Tag Archives: Digital

The Big Red Herring of Amazon & Physical Retail

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For many years now we’ve been witnessing the phenomenal rise of Amazon.com. Retailers and manufacturers of all kinds have been scurrying to get their digital act together. The media has been rife with questions about traditional business models of stores and distributor channels.

And now finally, Amazon has opened physical stores in key categories – grocery and books to name a few. The Whole Foods acquisition has come as a recent big announcement.

What’s going on with Amazon & physical retail and how to make sense of the game plan that Amazon has?

red-46564_640First, here’s the red herring – the battle is not about digital or physical, or any combination of the two. It’s not even about innovation and leadership. Its a given that people are going to go digital given enough time and experience. Every channel needs time to develop and be a comfortable experience for customers. And slowly but surely, goods of various categories are falling into that bucket. We thought it will never be clothes, except that we find now that clothes are actually pretty commoditized if we know what we want, and if we’ve bought them before. Same for grocery and food which are after all the same shopping list being created and executed week after week. Its been that way for a long time with electronics and spare parts as well.

The biggest hurdle to digital commerce was the risk factor – what if the purchase is not what we think it will be? And Amazon, like many retailers, has solved for that already through an easy and simple returns process. Its no wonder then that people who shop heavily are folks who get free shipping and an easy returns process. in fact, Amazon Prime members in many categories have much higher return rates than customers shopping at stores. That’s simply because we buy more than we need (extra sizes, different colors, different styles etc. ) and then we return  what we don’t need. It’s pretty darn convenient.

So Amazon entering physical retail cannot be a threat on its own. Sure, they may have better online presence, and fast shipping and distribution mechanisms, but they also have lower margins.

Instead, almost everyone is missing the real point that this is a battle for building a connected ecosystem. It was never about individual product lines being sold digitally which we should take for granted as a universal certainty. In fact, the biggest competitor for established businesses (and their Achilles heel) is the combination of Amazon Marketplace, their diversity of product businesses, and their Prime membership model. Think of what we get with this combination – movies, books, free and fast shipping, TV – and not to mention almost everything under the sun on Amazon.com from marketplace sellers.

Not surprisingly, in 2016, Amazon.com had already beaten Google as the top search engine for product search (55%) when customers reasonably know what they want. More than 70% of customers do so because of the wide variety of product availability on Amazon. These 2 capabilities together are a lynchpin of modern commerce. These two capabilities help get customers in, and then all these customers have frictionless (and free) access to commerce transactions. Everything else is easily competed against – better online presence, personalized recommendations, easy purchase process, good shipping, good returns, etc. These are all table stakes. In fact Amazon is not really that great at many of these things and like everyone else is constantly improving.

So Amazon.com buying  Whole Foods is not at all threatening if you apply the traditional lens and consider only the grocery business. There are plenty of players who will beat Amazon hands down in that business. Instead, what is missing in the media headlines right now is that this play is not just about grocery or retail. It’s actually about building a connected ecosystem that brings everything a customer needs under one nice umbrella called Amazon Prime, and a marketplace that has unlimited choice.

Hence, the issue of Amazon & physical retail is a red herring. But the situation is not hopeless. Here’s what everyone else can do to counter this juggernaut:

  1. Redefine your identity and start connecting: In today’s connected age, we cannot operate in a small silo and expect not to be disrupted. So long as grocers think of themselves as grocers, banks as banks, and pharmacies as pharmacies they will continue to see invasion of broader players into their space. Digital has made that a near certainty. Instead, we must expand our identity and build a connected, digital business. Becoming connected doesn’t mean becoming a conglomerate like Amazon.com. That’s neither easy nor possible for many. Instead its time to start being a trader / seller of different kinds of services that consumers need, and not just the products we’ve sold for decades. Take for example a grocery chain creating a local network of fitness centers, health food brands and dieticians. Its a win-win for everyone involved. All parties see increased retention and higher wallet share from the customer. That’s a partnerships model and much more doable. Especially because its also local. The possibilities for this network are endless and can include banks, local sports clubs, farmers markets, restaurants, and many others. That’s the only way to win in today’s customer centric economy. We cannot be selling in silos and expect to win. Some examples do exist today (like health insurers working with fitness centers) but those at-an-arm’s-length partnerships are not enough. These relationships must become more intense, more deliberate, and much more obsessed about customer experience.
  2. Build a connected loyalty model: Those of you who’ve read my 3-Tier loyalty model will know that a connected business can build what others (or even Amazon) can’t today. Loyalty today is all about instant discounts and rebates. But loyalty must move towards experiential and aspirational rewards. A connected ecosystem can accomplish that so easily and keep the costs down as well. Can a loyal member of the network in the example above win a wonderful candlelight dinner on Valentine’s day at a restaurant, or can customers build their rewards towards great seats at the Super Bowl next year? The possibilities are limited only by our imagination. That’s the loyalty model a connected business can build with its partners. And it could easily be in addition to the 20c off the salad dressing, or 20% off the first 2 months of the gym membership.
  3. Orient the org to look beyond legacy and focus on CX: How can multiple companies from different sectors come together and make this happen. The short answer is that they can’t unless they reorient to focus on CX, not product lines. Fortunately the solution is simple for those willing to dare. They must create a CX layer on top of their products and services business. The CX layer will be made up of folks from all partners across industries and their only job is to manage just one product – the connected CX. This layer of product managers will create exciting and innovative journeys, and then make them happen through existing products. Read more about this model here.

To be clear, online and digital is the way forward. So there is no reason to think Amazon.com entering physical retail is any vindication of physical stores being a must for business. Quite the contrary – physical stores are a complement to digital but they will most definitely become a specialized channel for retail (or banking or automobiles for that matter).

The real challenge is to build a connected business. The part about Amazon entering through buying up the physical stores is just a big fat red herring.

Is being customer centric bad for business?

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As part of my research for Connected!, I came across an interesting research study titled Effects of Customer-Centric Structure on Firm Performance (1). The study shows that being customer centric can actually decrease financial performance by almost 23%. Wow! This research definitely got my attention. Especially in an age where everyone is singing how wonderful customer centricity is.

As I dug deeper, I found that the study brought out 3 key aspects:

  1. First, customer satisfaction positively increased due to better and more focused attention by firms on their customers
  2. Financial performance increased by 8% in cases where competitive activity was weak, and where competitors were not already customer centric
  3. Financial performance degraded by 23% where competitors were already customer centric and where competition was strong

The first result was sort of expected. But result 3 above was surprising. So I dug deeper.

Apparently, there were 2 core drivers of the above results. First, organizational overhead or coordination increased significantly in a customer centric organization. This wasn’t too much of a surprise. Second, in cases where there were high levels of competitive activity, very little was typically gained by way of uncovering innovative approaches and meeting unaddressed customer needs. Given that being customer centric is actually supposed to drive this very result, the study brought out a very interesting anomaly.

There is no arguing with data. Ready to abandon being customer centric?

Not quite because I do have good news for you! Here goes.

  1. First, how customer centric you are probably cannot be determined solely by top level organizational structures and business divisions. Empirical data is always collected “after” such studies bring out these dramatic revelations. The catch-22 is that existing data does not always tell the whole story.
  2. Second, even in an organization structured by customer segments, there is lots of coordination and alignment of incentives against a largely standard product portfolio that doesn’t actually change much by customer segment. The results of the study may have been skewed by this fact. Many organizations hence are never really customer centric to begin with. They are just organized like that.
  3. Finally, organizations may indeed have specific and tailored product offerings aligned by customer segments. The claims of being ineffective in a strong competitive field are true only if we factor in the dominance of uniform and similar offerings from one organization to the next. Such product portfolios hence are actually also commoditized.

Clearly the right kind of innovation and how we meet customer needs is a critical factor. Brand plays an important role in being distinctive and preferred but it must be supported by the underlying differentiated value propositions. Innovation is much needed, not only to rejuvenate existing product lines, but also to introduce new products that will fuel the future and protect against competitive advances.

However, innovation today must be different given the increasingly connected nature of businesses. A central premise of my upcoming book is that the world is getting connected (of course) across industry boundaries. Hence our traditional go-to-market by product lines is slowly being rendered inadequate. Instead, we need to define our go-to-market by cross-industry customer experiences. These  experiences in turn must be defined by the overall purpose of our customers. Consequently, that focus on the customer’s purpose will extend beyond our products alone.

Everywhere we look, the market is evolving slowly towards this new model. But many of us are still looking inside-out, not outside-in. Hence our customer centric structures don’t yield results. Think of the following industry examples which show how the world is getting connected: Google Home, banks connecting with fitness centers,  Apple Siri connecting with Uber, Amazon Alexa connecting with banks, chabots on popular chat platforms such as Facebook and WeChat, student education programs like uPromise connecting all kinds of spending and occasions, wells Fargo connecting with accounting programs, Blue Cross Blue Shield connecting with Lifetime Fitness, and the list goes on. These examples serve as good indicators of the oncoming trend.

So what can we do to meet this challenge of being customer centric? In my book I outline how we must think of executing and organizing for a connected world. The chapter is very innovatively named as “Execution”! Execution is the fifth and final element of the Connected Company framework I lay out in “Connected!”. The other elements being cross-industry customer journeys, 3-tier loyalty program, a new equation for customer engagement, and a model to integrate our products and focus them on customer purpose.

The 3 methods outlined in “Execution” are below:

1. Connected Communities

One of the biggest issues with innovation is execution. Either we can’t seem to channel the right ideas through, or good ideas don’t seem to get executed well. Innovation and research groups are often misaligned or unable to tangibly meet the constant ROI demands made of them.

This problem was summed up very well in Innovators Dilemma (Clayton Christensen) which recommended that breakthrough innovation be set up as a separate business unit to be successful at delivering. Various other approaches have been recommended including the concept of ambidextrous organizations which studied various org designs and recommended an approach  similar to that in the Innovators Dilemma.

However, the challenges for innovation today are different from what these concepts outlined. In fact, business innovation today is more than about core products and business alone. The connected nature of businesses can render an innovative product obsolete rapidly. Innovation has to be thought about in an ecosystem, and for that reason, the traditional approach of setting up separate business units is insufficient. The design must be created consciously with a focus on customer purpose, with the aim of rejuvenating not only the product lines, but also how we go to market. The “connected communities” as I call them are almost like industry consortiums but only much broader – operating across industries. They are formal creations and have a simpler charter – to span connected customer experiences. They need to operate much like an industry consortium and cut across industry and product lines. The communities include partners from multiple industries to bring cross-company customer journeys to life. And then, looking outside in, create and pilot new CX programs within their organizations and their partners to stitch various product portfolios together. These connected communities must have the budget and resources to execute the entire lifecycle of innovation, before mainstreaming the pilot.

The important message is to create and gain momentum on a CX program from the outside in, and then use it to enhance and evolve the core. The next big hurdle is to operationalize these CX programs. CX Focused Org design explains this. 

2. CX Focused Org Design

We are all customer centric. Or at least we claim to be. We put the customer at the center of everything we do. But then, we turn around and divide our organization by products, businesses, and geographies. Next, we valiantly strive to realize the power of all our capabilities to serve the customer through layers of integration and coordination. This gives rise to the dismal results revealed by the research I referenced in the beginning. Obviously, this approach is missing an essential ingredient that causes us to fall short of realizing the full potential.

Let’s consider the top level org structures to be superfluous (for reporting purposes only). Then there really are 2 basic go-to-market models. 1) brands or products going straight to customers, or 2) through an account or customer group often segmented by customer types. Both these models need to be augmented to compete for the connected future. In a CX focused design, this is done by including an overarching CX program layer which is essentially the connected community. Designing for the future is about thinking very clearly about customer experiences in an ecosystem, not just in an independent corporate context. Hence, our top level products should be a combination of value propositions from the entire ecosystem that supports the customer experience. These value propositions will be an output of the Connected Communities. The Nike+ program, and the new Plenti loyalty program could be considered broad examples of this approach. They signify an overall program, but also allow for individual products. Our challenge is to make this CX focused org design standard, not optional. One of the primary hurdles is explicit measurement and accountability. The next section addresses that.

Connected Scorecard

We all know about the Balanced Scorecard and the associated tool called the Strategy Map, originally made famous by Dr. Robert Kaplan. Regardless of how extensively you use these tools, the concept is important to apply and understand, even at a high level. The strategy map alone gives tremendous food for thought. People and how they are motivated along the desired path are critical for a good org design. No amount of coaxing can accomplish what we don’t or can’t measure.

The effectiveness of any methodology depends on what we feed into it. In this case, the primary input is the strategy or the way to play. I’ve introduced a simple, easy-to-use Connected Scorecard as an input to existent management methodologies. This scorecard brings the outside-in perspective to the top of the food chain. It provides a simple way to measure how we are achieving the goals of meeting the needs of our customers in a connected world.  There are only 2 measurement groups  – ecosystem, and customer journeys. The first one measures how well we are including players in a cross industry fashion (coverage, relationship strength, competitive parity) . The second one measures the breadth (how many) and depth (how well, financial contribution) of the customer journeys we are enabling. The Connected Scorecard will hopefully mitigate the problems of isolated innovation, competitive inertia, and the issue of balancing the future with the present. It gives us a practical framework for driving and measuring our effectiveness in a connected world.

In summary, measuring the effectiveness of being customer centric can be viewed in one way through the lens of finding unmet needs to leapfrog the competition. In order to do that, it is critical to actively address customer journeys in a world where industry boundaries are crumbling. The concept of connected communities, CX focused org design, and the scorecard are possible techniques to help us accomplish that.

(1) The research study referenced can be found here.

(2) Image credit

Thanks for reading! Please do share your feedback and thoughts. This blog is based on my upcoming book Connected! – How #platforms of today will be apps of tomorrow. The book outlines how the platform story of today will evolve in the near future, and presents a “Connected Company” framework. One of the pillars of the framework is Execution (which we read about today). Read about the book here, and sign up to receive updates and launch discounts. Also visit my first book Dancing The Digital Tune which brings out 5 principles of customer engagement and creating a strategy for the digital world. It was of course, also the foundation for Connected!

 

Moving towards Ecosystem based CX

One of the primary goals of the “Connected Company” framework is customer engagement. The terms customer engagement and customer experience take on a new meaning in the connected context. In Connected!, I bring out the need to focus on Ecosystem based CX instead of company specific CX.

Ecosystem Based CX

Traditionally, we’ve relied on industry based customer personas and use cases. And we’ve measured our effectiveness through channel maturity and execution. But as we move towards a connected world, those use cases and personas will be woefully inadequate. The value we bring to our clients may look to be exceptional if we look inwardly, but to our customers, we will appear to be stuck in the stone-age.

Consider these examples:

  • The financial technology (FinTech) revolution is emerging in the banking industry. Banks have excellent products and robust risk management procedures. They even have free checking accounts, great cash back programs and even protect us 100% in case of fraud on our cards and accounts. But they are far from being the heroes today. Instead our heroes are those that are able to capture the customer front end, look beyond the core banking products and provide a service which banks fail to do. Our hero is the mobile phone app that takes the change from our retail spend and invests it into a retirement account. Or the app that lives off commissions on payments transactions but provides a seamless experience.
  • Retailers are trying to reach customers by way of coupons, promotions and deals of the week. We’ve reached a point where customers have become so accustomed to price discounts that a deal must always be present, and customers will always double check it too! Efforts to change this has resulted in huge failures (e.g.  J.C. Penney). Moreover, an offer never reaches customers when they need it. To the customers, despite all our attractive stores and technology, we are still stuck with the marketing models of the old. If customers are actively engaged the game can be instantly raised by many levels. Many retailers are now partnering with the mobile apps of our banks to provide us with deals (e.g. card linked offers). This capability helps both retailers and banks create new ecosystems around the customer and raise the level of one-one dialog and wish-lists. The difference this approach brings from bulk campaigns is profound – especially because we combine a sticky relationship (banking) with a fleeting relationship (retail). Such an approach also mitigates the privacy conundrum plaguing the industries. The Customer Interaction Spectrum explains this well and is an integral part of the Ecosystem Based CX framework .

It is clear that Ecosystem based CX is the need of the future. Consider the following additional scenarios where industry boundaries are being transcended:

  • A retailer partnering with a fitness center to better personalize both sides of the customer experience and commerce
  • A travel agency partnering with a bank to manage 3rd party local payments and risk management. Both of these examples will leverage IoT and rely on digital ecosystems to deliver the experience.
  • A bank partnering with retailers and brand organizations to push personalized promotions to their customers.

As is evident, industry based personas and use cases have their place in the planning and execution of business processes such as support and sales. But they are grossly insufficient to drive the customer experience of the future. We need to build real customer personas, which by their very definition cannot be limited to an industry alone. We need to think of our customers as people. In Connected!, I outline practical ways to develop Ecosystem Based CX – identify the ecosystem, balance corporate priorities, and develop the customer journeys that will propel us into the future.

 

Connected Company

The Connected Company Framework

Preparing for the connected future will have a far reaching and profound impact on our organizations. We cannot not change how we work, and how we think, and still expect to be creating magic with our customers.

Connected CompanyThe framework that I detail in the book “Connected!” provides a simple and immediately actionable blueprint. It consists of defining what a connected company is, and 5 important capabilities to support the vision.

What is a connected company?

The philosophy of being a connected company relates to an expansion of what we consider as boundaries or limits of our products and resulting customer experiences. Physical boundaries between industries are falling. Measuring ourselves on digital capabilities for distribution and access to our products alone is an approach that is strikingly inadequate for the future. We must instead look at the entire customer engagement ecosystem. We must think of our own products portfolio as an extension of the ecosystem.  That is not an easy evolution. But its becoming easier today with technology. Think of  voice activated devices or chatbots that can connect with your bank and book your flights for you. Or cars fitted with advanced technology that can drive themselves too. Or how Apple is bringing the power of loyalty programs right at the point of sale. These are just the beginnings of this exciting trend.

As a result, the entire concept of digital maturity assessment must change. While individual portfolios and channels can still apply the traditional definition of digital maturity, those parameters are no longer very useful in defining overall competitiveness. To summarize, digital strategy is not about our digital capabilities, but instead it’s about defining how to compete in a digital world.

The 5 capabilities necessary to be a “connected company” are:

  1. Block 1: The concept of Ecosystem based CX shows us how we should be building customer journeys that span not only our channels and products, but instead focus on the customer and leverage the power of our ecosystem. This means that an inside-out customer journey that shows customers interactions and touchpoints with our channels and products across the purchase lifecycle are no longer adequate. We must look outside-in.
  2. Block 2: The 3 Tier Connected Loyalty model will outline how the concept of loyalty has to tap into customer aspirations and motivations and how to extend the loyalty and rewards model to span the connected ecosystem. This approach also helps reduce the “cost of loyalty” while adding greater value to our customers.
  3. Block 3: The connected model of Customer Engagement shows us how emotional and physical engagement touchpoints should and can complement each other. It also shows how to reinforce customer confidence in our brand so we can become a reference anchor in our customers’ minds by being an advice engine. And it shows how to do that the ecosystem we define and evolve for ourselves.
  4. Block 4: The connected model of Integration is about how we present ourselves to our customers to build lasting and meaningful customer relationships. It will show us how we need to unify the combined appeal of all our products and services. In addition, this capability will show us how to extend the value of our portfolio by bringing the power of our ecosystem to our customers.
  5. Block 5: The Execution capability will perhaps clarify the biggest challenge facing leaders today – how to execute and thrive in a new connected world. This block combines various techniques and outlines practical methods to get going and build on the momentum, We will explore the concept of creating and leveraging Connected Communities, what a CX focused organizational design looks like, and how the traditional concept of the balanced scorecard model should be adapted to turn our companies into connected powerhouses.

Now that we have a blueprint of what it means to be a connected company, explore these in more detail.  Get your own copy of Connected! here.

 

A new(er) way to look at innovation in customer experience

Customer Experience design is often considered to be at the point of interaction. That’s why we see so many customer service trainings being conducted for customer facing teams. Some common scenarios are:

  • Handle a customer’s call
  • Process service requests at a branch
  • Deliver a product and orient customers
  • Train customers on how to use a product
  • Provide a personalized website or mobile experience
  • Set up a proactive email automation program

These bottom-up approaches are indeed required. They are important for innovation and individual enterprise to grow and flourish. They make employees passionate about the work they are doing. And initiatives such as these keep the ball rolling by making incremental innovations, instead of trying to execute a grand old strategy.

However, these initiatives must be supported by a grand old strategy to prevent us from running into inconsistent customer experiences between the multiple touch-points we all have with our customers. That’s true even for small businesses where the biggest limitation is time and resources.

he Principle of Customer interactionIn my book, I laid out 5 core principle of competing in a digital world. Of these, the principle of customer interaction can be used effectively to create the right CX framework. Other principles are important too but our grand old strategy can be reasonably jump-started by the use of this principle alone.

Basically, the principle states that since we interact with customers at both emotional (advertising) and physical (product performance and interactions) level, our approach must be oriented to complement the two ends of the customer interaction spectrum. And to be able to do that, we must think of:

  1. The life cycle – from awareness to purchase to post purchase engagement
  2. The mediums – through advertisements to education to promotions to customer service
  3. The channels – phone, email, in-person, in-store etc.

It looks complicated. But its as simple as taking the brand message and weaving it in with the customer expectation at the right stage in life cycle, medium and channel. Here are some examples:

  • A cable company competing with incumbent DSL services touts its network of wi-fi hot spots. But customers  struggle to use the wi-fi in many locations (various reasons). And their telecom provider constantly tells customers about the slow browsing speed at home. This is a classic case of CX dissonance, and how customers believe what they constantly hear. What we claim is not being reinforced by the physical experience. How do we mitigate this by messaging, CX changes and even strategic developments of the product?
  • When we visit a branch, we often finish our transaction at the teller, and then we’re off. And if they do initiate a dialog after that, its to sell a product or service, and hand us a brochure. Although, our financial well-being is something that banks have always touted on billboards, advertisements and on signs inside the branch.  it’s so surprising that they don’t try to help us with our financial management without the strong sales push. How should we try to resolve this CX dissonance?

Its obvious that CX initiatives at both individual interactions as well as at the corporate level are needed to support each other. The individual initiatives can only do so much. They can resolve a “known pain” with a business scenario. Every business scenario has exceptional flows when things don’t go as expected. And that’s where the human enterprise and empathy really shines. Think of the associate who goes out of the way to help you with a return or a claim. Individual initiatives create a lasting impact here.

However, individual initiatives cannot be the anchor for our CX strategy. CX is to be enabled by a top down agenda of the right positioning, and enabling of touch points to support that positioning. And realizing the CX vision often needs product improvements and other overreaching corporate changes too. A simple step towards that journey may be to educate all our touch-points on how they are all working together to create the desired effect, and how interconnected they are.