Monday, February 23, 2009
The three legs of the business relationship are shown in the above graphic. The three big roles are; the organization (business), the support (administration) and the stakeholder (customer). For hundreds of years these three roles have had a known and predictable inter-relationship.
If you wanted a product you engaged the organization either by store front or by phone. The traditional model has you engaging in a salesperson/client role. You discuss the product, features, benefits and costs. When the parties agree to proceed to the next step, that step is typically a sale. The salesperson will lead the customer to administrative support and make the initial introductions in some form. In a lot of cases, the sales cycle is over and then the support cycle begins. Now the customer will likely get exposed to the support functions of an organization. This is a tenuous situation. A good salesperson is trained in the craft of customer relations and has a positive (at least the successful ones) attitude. They are typically motivated by the commission of the sale and are eager to pass you on to the administrative group. This can problematic due to the fact the administrative layer is motivated by following the internal process and reducing their effort to complete the task. This can become the first strain on the customer relationship.
If you look at the triangle the cycle goes likes this; the customer (stakeholder) talks to the salesperson (business representative) that passes the sales info to support and the customer pays the support person to complete the transaction.
This model has worked for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
In the traditional model, a business had well trained sales groups and courteous support people. When all was in balance, the business flourished. If you had rude salespeople you tended to have reduced sales. If you had unprofessional support personnel you tended to have reduced repeat sales. You could make the first sale but would likely not be motivated to return for more.
Buying a car can be like this. The sales presentation is usually excellent and the buyer is convinced it is the right car. Then support steps in and potentially causes this large purchase deal to become strained by paperwork, cold calculated forms, delays, more forms and such. Then you need to get your car serviced and then the service department treats you like a herded heifer. Those car dealerships that focused on the complete sell and relationship model faired very well.
The biggest change was the speed and transparency of the stakeholder to the business. The biggest catalyst was the Internet. Now the customer could research the product online. They became informed and when they went to speak to the salesperson the conversation was now on specifics and not just relationship. Moreover, the customer wanted to remove the salesperson from the transaction. They exchanged the salesperson to the Internet site. Some early web sites where disastrous in this regard. The biggest thing for any IT manager to know about the net is your site either has a presence (eBrochure, contact us, and company facts) or a purpose (online transactions). In either case, contrary to what you may have been told, the Internet is NOT a mass marketing tool but rather a personal information tool available to the masses. Customers may browse the net but it is typically in a purposeful way. They will click to learn or to be exposed to more. They are not expecting a rolling commercial for the masses but rather a multi-media experience based on their clickable requests. This is where the death by flash has to stop. The sheer quantity of sites I go to that are all flash and no substance drives me nuts. I will leave that rant for another post. Know your client and their needs. If this is a support site then have online manuals. If this is a retail store then your search engine should be based on how the customer knows your product and not your inventory control system. How many retail store sites have you been to that asked you for part numbers or catalog page number? You have to be kidding, how would a customer would know that?
Now the customer could engage the administrative layer directly with things like online payment, order inquiries, order taking, shipping etc. These offerings should be based on what the customer experience should be and not an extension of the support arm. Customer do not work for you, please remember that.
Some pitfalls and solutions
You’re a retail chain and your online site is negatively impacting the number of clients in the store. This is a good news for support people for you have lowered your cost of delivering the goods and you have likely reached a larger customer base. However, the in store experience is what gave you brand recognition and it cannot be under estimated. Then what if these stores are franchises, then what? One suggestion that Canadian Tire does is they compensate the retail store for every online purchase as if that customer would have been in the catchment area of their store. They do this by postal code. Other retail stores only offer some products online and encourage the in store experience. This can be problematic, for you are potentially giving up sales.
You are a service company that sells a complex service. The example I will use is transportation. The customer wants to order a pickup and goes online to get the pickup request. The customer fills in the form, the driver is dispatched and the product is picked up. The end customer (consignee) receives the product and the company sends the bill to the original customer (shipper). This is all good right? Wrong. The example was a good example of a service that was successful in that the customer had the service delivered as expected. However, there was no real business interaction. What if there were more products that could have been picked up or the customer paid a higher rate because they packaged it differently or that your firm also offers customs brokerage for border crossing or freight forwarding for international freight. So how does the customer know what they do not know? What I force, yes force, my sales group to do is to engage the customer through the online experience. The salesperson is expected to set the customer up in the website and train the end user on how it works. Some big firms think this is so wrong. Why would you have a salesperson setup an online customer? My answer, are you nuts?, you want an IT person setting this up? We went into the IT field because we do not like people, so why would you risk your customer relationship to a support person. My method o gives sales a great reason to talk to the customer outside of the golf course. Good for the organization and bad for the salesrep.
Support wants to go completely online for bill payment. This sounds good when your customers are small firms with low Accounts Payable volumes. The same is not true if your customers belong to large firms with large Accounts Payable volumes. The issue with using email for invoices is very dangerous. What if the recipient is not there, how do you confirm the invoice is there and processed? You need to offer different types of online invoicing. You might want to consider an email notification that a bill is ready for their review and then have online payment. Larger firms will want to engage Electronic Data Interchange (EDI). The basic tenements of “ask the customer and engage the customer” are important here and again allows for the customer relationship model to be balanced. Just because you have an electronic interface to the customer does not mean it has to be impersonal. The reverse is true, the more electronic you get the more personal it needs to be. The customer will need more functions, customization options and more importantly personalization options. You need to give them a reason to be there and it can’t be to fill out your forms to make it easier for support. Adhering to good user design will enhance the user experience in order to balance all the sides to the triangle.
You need to build highly personalized, relevant electronic customer interactions to the support side of your business. You need to provide opportunities for your customer relationship elements of your organization to engage the customer outside of the support group. There will need to be a balance of what is considered clerical and what is considered relationship. The customer will need to be engaged at all levels and at all channels. Every interaction between the customer and the organization must be customer centric. Always put yourself in their seats.
Do not be afraid to change and to change often. Learn from others and focus on how you can engage the customer and how that engagement helps the overall organization.
Monday, February 9, 2009
Monday, February 2, 2009
THE IT STACK
The IT Stack as I have so affectingly named it has been drawn on so many napkins and scraps of paper that at times I find it difficult to take myself seriously. Then I look with amazement on the eyes of the recipient to realize it is as relevant today as it was in the early nineties when I was first exposed to it.
Yes, sometimes, the simple is really the best approach. I am visual and therefore this imagery is even more powerful to someone like me.
To the young Information Technology leader this becomes your compass for how and why decisions will be made.
I will explain the diagram from the bottom up for that is how we provide value to deliver the why of an organization problem. This is not just some trite literary play on words. The difference between how and why is the difference between organizational success and technological blunders. The latter is all too common when the bells and whistles become more important than solving the business problem. Do not chase the technology, but rather solve the organizational problem.
Here is the stack you can use to vet your solutions and their overall placement. Learn to draw this quickly on napkins and the backs of envelopes.
This is the basic pipes and plumbing of the Information Technology infrastructure. This is the physical cabling of the network, or the wireless infrastructure that allows your computers and users to talk to each other. This is all the telecommunications lines you have going into your buildings and branch offices to extend the reach of your connected devices and users.
Watch the monthly costs from your telecom provider to ensure you are getting the best value for your dollar.
Your networks need to be stable and built like a utility. By that I mean your users must have the same faith in plugging in a computer network cable as they do plugging in a toaster. When this focus is maintained confidence will be raised in your users. Your users should NOT know what type of network you have and how it is laid out. No one cares except your team so stop trying to impress your bosses and other non-related business units with the how the ones and zeros travel between computers. I cannot stress this enough. When I go into organizations and their business leaders are exposing the details of their network both positive and negative I become deeply concerned.
Networks have to be built to be used and abused. The physical plant should be well labeled and very well organized. You would be amazed on how many problems are due to sloppy labeling and wiring connections. Take pride in NOT having a rat’s nest for a wiring closet.
This is the actual hardware that you can hug and hold and get all warm and fussy about. This has the pretty lights and fans that go whir. I get real serious about hardware and I standardize on what my team can support. Being an IBM Bigot or DELL Bigot does not help you here. This layer is now a commodity. However, if you have excellent support from a vendor then make sure it has some value on the purchase side if they are not the cheapest vendor. Having every make and model from every vendor out there does NOT help you. Buying hardware you can make on your own is great if this is in your basement and you have no friends. It does not have a place in the business world. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Let’s be professional here. You have much more important things to worry about.
The technology platform consists of the following elements but is not limited to these.
- Routers, switches, hubs
- Mobile devices
- Storage Arrays
- Access points
All technology equipment must be respective and supportive of the network layer. These two layers depend completely on each other. Any mismatches here can have serious repercussions.
This is where the rubber hits the road or the user interacts with the system. This should be the only piece of the technology a user can explain and get intimate and animated with. The software should fill the organizational goal. The goal may be just a simple tool for adding rows and columns (read spreadsheet) or the goal may be to have a modern and robust warehouse management system. The user interaction should be respectful of who is engaged in the process/system. A repetitive theme in my posts is “if you wouldn’t use it then why are you releasing it”.
The application must also be written to be complimentary to the technology it is sitting on. No use in building a behemoth memory intensive system if in fact the user experience can only support minimal processing capacity. Use some forethought.
Like the interdependencies between the technology layer and the network layer so is the application layer to the technology layer. There is one exception for the application layer though and that is the application should also be sensitive and supportive of the network. A final check between the application layer and the network layer is paramount. You must be aware if your application cannot support a high speed network. All too often software programmers have no understanding of how networks actually work and therefore their applications do not provide a proper user experience.
A simple list of some application layers are as follows;
- Office productivity tools (MS Office, Open Office, Lotus Smartsuite, WordPerfect)
- Operating systems
- Warehouse Management Systems (WMS)
- Transportation Management Systems (TMS)
- Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
- Business Intelligence
- Text Messaging
- On screen programming for your Satellite receiver
- Content Management Systems
- And many more. The list is endless
This is the actual business or organizations drivers to proceed with any effort. This is the problem that is being solved and interaction should only be with the software application layer. The organizational leadership should not know about the hardware and/or the network that is delivery the solution. This is so critical. The bottom layers should be hidden from the system users. If they know the intimate workings of your solutions then you have failed. I cannot stress this enough.
The interaction is just between the problem and the solution (application user interface). The solution may have all elements of the layers in the ultimate solutions but that is not what the organization needs to know or really should care about. Sometimes when I am in a meeting with the business units and my team is present the conversation will typically lead to one of my team member saying something like “well that will be a performance hog or man that is a lot of data” and my internal or sadly at times external response will be “so what”. That is the correct answer. Sometimes to really solve a problem we will have to update the technology, applications and the network and that is our job. That is our problem and the business users.
This is the value we bring to the organization. We bring the HOW the problem will be solved. We bring recommendations to the organization to give them the tools to succeed.
We bring value through a relevant application layer that is sitting on a stable and effective technology layer and is running on a ubiquitous reliable network layer that is responsive back to the application layer.
The decision making process is from TOP down. The organization provides the WHY and the Information Technology group responds with an effective HOW. I am a strong proponent of Information Technology providing recommendations and the organizational leadership provides decisions.
But before you give me “your shitting me, right”. There are some decisions that fall in the complete purview of Information Technology leadership. These decisions will always be based on business realities and sound business judgment. The ultimate network layer and technology layer are decisions that I do not give up without a fierce fight. However, before these decisions are made I take time to understand our budgets, long term plans, support skills etc. Once the standard is set by the Information Technology group then we only need to get approval for funding and not the actual decisions
I was once told if you can’t explain an idea on the back of an envelope or a napkin it is not worth pursuing. If this is the case, the IT stack is a sure winner in this category.