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Hyperlocals, Aggregators: Developing the Ecosystem

Aggregator models and hyperlocal delivery, in theory, have some significant advantages over existing business models.

Unlike an inventory-based model, aggregation is asset-light, allowing rapid building of critical mass. A start-up can tap into existing infrastructure, as a bridge between existing retailers and the consumer. By tapping into fleeting consumption opportunities, the aggregator can actually drive new demand to the retailer in the short term.

A hyperlocal delivery business can concentrate on understanding the nuances of a customer group in a small geographic area and spend its management and financial resources to develop a viable presence more intensively.

However, both business models are typically constrained for margins, especially in categories such as food and grocery. As volume builds up, it’s feasible for the aggregator to transition at least part if not the entire business to an inventory-based model for improved fulfilment and better margins. By doing so the aggregator would, therefore, transition itself to being the retailer.

Customer acquisition has become very expensive over the last couple of years, with marketplaces and online retailers having driven up advertising costs – on top of that, customer stickiness is very low, which means that the platform has to spend similar amounts of money to re-acquire a large chunk of customers for each transaction.

The aggregator model also needs intensive recruitment of supply-side relationships. A key metric for an aggregator’s success is the number of local merchants it can mobilise quickly. After the initial intensive recruitment the merchants need to be equipped to use the platform optimally and also need to be able to handle the demand generated.

Most importantly, the acquisitions on both sides – merchants and customers – need to move in step as they are mutually-reinforcing. If done well, this can provide a higher stickiness with the consumer, which is a significant success outcome.

For all the attention paid to the entry and expansion of multinational retailers and nationwide ecommerce growth, retail remains predominantly a local activity. The differences among customers based on where they live or are located currently and the immediacy of their needs continue to drive diversity of shopping habits and the unpredictability of demand. Services and information based products may be delivered remotely, but with physical products local retailers do still have a better chance of servicing the consumer.

What has been missing on the part of local vendors is the ability to use web technologies to provide access to their customers at a time and in a way that is convenient for the customers. Also, importantly, their visibility and the ability to attract customer footfall has been negatively affected by ecommerce in the last 2 years. With penetration of mobile internet across a variety of income segments, conditions are today far more conducive for highly localised and aggregation-oriented services. So a hyperlocal platform that focusses on creating better visibility for small businesses, and connecting them with customers who have a need for their products and services, is an opportunity that is begging to be addressed.

It is likely that each locality will end up having two strong players: a market leader and a follower. For a hyperlocal to fit into either role, it is critical to rapidly create viability in each location it targets, and – in order to build overall scale and continued attractiveness for investors – quickly move on to replicate the model in another location, and then another. They can become potential acquisition targets for larger ecommerce companies, which could acquire to not only take out potential competition but also to imbibe the learnings and capabilities needed to deal with demand microcosms.

High stake bets are being placed on this table – and some being lost with business closures – but the game is far from being played out yet.

Leveraging Opportunities in Food & Beverage Sector

“Ingredients for Speed & Innovation” Conference 2014 gathered together senior delegates (CEOs/ CXOs) of the food & beverage Industry, on 7 May 2014 in Delhi. The event was organised by Third Eyesight in association with Infor India Pvt. Ltd. & Nagarro Software Pvt. Ltd.

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Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight

The conference was focused on the emerging opportunities for the companies in food and beverage sector amidst the challenging business environment. In his opening presentation, Devangshu Dutta, CEO, Third Eyesight reflected on the current macro-economic environment and the dichotomous changes in the consumer mindset. Dutta highlighted the need for companies to invest in developing advance insights, and to not only anticipate change but to seed ideas and invest in creating industry segments. Manish Gupta, VP Business Development, Nagarro provided insights on various technological solutions that have been engaged by companies that could enable companies achieve faster and better visibility into the data.

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Manish Gupta, VP Business Development, Nagarro

A panel discussion that followed discussed industry leaders’ experiences related to challenges faced with respect to demand fluctuations, demand fragmentation, complex supply chains for products with low shelf life, lack of homogeneity in food ingredients sourced through diverse geographic locations within India, as well as high levels of personnel attrition.

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Devangshu Dutta, Manish Agarwal, Arshad Siddiqui, Tarang Gautam Saxena, Manish Gupta

Manish Agarwal, Director, Bikanervala mentioned that while consumers are including other cuisines in their diet, they still prefer to have Indian food on a regular basis. Standing firm on its positioning of being a leader in Indian traditional snacks and QSR has helped his company to sustain business in these challenging times.

Arshad Siddiqui of Rasna Beverages shared the challenges related to diversity in India not only of the demand base but even the supply base. He highlighted how flavours of the same fruit vary across different geographic regions within India and adds to the complexity of maintaining consistency in the product range.

The conference was received well by the delegates who found immense value in exchanging thoughts on some highly relevant business issues.

Shopping Malls – Start-Off on the Right Foot

If you’re planning to develop a mall, here’s a short-list of key issues you must address:

Fail-proof the business plan by focussing on the customer: Focus on the development of retail brands and not solely on quick returns on investment. The primary responsibility should be that of catering to the consumer catchment and driving footfalls for the retail occupants. The other requirements follow from this simple premise. Also, a tenant-unfriendly revenue model that overloads the tenant with a high rent (whether fixed or as a percentage of sales) leads to a churn in tenants, and in combination with other factors, keeps the best tenants out of the mall making it unattractive to customer as well.

Do a thorough recce of the catchment: Ask questions like “can the catchment support the development in terms of consumer footfall and spending?”, “Is there a connect between the needs of the immediate catchment and the occupants of the mall?”, “Are there too many malls in the catchment area?”

Offer a good occupant mix: You cannot have mall occupants who have little relevance for the target consumer. Also, the retailers must complement each other in a healthy way rather than cannibalise customers and sales from each other.

Ensure good access: Accessibility and connectivity to get the traffic smoothly in and out of the mall is a must; ensure there is adequate parking space.

Avoid undersizing: A small-sized is a straight handicap because it will lack variety, and you run the risk of getting dwarfed by the next big mall that throws its hat into the ring. [However, the specific size can vary depending on the state of development of your own catchment.]

Focus on design: This involves making the mall brands ‘visible’, ensuring appropriate ‘zoning’ in terms of entertainment, multiplexes, kids’ areas, food courts etc. This will result in better customer flow management. Bad design and poor customer flow management within the mall leaves large parts of mall “invisible” to visiting consumers, or improper zoning that confuses customers and breaks up the traffic.

Finally, remember, it’s not so much about the “square feet”, as about the feet that will occupy it! Focus on the consumers that you want visiting the mall and why they should return again and again.

Is Retail Design Tone Deaf?

At the outset, let me say that this is the personal complaint of a consumer. However, I’m airing it here because I believe it is also important to the future profitability of our readers’ businesses.

Over the last few years I have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the noise in public and commercial spaces.

It may be that my sensitivity to this has increased with age, but it is a fact that noise levels have also increased dramatically in every urban public space around us. In fact, it has reached a point where I now feel that people involved in the architecture and design are either addicted to noise or, at the very least, completely immune to it.

I can’t think of any other reason why locations such as retail stores, malls, restaurants, large office receptions, and other public spaces are designed and built so badly from the point of view of handling sound.

Fundamentally Unsound

The retail soundscape, if I might call it that, is littered with noisy and uncomfortable spaces. Sound levels in busy restaurants and shopping malls can be as high as 70-110 decibels, which is the equivalent of a busy construction site. Sportswear stores play loud and fast-paced music throughout the day; are they trying to make you believe that you are in a nightclub at 11 a.m.? Internal equipment such as air-conditioning and fans add to noise levels. Restaurants and cafes are worse: noise sources include the kitchen, customers using the crockery and cutlery, chairs moving as people sit or leave, apart from the conversations going on.

For sustained exposure, 80 dB is judged to be the outside limit, and we are frequently exposed to sound levels that are higher than that, for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, it is also a vicious upward spiral of sound. Loudness feed loudness. We all raise our voices when we are competing with the surrounding sounds, and only end up adding to the noise further.

Developers spend millions on picking the right stone, fancy fixtures and creative layouts to make the place “look good”. I don’t remember ever coming across a retail space designer in India who says that the space should “sound good”. Even stores selling high-end audio equipment are badly designed and executed!

I remember sitting in a restaurant belonging to a popular Indian quick service chain after a “modern” redesign. No matter how much I tried, I could not understand a word of what my wife is saying (and that’s not just because we’ve been married for so long!). The reason my wife was inaudible was the high level of ambient noise, echoing from all the hard surfaces around us. What was worse was that I could very clearly hear a stranger who was sitting 5 tables away because the false ceiling had dome that perfectly captured his voice and bounced it across the room to me.

Toning it Down

The most basic thing to remember is this: noise has a negative impact. Not only are the customers uncomfortable, high noise levels actually interfere with the staff’s health and performance. Noise increases physical and mental stress.

What’s more, if conversations are not possible at a normal volume and tone, we have to put in more effort into hearing and understanding what the other person is saying. There comes a point when we just give up. Can you imagine what impact that has on a sale?

Studies have shown that noise can drive sales down by more than 80%. On the positive side, if sound is managed well, sales can rise by more than 1,000%! Isn’t that worth looking into?

A plea to architects and retail managers: do consider the fact that customers coming to the mall expect that space to be qualitatively different from an open market. Making a space noisy is not enough to recreate the feel of an open market – it only means that your space is noisy, and probably worse than an open market will be.

Materials selected for building and fitting out the retail outlet, the mall or the restaurant can have huge implications for how sound is handled in that space. A lot of “modern” design depends on hard, polished, reflective surfaces of stone, glass or metal. The floor, the ceiling and the walls, as well as the fixtures are all surfaces from which sound reflects back into the space, not just once but many times before it dies down. So not only do the sounds get amplified in such a space, the reflections also interfere with each other, adding to the problem.

Not Just the Sounds of Silence

Of course, just making every space a quiet “dead” space is not the answer. Sound and silence affect us positively as well as negatively.

The ancients believed that sound could transform the energy of human beings and their surroundings, and from various base sounds they created “simple” beej mantras to complex Vedic chants. Anyone who has chanted or sung hymns, or even an old peppy film soundtrack knows that sound has the power to affect our moods.

At one extreme, most people are uncomfortable in a heavy engineering factory, or for that matter, a modern shopping centre on a busy weekend, without realising why. At the other end, most people would also be uncomfortable in a recording studio, because it suppresses ambient sound as much as possible, leaving the space “empty”.

In some cases (e.g. a night club, or discount store), sounds need to be louder to ensure that the place “feels” lively, even when it is not full to capacity. In some places our enjoyment is enhanced by noise. Watching a cricket match in a stadium while wearing noise-cancelling headphones would hardly be as much fun. A school playground is “happy” when hundreds of children are running around screaming and shouting at the top of their voices, and “solemn” during a quiet morning assembly.

In some cultures and countries, normal social interaction is “louder” than would be acceptable in others. (For example, a British acquaintance mentioned to me how heavily she felt “the sounds of silence” when she moved back to England, after spending many years in Asia.)

So the key is to first define the ambience and the mood that you want to create in your space. What is the objective: who do you want to attract, who do you want to send away? (For example, operators of public transportation systems have successfully used classical music to drive away loiterers who were undesirable.)

Disney offers an inspiring example of how sound can be used. Over the years they have evolved systems combining sophisticated software and hardware in their amusement parks, such that you can walk through the whole park without the decibel-level changing too much. The music sets the appropriate mood for each specific zone. What’s more, the transitions are smooth as you move between zones.

Not everyone needs the sophistication of a Disney amusement park, but I believe it is worthwhile for most retailers to think about how sound is affecting people in their stores.

I would urge you, at the very least, to look at how it impacts conversations between customers, and between the customer and members of the serving staff, because that will definitely impact sales.

A leading cafe chain proclaims: “A lot can happen over coffee”. Yes, it can; but not if you make conversation impossible.

Try it. Tone it down. You’ll see an upswing in productivity, sales and customer satisfaction.

(Read “How Mr. Q Manufactured Emotion” in the Disney parks, on Dustin Curtis’ blog.)

The e-tailing sunrise, finally?

Amazon went public in 1997, when there were a total of 50 million internet users in the world. I remember making my first purchase on Amazon in 1998, and being delighted at the experience of finding something specific, quickly and conveniently. Over the next few months, a “revolutionary” fashion site in Europe – boo.com – raised and spent more than US$ 100 million of venture funding, and heralded a world under the domination of dotcoms.

A few short months later, chatting with a journalist in New Delhi, I found that India too had caught the dotcom bug. We weighed the pros and cons of retail on the internet in India. The previous year, ecommerce sites in India were estimated to have transacted all of Rs. 120-160 million (US$ 2.7-3.7 million) worth of business, but the figure looked set to explode.

I felt then that while the growth could be rapid, even exponential over the next few years, the outcome would still be a very small fraction of the total retail business in the country. We estimated that by 2005 e-commerce in India could be anywhere between Rs 5 billion and Rs. 15 billion on a best case scenario. Despite several apparent advantages in the online business model, the outcome depended on a variety of factors including internet penetration, the appearance of value-propositions that were meaningful to Indian consumers, investments in fulfilment infrastructure and the development of payment infrastructure.

In fact, by the middle of the decade the business had reached just under halfway on that scale, at about Rs 8-9 billion (US$ 180-200 million), despite 25 million Indians being online. Dotcoms became labelled dot-cons, with an estimated 1,000 companies closing down. The retail business discovered a new darling – shopping centres – which pulled funding away for another explosion, that of physical retail space.

The Second Coming

Today, though, dotcoms seem to be back with a vengeance.

The Indian e-commerce sector has received more than US$ 200 million investment in the last couple of years. Now India’s Amazon-wannabe Flipkart alone is looking to raise approximately that amount of money from private equity funds in the next few months, to push forward its aggressive growth plan.

Estimates for internet users in India vary between 80 million and 100 million, and the total business transacted online is projected to cross Rs 465 billion (US$ 10 billion). Online, the Indian consumer seems spoilt for choice, with offers ranging from cheap watches, expensive jewellery, speciality footwear, premium fashionwear, the latest books to feed the intellect, and organic foods to satisfy the body.

However, a closer analysis shows that product sales (or “e-tailing”) are still straggling, being forecast at about Rs. 27 billion (around US$ 550 million) in 2011, which would be merely 6 per cent of all e-commerce, and just about 0.1 per cent of the estimated total retail market. 80 per cent of the business remains travel related, with airline and railway bookings taking the lion’s share, and most of the rest is made up of services that can be delivered online.

The success of online travel bookings shows that the consumer is increasingly comfortable spending online. While a low credit card penetration remains a barrier in India, websites and payment gateways have created alternative methods that give the consumer a higher degree of confidence, including one-time cards through net-banking, direct debits from bank accounts, mobile payments, and, if all else fails, cash on delivery.

An e-tailing presence offers “timeless” access without physical boundaries. For a retail business, reducing and replacing the cost of running multiple stores, with their heavy overheads (rent and store salaries being the largest chunks) seems like a dream come true.

Similarly, merchandise planning and forecasting is typically fraught with error and multiple stores only compound the problem. An internet presence can minimise the number of inventory-holding points, thus reducing the error margins significantly. These factors should, in theory, make the online business more efficient and the value proposition more compelling for the consumer.

Then why isn’t e-tailing growing faster?

Barriers to Growth

The answer is that, while the online population is bigger and payment is no longer the hurdle that it once was, there are two other critical factors that have changed only marginally and incrementally over the years: the consistency of products and how effectively orders are fulfilled. With an airline or a train ticket, one has a reasonable idea of the product or service that will be delivered. Unfortunately this isn’t true of the online merchandise trade, which is plagued by poor products, poor service and, as a result, low consumer confidence.

Individual companies, of course, are spending a large amount of management effort as well as money, to ensure consistency. For instance, the team at Exclusively.in told us how they fretted over design, (including the thread and the number of stitches in the embroidered logo on the T-shirts) to ensure that the final product had a “rich” feel and to ensure that their product in quality to some of the most desirable brands in the market. Flipkart highlights its in-house logistics operations to ensure high service levels, in addition to using traditional courier and postal services.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that the consumer’s confidence can only be built over a period of time, by constantly providing consistent product quality and high levels of service. Businesses need to spend a few years before they achieve a “critical mass” in this area.

This issue of confidence is more of a problem in some products, due to their very nature. For instance, buying fashion and accessories online is very different from buying a book online.

Businesses such as Amazon have made it more convenient for the customer to search for books, compare them with others on the same subject, and read reviews before finally deciding to buy the book. But, even more importantly, they now also allow us to preview some of the pages or sections, so that we can do what we do in a bookshop – flip through the text, to get a sense of whether the book actually speaks to us. However, when we think of putting fashion products online, the problem that immediately comes to mind is that there is no effective way yet of the consumer getting a similar touch-feel experience. Avatars and virtual placement are a poor substitute to holding the product and physically placing it on oneself.

Accessories – such as jewellery and watches – are an easier sell than clothing and footwear, and if we could classify mobile phones and other electronic items also as “fashion accessories”, then we can declare the online accessory market a runaway hit. As long as the product quality and the accuracy of the picture depicting the product are high or consistent with the offer, it is the pricing and convenience that will drive business growth online, and the business can benefit from all the efficiencies inherent in the online model.

However, with clothing and footwear two major concerns remain: sizing and fit. For the answer to why this is so, we need to remember the fact that these are indeed two separate barriers. There are usually anywhere between three to six sizes options in any product, sometimes more (especially if you account for half-sizes in shoes). This translates into 3-6 times the complexity of managing inventory and, at the very least, doubles the possibility of returns (since customers may order multiple sizes to discover one that fits them). However, the other aspect is perhaps even more important and a bigger problem: fit also depends on styling, not just the size. We know from our own experiences in buying clothing and shoes that the same size in two different products does not mean that they will fit in a similar manner. This is less acute for clothing, especially products such as T-shirts, shirts and blouses which may have some allowance around the body, but is absolutely critical for shoes, which must fit close to the feet.

The American online shoe retailer Zappos – also owned by Amazon now – has found a way to overcome this barrier by offering free shipping both ways (i.e. for delivery to the customer and for any products that need to be returned), a 365 day return policy and a process whose final objective is customer-delight. As long as the product is in the same condition as it was when it was first delivered to the customer, Zappos accepts returns at no cost to the customer.

On the other hand, Indian sites Bestylish.com and Yebhi.com (also now owner of Bigshoebazaar.com) have different policies to deal with returns, but both are less flexible and less customer-friendly than the Zappos policy mentioned above.

I’m sure the Indian websites have sound commercial principles and clear strategic reasons for structuring their policies as they have, but it certainly presents a significant barrier to customers who may be debating whether to buy shoes online or buy offline after trying the shoes on. Unfortunately, the convenience factor is just not a big enough driver yet to overcome the fit barrier for most customers.

Among other products, the food and grocery category stands out as having the largest chunk of the consumer’s wallet. However, selling this electronically is a challenge, especially since the biggest driver of purchase frequency is fresh produce that is tough to handle even in conventional retail stores in India, let alone via non-store environments.

However, grocery retailers could ride on the back of standardised products, if they can overcome the challenge of delivering efficiently and quickly.

Another barrier is the desirability of shopping online versus offline. Management pundits may borrow Powerpoint slides from their western counterparts, describing “time-poor and cash-rich” customers for whom the internet is the most logical shopping source. This holds true for a small base of Indian consumers, but for most people product-shopping remains predominantly a high-touch activity and a social experience to be enjoyed with friends and family. In spite of the inconvenience related to driving and parking conditions, the pleasure of walking into a physical store has not diminished. If anything, during the last five years the “retail theatre” has become capable of attracting more customers with better stores and better shopping infrastructure. The convenience of shopping online is just not compelling enough for most of India’s consumers.

Emerging Opportunities

On the plus-side, consumers located in the smaller Indian cities, with less access to many of the traditional brand stores, are finding the online channel a useful alternative. However, fulfilling these orders in a timely and cost-effective manner remains a challenge for most companies.

One potential growth area is the “clicks and bricks” combination for existing retailers. Indeed, worldwide, leading retailers have moved on from multichannel strategies to being “omnichannel” – present in every location, format or occasion where their consumer can possibly be reached. Many of the chains in India have gained the trust and goodwill needed to tip the customer over to online shopping. However, for them the challenge would be to ensure that the internet presence is designed for an excellent user experience and serviced in a dedicated manner, just as any flagship store would, rather than as an online afterthought.

Retailers who have achieved a high degree of penetration and consumer confidence can also use a combination of “sell online, service offline” in locations where they have critical mass, as first demonstrated successfully by Tesco in the UK.

Delivery-oriented food services are a potential winner for consumers in urban centres in India who are pressed for time, again on the back of standardised service and product offerings, and their existing delivery mechanisms. For instance, quick-service major Domino’s, which hits 400 outlets this year, already has 10% of its annual sales coming from internet orders within just a year of launching the service, and that share is expected to double in the next year. What’s more, the online orders are reported to be of higher value than its other delivery orders. All in all, a phenomenal shift for the brand that promises delivery within “30 minutes or free”.

There is no doubt that e-tailing will grow in India. The confluence of increasing incomes, a growing online population, improving connectivity, and more businesses starting up on the net will lead to what would be “stupendous” year-on-year growth figures. We can expect the e-tailing revenues to be between Rs. 50 billion and Rs. 80 billion by 2015.

However, we need to remember that this will still be a very small share in the total pie, because the rest of the retail business is evolving and growing rapidly as well. Costs of acquiring and retaining customers will remain high and only increase, cost-effective fulfilment and high service levels will continue to worry most players. Per capita spends are also not going to be helped by discount-driven websites.

It is not a false dawn for e-tailing in India but, to my mind, the sun is as yet below the horizon despite the recent sky-high venture valuations.

Teams that are building for an exit must remember: most are likely to never achieve one. If you are losing money on every transaction, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future, there is no future. Entrepreneurs and investors who are being over-enthusiastic and blithely ignoring the real costs of doing business may be in for their darkest hour.

However, those who are careful in tending to their flickering flames and have a longer term view of remaining in the business, may get to see their own e-tailing sunrise in the next few years.

(Updated in November 2011.)

Look Into Your Customer’s Eyes

REVIEW: FLIP THE FUNNEL: Joseph Jaffe (John Wiley & Sons)

I’ve read Joseph Jaffe’s book across multiple air journeys, nationally and internationally. I agreed with the principles described and saw parallels with excellent services businesses over the past few years. However, the implications didn’t quite strike me in the gut until I realised – while writing this on board an aircraft – that the journeys I had taken with this book had also been with just one airline.

My loyalty to this airline is not because of the mileage card I hold, although their mileage programme is certainly among the best in the world. It is not because they were the cheapest or the most on-time, though they compete favourably with other comparable airlines.

My loyalty to them is because of what they did during the Mumbai floods in July 2005. Those who remember the chaos, through personal experience or through media, wouldn’t blame airline staff for abandoning their counters, and leaving the airport to try and reach home as early as they could. Certainly most of them must have felt helpless in the face of increasingly desperate passengers who couldn’t expect to depart any time soon. Jet Airways stood out as being the only one in Mumbai’s Terminal 1-B whose team felt responsible enough to stay back at the airport to be available to the passengers. Not only did they ensure that the passengers stuck in the terminal were safe, but that all waiting passengers got three meals a day! Whether or not they were flying with Jet Airways.

Now, in telling you about incident, I have closed the loop and given you a living example of the “flipped funnel” that Jaffe describes in the book.

The normal marketing funnel is described by the process Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action (or “AIDA”) which underlies the spray-and-pray approach of traditional marketing. The result of AIDA is that a lot of customers become aware of a business, brand or product. Some are interested enough to seek out the product. However the number who move on to the next stage of actually expressing desire to buy is lower, and those who actually buy are fewer still, as amply demonstrated by carts being abandoned before actually checking out.

Jaffe points out that the AIDA principle was created in times of abundant growth in the US, but is a suicidal funnel to fall into when resources are scarce. It is lopsided, with more money being spent on customers who will not buy. It is linear and does not capture the complexity of buying behaviour. It is open and incomplete because it only handles potential customers up to the point where they become actual customers, but does nothing with them thereafter. AIDA also inherently assumes customer churn, hence the opening focus on creating awareness among potentially new customers.

The alternative principles Jaffe describes are simple: getting more customers to buy from us and more often (repeat purchases), to spend increasing amounts with us (loyalty), and finally, to recommend us to their friends and associates (referrals). However, to do this requires dramatically different thinking from AIDA spray-and-pray. Jaffe’s alternative model – ADIA (Acknowledgment, Dialogue, Incentivisation and Activation) – focuses on customers more than prospects.

Acknowledging customers itself is such a major stumbling block for so many companies, such as the retailer whose front-line staff would prefer to fold and put away garments than meeting the eyes of the customer who has walked into the store. In some cases it may be about using technology effectively rather than as a barrier. When the taxi company can recognise the number you are calling from and close your order in less than 120 seconds, why does the telephone company that issued that number make you jump through burning hoops for 5-10 minutes before they will allow you to request a duplicate bill?

That acknowledgement should lead to an on-going dialogue, before, through and well after the purchase is done. This would be supported by constant incentives for the customer to buy more from you. It is not about having a loyalty programme, as Jaffe quotes studies that demonstrate that loyalty programmes alone don’t produce loyalty; in fact there are enough businesses that do not run loyalty schemes but have what can only be called fan followings.

The final link in that funnel is building that community of evangelist enthusiasts who will carry your brand message farther and far more effectively than any traditional form of marketing could. Religious organisations have known this for thousands of years – it is high time that businesses and other organisations recognised the power of the community as well.

Jaffe acknowledges that Seth Godin actually came up with the term “flipping the funnel” over 3 years ago, when he released the e-book of that name (available on sethgodin.typepad.com) primarily about using social media effectively. Jaffe, to his credit, has applied the principles more fully across the marketing and customer service process.

Jaffe recently sold his business, crayon, but has kept his title “Chief Interruptor” at the acquiring company. If you want to make your marketing really pay, you’ll find it worthwhile letting “Flip the Funnel” interrupt your normal marketing thought-process.

(This review was written for Businessworld.)

Complaint and redress mechanism requires employee empowerment

A recent experience with one of the quick service restaurants took me back to my post-graduate class of Consumer Service Standards.

We studied five essential elements of service standards, which are:

  1. A Charter of Service, including a description of the service the retailer intends to provide and, where applicable, the benefits customers are entitled to receive;
  2. Service Pledges, focusing on such elements as openness, fairness, courtesy, professionalism, etc.;
  3. Specific Delivery Targets for key aspects such as timeliness, access and accuracy;
  4. The Delivery Costs; and
  5. Redressal Mechanisms that customers can use when they feel standards have not been met.

The last, redressing complaints, is the most important and difficult aspect among these elements. It requires instant responsiveness and sufficient empowerment of staff to manage a dissatisfied customer.

Standard operating procedures requires staff to follow the procedures as they are written, whereas store staff need to immediately respond to a unique situation every time ensuring that personal judgement will be called for on every occasion.

To elaborate on how important is responsiveness and sufficient empowerment of staff; I will like to discuss a recent experience with a quick service restaurant. I will first describe my reactions as a customer to understand the consumer’s expectations and reaction when a retailer is unable to meet the same and then will analyze the same from a retailer’s and a consultant’s perspective.

I ordered for some salad which contains some soye chunks with diced vegetables in some dressings from a QSR. We quite often order from this restaurant and are quite happy with their products and services. However, this time the salad they delivered had only veggies; no soye chunks and no dressing.

So I called them back to tell that they have sent the salad without soya chunks and dressing and if they could replace the same. The boy at the reception said “Please give me your number and my boss will call you back”.

I was feeling really hungry as I didn’t eat breakfast in the morning (rather just had a toast), so in 15 min I gave them a call again which went unanswered. By now the loyalty for the restaurant and likeness for its products had evaporated. So I called again in 10 minutes to tell them to take their salad back and return the money. This time the associate was kind enough to ask if I would like to get the salad replaced, I said no you please take your salad back. Fifteen minutes latter a delivery boy came to return the money and I returned the salad.

Now let’s analyze the action and reaction of both retailer and customer to go to the root cause of the issue. The product delivered was wrong; however because of the previous good repute of the retailer the customer didn’t mind the mistake and called the retailer to replace the product. The associate at the reception took the phone number of the customer and said that store manager will return the call. Clearly, the service provider was not empowered to take the decision. By the time he was able to figure out that the salad needs to be replaced, 25 minutes had passed by and the customer had lost the patience. However, there were no apologies made by the retailer which is again because of the lack of the redress guidelines or lack of training for the same!

While SOPs are important to minimize the gaps in the service delivery, Redress mechanisms are essential to get things right in case a gap arises in service delivery. Complaint and redress mechanisms require empowering the employees who serve the customers. This enables them to take instant decision as and when the need be.

So while developing or reviewing the SOPs, it is important for retailers to ensure that complaint and redress mechanisms are not only weaved in the SOPs but also provide sufficient empowerment to service providers.

The Help-Less Customer

The dark clouds of recession and rain seem to be lifting just a little bit. Governments have been energetically throwing seeds of stimulus and economists are eagerly spotting “green shoots”. The festive season is around the corner, with anticipation of higher sales.

So perhaps it is time to cheer. Or perhaps not.

In the recessionary environment during the last year or so, ‘cutting back’ rather than ‘building’ has been the philosophy for most businesses.

The implications of these cut-backs are not always visible in the place you have originally made the cuts. But, unfortunately, they inevitably impact the area which should be the last to be touched: customer experience!

The problem arises not so much from the cut-back. Obviously if the business prospects are looking negative or less positive, the management needs to adjust its expectations and also its expense and investment framework.

No, the problem lies in the fact that most such initiatives are internally focussed. Whether it is supply chain (“lean inventory”), operating strength (“fewer people”), merchandise rationalisation (“narrower range and fewer brands”), the implications and benefits that are identified are mostly internal to the business. The driving philosophy is that “a penny saved is a penny earned”.

During the navel-gazing we forget the fundamental principle that the purpose of a business is to deliver a set of goods or services to meet the customer’s needs and expectations; if those needs are not served, the business interest is not served either.

Here are a few examples from the recent past:

  • A modern retail chain has no stock of bread and basic cooking oil on the second afternoon of a 3-day long weekend. When asked, one of the sales associates says that they got no deliveries due to the holiday the previous day. When you walk across to the traditional kirana store, it is fully stocked-up with fresh merchandise, and apparently has had no delivery problems at all from the same brands either the previous day or that morning itself. Someone at the “organized” retailer seems to have forgotten that “lean” shouldn’t mean reduced footfall-conversion.
  • A telephone service provider receives a complaint for a faulty line. The provider promises to rectify the complaint within 6 hours. After 6 days the line is still down. The call centre executives on multiple follow-up calls sound helpless – one even says: “Maybe the complaint did not get across to the service engineer.” One of them – maybe it is only to push the responsibility off to another part of the organization – hints at the unavailability of enough field staff.
  • An elderly couple in a well-established large retail store is very clear that they only want to buy 100% cotton products. The enthusiastic sales associate pushes the store’s own heavily advertised brand of T-shirts, assuring the customer that it is cotton. After the first wear and wash the customer sends one of the T-shirts for ironing, only to have it returned with a large burn – the fabric, apparently of synthetic fibre rather than cotton, has not been able to withstand the ironing. Somewhere, someone has cut corners – it could have been the buying executive who wanted to meet a price point target, or it could have been the HR manager who thought that product training was a superfluous expense, or both.

These are all companies that have spent millions on store-fronts, real estate, IT systems, brand logos and hip advertising. After all, those are the visible vehicles for the brand and the brand promise.

Unfortunately, because of the internal disconnect between the strategic intent and the operational reality, these millions are now dripping down the drain, one customer relationship at a time.

Which brings me to one significant area of concern – the people who interface with the customer.

In western economies, due to the high cost of manpower, consumer-facing businesses are run on the basis of highly system-driven processes, lean staffing and a self-help orientation, whether the customer is interfacing with a call-centre or with a physical retail store. There are also significant cultural and infrastructure differences that make these models work in those economies.

In modernising countries such as those in Asia, it is quite understandable that the new consumer-facing companies are trying to emulate western “best-practice” models. However, often they falter on two accounts.

Firstly in these relatively hierarchical societies, customers don’t want to feel “help-less”. They may not exactly enjoy an intrusive sales associate, but they enjoy even less the feeling that there is no one around who can help when they want it. A number of retailers have failed this “quantity” test in the last few months.

Secondly, it is not just a “warm body” that is needed to ask a polite question and smile brightly, but someone who is empowered and feels accountable to solve the customer’s specific issue. That is a “quality” issue. Part of it is related to the huge gap between the personal context of most consumer-facing staff and their customers’. The other, significant, issue is the culture of accountability – that the salesperson or the service executive makes the effort to understand and solve the customer’s problem, rather than only focussing on following the law laid down in the operating manual. These needs can only be addressed through training – lots of it, and repeated liberally – and creating a culture that, top to bottom, is focussed on the customer.

Analysts have said that recessions are a great time for the good companies to separate themselves from the rest. That is true to an extent.

However, I believe that in recessions many companies, bad or good, suffer due to circumstances beyond their control – it is in the recovery after the recession that is a much tougher filter.

When the customer’s mood is beginning to move up, so are his or her expectations. Companies that have not cut muscle along with the fat, companies that have not only focussed on themselves in the downturn but have remembered the customer at all times, are the ones which will manage to retain their customer relationships. And will grow faster.

Wi-Fi in Coffee Shops – win-win or win-lose?

At the end of 2006, in an article about market segmentation, I’d proposed a customer segment called “Cafe Workers” who look at coffee-shops as inexpensive real-estate to work out of.  These include professionals, start-up entrepreneurs, small businesspeople and travellers into a city. (Click here to open the PDF file of the article “Slicing the Market“.)

But now, amidst the recession, apparently it is one positioning that some coffee shops don’t want to buy into. The Wall Street Journal reports that there is a backlash from many coffee shops towards customers who enjoy the use of free wi-fi and spend hours occupying tables that should be turning over more. (No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users). Many of the comments on the article are sympathetic towards the cafe owners, calling such customers “moochers”.

While the dismay of cafe owners over customers who abuse the facilities is understandable, could they be doing themselves harm by actively discouraging laptop use? Wi-fi is just one of the sticky aspects of a ‘hanging-around’ culture that the cafes have encouraged in the first place as part of their business model.

By and large, wi-fi enabled cafes around the world are more expensive than the ones which are not. Wi-fi goes along with the more premium positioning, and they should be able to balance the space premium lost on long-term wi-fi users with the grab-and-go customers who are paying higher prices without using the facilities.

That said, in specific cafes or at specific times of day or days of the week when there is a bottleneck, they should be able to limit the length of the IP-lease.

All it takes is a bit of thought and a tiny application of technology, not total disruption of the business model.

Targeting Mr. Mom

Retailwire.com prompted a discussion on what, if anything, should grocers and other stores be doing to accommodate the growth in stay-at-home dads?According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the recession is putting more men out of work than women, which has led to an increase of stay-at-home dads who are increasingly taking on the traditional women’s roles of childcare, housework, school life, and shopping.

Here’s my contribution to the Dad wishlist: salespeople who don’t look down their noses when asked a (“stupid”) question Mom would never have dreamt of asking. (Also, considering this is the gender that apparently never stops to ask for directions, please treat the question as close to a life-or-death emergency.)