.

In case you missed it, the government of India has been aggressively pushing cashless payments recently after it demonetized the INR 500 and 1000 notes (and announced plans to introduce new design notes in INR 500, 1000 and 2000 denominations). Since payment card is the most widespread mode of cashless retail payments in India, there’s a renewed focus on stimulating the use of debit and credit cards and, not surprisingly, Merchant Discount Rate has quickly entered the policymaker’s crosshairs.

At the outset, Economic Times’ suggestion of subsidy is novel. It also sounds fair – after all, if banks and government benefit from the move to a cashless regime, they should be willing to pass on some or all of their gains to merchants and card networks.

However, given that banks and government have their own deficits to plug, what’s the guarantee that they won’t appropriate the gains from going cashless for themselves? Besides, ET bases its advice on an assumption of 2% MDR, which is only applicable for credit cards. Given that India’s central bank cum banking regulator Reserve Bank of India has set debit MDR at 0.75-1% (Source: RBI) and the fact that debit cards outnumber credit cards by 30:1 in India, it’s quite possible that the blended rate arrived at by using ET’s formula could actually exceed the statutory debit MDR.

So the subsidy option may be out.

Let’s see if we can replace it with something else.

Looks like we can. Think enforcement.

RuPay charges a fixed debit interchange of 60 paise to Issuer Bank and 30 paise to Acquirer Bank in India. Which is quite low. For the uninitiated, RuPay is a (relatively) new card network launched by National Payments Corporation of India, a wholly-owned retail payments subsidiary of RBI, which in turn is wholly-owned by the government of India. As of now, RuPay offers only a debit card that works only within India.

As against the fixed fee levied by RuPay, Indian banks – including public sector behemoths like State Bank of India – seem to be getting away by charging an ad valorem rate of as high as 2.95% for RuPay transactions.

As noted earlier, RBI has set the MDR for (non RuPay) debit transactions at 0.75-1%. However, in actual practice, the rates charged seem to be much higher.

I stumbled upon this fact when talking to a few co-workers recently about fuel surcharge on digital payments.

I’ve been using credit card for tanking up my car for ages. I’ve always noticed that my credit card statement displays a higher amount than what I pay at the pump. To take an example, I recently filled up fuel worth INR 1600. This was the figure mentioned on the chargeslip I received from the gas station and in the realtime SMS alert I got from my card issuing bank. However, when the credit card statement came a month later, I noticed that it showed a higher value of INR 1646.00 for this transaction. That means the bank has slapped an additional charge of INR 46, which works out to 2.875% on the base figure of INR 1600. The very next line was PETRO SURCHARGE WAIVER for INR 40.16. In effect, the bank – not the gas station – billed 2.875% more and refunded almost all of it back in the form of the waiver. I effectively overpaid INR 5.84 (being INR 46 – INR 40.16) for choosing a cashless mode of payment. I think it’s due to non-recoverable government taxes on the surcharge. Since the amount was small, I’ve never bothered to investigate it. (Considering that 90% of cardholders apparently never read their statements, I seem to already be investigating them a lot!)

card-interchange-lower-fi

My co-workers told me that they’re slapped a similar surcharge even when they pay for fuel by debit card. In other words, banks charge nearly 3% extra when RBI has mandated a maximum MDR of 1% for debit card.

So there’s clearly an opportunity to enforce existing MDR rates to bring down the charges.

Let me move on to working out a “fair” MDR rate.

ET recommends using the public sector card network RuPay’s calculations of cost of processing a card transaction as the baseline in arriving at a fair MDR rate.

Going by experience, forget international companies like Visa / MasterCard, it’s questionable if the legions of card issuing and card acquiring banks – even public sector banks – will accept RuPay’s version of the cost. They have different software, infrastructure and uptimes, not to mention bonuses for their honchos!

In fact, it’s questionable whether these corporations will even agree to the cost-plus method of pricing their services implied by ET.

Now, let’s assume government doesn’t bother with all the niceties and just issues a diktat to slash interchange rates. Before someone points out that governmental interventions don’t have a place in a free market like India, let me highlight two examples wherein governments of free market pantheons have mandated card interchange rates (although they did so after lengthy public consultations in those countries, but that’s a story for another day).

  1. EU fixed credit interchange at 0.3% (Source: Adyen)
  2. The Durbin Amendment capped US debit interchange fees at 24 cents per transaction (Source: Bloomberg).

With the basic right of the government to intervene in this matter established, let’s see how another related mandate has been working in actual practice.

Over six months before the recent remonetization move, the Indian government had issued a diktat to its public sector undertakings to stop levying fees for accepting payments via debit card / credit card / bank transfers. However, I know at least two PSUs that continue to levy their previous fees for digital payments.

So, once again, better enforcement of existing rules will help bring MDR under control.

Finally, let me turn to driving competition via RuPay, another approach advocated by ET.

For the uninitiated, payment card is a multisided business that endows incumbents with a huge “network effect” benefit.

card-scheme-4-side

It’s very difficult to unseat the incumbents in this business. Local card networks like Discover, JCB and MBNA have failed to make a dent on Visa and MasterCard despite trying for decades with equally compelling offerings and multicountry presence.

There’s only one notable exception to this. I’ll come to it in a bit.

Visa and MasterCard are the incumbents in the card network business virtually everywhere in the world including India. RuPay is the new kid on the block. A merely lower MDR rate won’t help RuPay fight Visa and MasterCard.

What will?

China UnionPay can offer a few lessons on that subject. It’s the only local card network to make a dent on Visa / MasterCard. It offers both debit and credit cards. While it started locally, it quickly took the battle to Visa / MasterCard’s backyard by aggressively expanding overseas.

For RuPay to make a difference, it needs to offer both debit and credit cards and operate internationally. In other words, the Indian government needs to empower NPCI to become a full-service card network with global footprint. Only then will it be able to use RuPay to keep Visa / MasterCard’s MDR in check (though not necessarily low).

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India already has in place the policy framework and the building blocks of competition required to drive low merchant discount rates (or at least keep them in check). What it needs now is tighter enforcement of its policies and greater empowerment of NPCI to “go ye forth and conquer” the card business globally!