Tag Archives: Customer focus

Good Startup Ideas from Startup Weekend JB (Malaysia)

I like all these startup ideas from Startup Weekend JB (Malaysia). I can’t figure out how to comment on their blog (I am guessing Tumbler just eliminates commenting?), so I started this post – and ended up adding much more than I planned on putting in a comment.

All of these ideas are not very technically challenging and pretty much versions of these businesses are already successful around the globe. But creating great user experiences (in apps or on web sites) is often neglected for doing something passable (and local conditions mean the business is a bit different here than it would be somewhere else).

To create a greatly successful startup focusing on great, not adequate, customer experiences is extremely useful. And you can leap ahead of competitors that don’t focus on customer delight.

One of the interesting things from my experience living in Johor Bahru, Malaysia the last few years is that Malaysia has way more entrepreneurial diversity than the USA (in my limited experience). Many of these businesses stay small. But you have entrepreneurs in all sorts of businesses at events in JB. In the USA the events I went to were all software focused (internet businesses etc.).

Here you have people setting up factories, printing companies, beauty entrepreneurs, construction companies, bakers, motel chain (less than a handful of motels so far) etc. going to HackerSpace meetings and Drinks Entrepreneurs, BarCamp etc.. Startup Weekend I do think was very IT focused, even in JB (it is setup to be that way so it isn’t surprising).

There are small business entrepreneurs in the USA, but they don’t go to entrepreneur/ LeanStartup etc. type meetings (in my experience). And they are more limited; so many businesses in the USA really can’t be done easily by some new college graduate. The capital and legal requirements are just so huge you need so much to start that it isn’t something considered in the cool-startup communities (in general – I’m sure there are some things like micro-brew startups etc.). In JB it seems to me fewer than 33% are IT dominated. Though I expect this will increase rapidly. I think there is a real benefit to including non-IT focused people in these communities.

The number of people outside of IT that decide to be entrepreneurs out of school is tiny (it seems to me). In Malaysia it seems much more common. But in general people don’t talk about it as being entrepreneurs they are trying to make a living and setting up their own business to do so is just a natural thing to do.

SmartDining – find local restaurants (mobile app) and order (for take out or dine in).

The app shouldn’t be too hard to do well. The challenges will be working with restaurants, marketing (so often the case) and maybe mapping (finding good suggestion). How to balance efforts well will also be a challenge – you could spend tons of time on many different valuable efforts related to this business. Vote.

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Don’t Ignore Customer Complaints

I find Paul Graham’s ideas very useful. I disagree with his recent tweet though.

tweets from Paul Graham

Update: See note at bottom of the post – Paul tweeted that his original tweet was wrong.

Base your assessment of the merit of an idea on the actual merit of the idea, not the category you place the person in that is expressing the idea.

His reply tweet addresses the problem with the first one in a very specific case. But you have “bugs” that are part of your management system, “policies,” products or services. Few customers will bother to voice those problems. Rather than ignoring some of what you hear, you should evaluate the merit of the complaint.

If the complaint is not something that should be addressed or explored fine. But that has nothing to do with the category of the person (“complainer” or not); it has to do with the merit of the complaint.

I understand some people are annoying because they make lots of meritless complaints. Ignoring the meritless complaints is fine with me. But just as I think ignoring advice because the person giving the advice doesn’t follow it is a bad practice I think having a policy of basing decisions on something other than the merit of the complaint/suggestion is unwise.

This is especially true since organizations on the whole do a lousy job of listening to customers and understanding customer desires. We need to greatly enhance the practice of customer focus not seek to reduce it. Every organization is unique, however, and if customer focus is exceptionally great, I can understand the idea of the tweet: that we are devoted to customer focus and each new insight, but we have taken it too far and need to discriminate better. I still think discriminating based on the merit of the complaint is a better than doing so based on our categorization of the complainer but in that case (which is very rare in organizations) the advice isn’t nearly as bad as it is for most organizations.

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Out of Touch Executives Damage Companies: Go to the Gemba

When your customer service organization is universally recognized as horrible adding sales requirements to customer service representatives jobs is a really bad practice. Sadly it isn’t at all surprising to learn of management doing just that at our largest companies. Within a system where cash and corruption buys freedom from market forces (see below for more details) such practices can continue.

Such customer hostile practices shouldn’t continue. They shouldn’t be allowed to continue. And even though the company’s cash has bought politically corrupt parties to allow such a system to survive it isn’t even in the selfish interest of the business. They could use the cover provided by bought-and-paid-for-politicians-and-parties to maintain monopolistic pricing (which is wrong ethically and economically but could be seen as in the self interest of a business). But still provide good service (even while you take monopolistic profits allowed with corrupt, though legal, cash payments).

Of course, Adam Smith knew the likely path to corruption of markets made up of people; and he specifically cautioned that a capitalist economic system has to prevent powerful entities efforts to distort markets for individual gain (perfect competition = capitalism, non-competitive markets = what business want, as Adam Smith well knew, but this is precisely not capitalism). Sadly few people taking about the free-market or capitalism understand that their support of cronyist policies are not capitalist (I suppose some people mouthing those words are just preaching false ideas to people known to be idiots, but really most don’t seem to understand capitalism).

Anyway, this class of protected businesses supported by a corrupt political and government (regulators in government) sector is a significant part of the system that allows the customer hostility of those politically connected large businesses to get away with a business model based on customer hostility, but wasn’t really what I meant to write about here.

Comcast executives have to know they are running a company either rated the worst company in the country or close to it year after year. They, along with several others in their industry, as well as the cell phone service providers and too-big-to-fail-banks routinely are the leaders of companies most reviled by customers. Airlines are also up their for treating customer horribly but they are a bit different than the others (political corruption is much less of the reason for their ability to abuse customers for decades than is for the others listed above).

Leaked Comcast employee metrics show what we figured: Sell or perish [Updated]
Training materials explicitly require a “sell” phase, even in support calls.

The company’s choice to transform what is traditionally a non-revenue-generating area—customer service—into a revenue-generating one is playing out with almost hilariously Kafkaesque consequences. It is the nature of large corporations like Comcast to have dozens of layers of management through which leadership instructions and directives are filtered. The bigger the company, the more likely that members of senior leadership (like Tom Karinshak) typically make broad policy and leave specific implementations to lower levels.

Here, what was likely praised in the boardroom as an “innovative” strategy to raise revenue is instead doing much to alienate customers and employees alike. Karinshak’s assurances that he doesn’t want employees to feel pressured to sell in spite of hard evidence that Comcast demands just that are hard to square with the content of the document.

So what is going on here? Most people can easily see this is likely a horrible practice. It is a practice that a well run company theoretically could pull off without harming customers too much. But for a company like Comcast to do this it is obviously going to be horrible for customers (same for all those too-big to fail banks, cell phone service providers and other ISPs and cable TV providers).

Lets just pretend Comcast’s current leadership executives were all replaced with readers of the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog. And lets say that for now you are suppose to focus on improving the policies in place (while thinking about policy changes for later but not making them yet).

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Use Urls – Don’t Use Click x, Then Click y, Then Click z Instructions

In the 1980s software applications had to use click x, then click y, then click z type instructions to get you to a specific location in a software application (or at least they had a decent excuse to do that). Too many web application development organizations forget that they now have urls to direct people exactly where to go: and that they shouldn’t rely on ancient “click here, then there, then in that other place” type instructions.

Here is an example I wrote up on my recent experience with iTunes and their failure to do this properly: Bad iTunes Ux and How to Submit a Podcast to iTunes. I see it all the time, that is just one example.

It is so sad that Google can’t even offer mildly decent help for their own software nearly a couple decades after they started out with the goal to organize the world’s information. And lots of other software companies also point you to clicking around various gui (graphical user interface) click paths instead of just

  1. showing the url (say in a help email) – instead of the gui click path text
  2. a clickable link to the url in web documents

On top of the waste inherent in click path instructions they often fail because the interface has changed and no one bothered to change the click path or the click path depends on other things being a certain way and they are not so the click path breaks.

I really can’t comprehend how this usability failure is something I run across all the time. Urls are not some secret idea only PhD computer scientists have heard of. This is super basic stuff – click path instructions should never have been acceptable for any web application. It is pitiful they are still common among companies that see themselves as advanced software development organizations.

Using the proper urls also will help make sure you are using human readable urls. Another super basic usability concept that is ignored far too often by some web application developers.

Related: Usability, Customer Focus and Internet Travel SearchMaking Life Difficult for CustomersPracticing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at ApplePassword Gobbledygook Instruction (more bad usability)What I Would Include in a Redesigned Twitter Profile (2014)

Practicing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at Apple

Mistake proofing is a wonderful management concept. Design systems not just to be effective when everything goes right but designing them so mistakes are prevented.

I have had several bad customer experiences in the short time I have had my iPad mini. One of the most pitiful is caused by mistake-promoting process design. As the name implies that isn’t a good idea. Mistake-proofing processes is a good practice to strive for; processes that create extra opportunities for failure impacting customers negatively are a bad idea.

My experience below is but one mistake-promoting practice that has caught me in its grips in the short time I have owned my iPad mini. I want to view books on the mini but can’t find any book reader. So I decide, fine I’ll just install the Kindle reader app.

I go to do so (run into additional issues but get through them) and then Apple decides for this free app, on an iPad I just bought with my credit card a week ago, to block me from getting what I need and force me to revalidate my credit card. This is lame enough, but I am used to companies not caring about the customer experience, so fine, what hoops does Apple want to force me through?

But guess what, the unnecessary steps Apple decided to force me through are broken so I can’t just waste my time to make them happy. No. They have created a failure point where they never should have forced the customer in the first place.

So they not only didn’t mistake-proof the process they mistake-promoted the process by creating a unnecessary step that created an error that could have been avoided if they cared about mistake proofing. But instead they use a mistake-promoting process. As a consumer it is annoying enough to cope with the failures companies force me through due to bad management systems that don’t mistake proof processes.

Companies creating extra opportunities to foist mistakes onto customers is really something we shouldn’t have to put up with. And when they then provide lousy and then even incomprehensible “support” such the “change your name” vision Apple decided to provide me now it is time to move on.

After 5 years of buying every computing device from Apple, they have lost my entire good will in one week of mess ups one after the other. I knew the reason I moved to Apple, the exceptional Macbook Air, was no longer the unmatched hardware it once was; but I was satisfied and was willing to pay a huge iPad premium to avoid the typical junk most companies foist on you. But with Apple choosing to make the process as bad as everyone else there isn’t a decent reason to pay them a huge premium.

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Steve Jobs on Quality, Business and Joseph Juran

This webcast shows an interesting interview with Steve Jobs when he was with NeXT computer. He discusses quality, business and the experience of working with Dr. Juran at NeXT computer. The video is likely from around 1991.

America’s in a tough spot right now, I think. I think we have forgotten the basics. We were so prosperous for so long that we took so many things for granted. And we forgot how much work it took to build and sustain those basic things that were supporting out prosperity. Things like a great education system. Things like great industry.

We are being out-planned, we are being out-strategized, we are being out-manufactured. It there is nothing that can’t be fixed but we are not going to fix it up here, we are going to fix it by getting back to the basics.

I agree with this thought, and while we have made some progress over the decades since this was recorded there is a long way to go (related: complacency about our contribution the USA has received from science and engineering excellencewhen you were as rich as the USA was in the 1950s and 1960s more and more people felt they deserved to be favored with economic gifts without effort (forgetting the basics as Jobs mentioned)Silicon Valley Shows Power of Global Science and Technology Workforce). After World War II the USA was able to coast on an economic bubble of extreme wealth compared to the rest of the world for several decades (and the economic success built during that period even still provides great advantages to the USA). That allowed wealthy living conditions even without very good management practices in our businesses.

Where we have to start is with our products and our services, not with our marketing department.

Quality isn’t just the product or service. Its having the right product. Knowing where the market is going and having the most innovative products is just as much a part of quality as the quality of the construction of the product. And I think what we are seeing the quality leaders of today have integrated that quality technology well beyond their manufacturing.

Now going well into their sales and marketing and out as far as they can to touch the customer. And trying to create super efficient processes back from the customer all the way through the delivery of the end product. So they can have the most innovative products, understand the customer needs fastest, etc..

The importance of customer focus is obvious at the companies Jobs led. It wasn’t a weak, mere claim of concern for the customer, it was a deep passionate drive to delight customers.

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Bad Weather is Part of the Transportation System

The job of managers is to create a robust system that delivers value to customers. A system that fails constantly (fails during the continual variation the system faces) is a failed system. Bad weather is part of the variation airlines face. Any management system has to cope with the variation that it faces. The management system must be designed and managed so that the organization successfully delivers value to customers under the conditions the organization will face.

The air travel system in the USA is a disgrace for so many reasons it is hard to catalogue them all. One, of many, is how fragile the system is; causing massive (nation-wide) customer harm multiple times a year due to weather. Weather is sometimes bad. If your organization fails when there is bad weather, fix that problem (make your system robust in the face of bad weather), because you are not going to be able to fix the weather to let your un-robust system be effective as it is.

Instead airlines only response seems to be to get their friends in government to approve anti-competitive mergers to eliminate competition and allow failed organizations to become even larger and harm even more people. Airlines should design robust systems that work in the environment they will face (which they don’t do now).

Their planes don’t fall out the sky when they face bad weather. The engineers behind designing planes have made them very robust. Pilots have been trained to handle variation they will face. And yes, the system has been designed with adjustments to avoid flying into conditions that are risky.

The safety of the air transportation system is very good. The management of airlines in most every other aspect is pitiful, and has been for decades.

The managers running the airlines have done amazingly bad job of creating robust organizations capable of delivering given the variation they know they will face (weather, mechanical problems, IT problems, etc.) for decades. Poor management is the cause of these failures that result in harm to customers. Weather is not the cause. Poor management, over decades, resulting in incredible fragile systems that constantly punish customers is the responsibility of the airlines. And they have done an incredibly bad job at creating a robust system to deliver value to customers.

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary on a Japanese sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, that is full of great quotes for those interested in continual improvement. Throughout the film people discuss a never ending focus on doing better and better – never becoming complacent.

Quotes from Jiro Dreams of Sushi:

Jiro: “Once you decide on your occupation you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with what you do… You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That is the secret of success and the key to being regarded honorably.”

Jiro: “There is always room for improvement.”

Jiro: “I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit.”

Jiro: “I feel ecstasy every day. I love making sushi.”

Fish seller: “When you think you know it all, you then realize you are just fooling yourself.”

Food critic ~ “when you work for Jiro he teaches you for free. But you have to endure years of training.

​Apprentice: “But there is only so much you can learn from words. I have to keep practicing.”​

Jiro: ~ (paraphrased and changed a bit) “When the fish gets to me the sushi is 95% complete. I prepare it in front of the customer so get the credit but the truth is the person doing the least work gets most of the credit”

Jiro’s eldest son, Yoshikazu: “Always strive to elevate your craft.”

The focus is on the dining experience in total. The meal is composed of elements that are designed to work together with the focus on quality of the individual dishes but also on the interaction between the individual items and the complete experience.

The respect for suppliers is also seen in the film. Jiro’s eldest son says (approximately) “we are experts at sushi and we know a great deal but the tuna vendor we use knows more about tuna, the shrimp vendor knows more about shrimp… we trust them.” Later Jiro says (again from my memory), “we buy our rice from our vendor because Mr. ___ (I can’t remember the name) knows more about rice than anyone else, I trust him to provide what is best for us.”

They even touch on the bigger picture. Jiro’s son: “overfishing is the problem. Finding good fish is getting harder and harder… There should be regulations enforced on only catching bigger fish. Business should balance profit with preserving natural resources.”

As with any example there are particulars that you can learn from and specifics that don’t apply well to your situation. I know next to nothing about kitchens of world class restaurants but what I do know is they seem extremely dedicated to their work (much more so than many other organizations are interested in striving for). They also seem to be more autocratic than most other modern organizations. They also seem much more focused on perfecting the process to achieve the best result even if that requires a great deal more work than some alternative that produces very good results.

Related: You’ve Got to Find What You Love (Steve Jobs Stanford address)Respect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in WorkPositivity and Joy in WorkThe Customer is the Purpose of Our Work

Jeff Bezos: Innovation, Experiments and Long Term Thinking

Jeff Bezos, bought the Washington Post. He has long showed a willingness to take a long term view at Amazon. He is taking that same thinking to the Washington Post:

In my experience, the way invention, innovation and change happen is [through] team effort. There’s no lone genius who figures it all out and sends down the magic formula. You study, you debate, you brainstorm and the answers start to emerge. It takes time. Nothing happens quickly in this mode. You develop theories and hypotheses, but you don’t know if readers will respond. You do as many experiments as rapidly as possible. ‘Quickly’ in my mind would be years.”

The newspaper business is certainly a tough one today – one that doesn’t seem to have a business model that is working well (for large, national papers). I figured the answer might be that a few (of the caliber of Washington Post, New York Times…) would be owed by foundations and supported largely by a few wealthy people that believed in the value of a strong free press and journalism. Maybe Bezos will find a business model that works. Or maybe he will just run it essentially as a foundation without needing a market return on his investment.

The Guardian (where the article with the quote was published) is an example of good journalism by a foundation. ProPublica is another (though I guess it is really a non-profit but most of the funding seems to be via foundations).

Related: Jeff Bezos and Root Cause Analysis (2009)Amazon Innovation (2006)Jeff Bezos on Lean Thinking (2005)Jeff Bezos Spends a Week Working in Amazon’s Kentucky Distribution Center (2009)

Stated Versus Revealed Preference

My father provided me a good example of the flawed thinking of relying on stated preference when I was growing up. Stated preference is, as you might deduce, the preferences voiced by customers when you ask. This is certainly useful but people’s stated preference often do not match there actions. And for a business, actions that lead to customers are more important than claims potential customers make about what will make them customers.

His example was that if you ask people if clean bathrooms in a restroom is required for a restaurant they will say yes. Potential customers will say this is non-negotiable, it is required. But if you eat at many “ethnic restaurants,” as we always did growing up, you would see many popular restaurants did not have clean restrooms. If the food at atmosphere was good enough clean restrooms were negotiable, even if customers stated they were not.

Now I think clean restrooms is a wise move for restaurants to make; it matters to people. Instead of creating a barrier to repeat customers that has to be overcome with much better food and atmosphere it is wiser to give yourself every advantage by giving the customers what they want. But I think the example is a simple example of stated versus revealed preferences.

McDonald’s gets a great deal of success by doing certain things well, including clean bathrooms, even if they miss on things some people think are important for a restaurant. McDonald’s really gets a fair amount of business for people driving a long distance that really want a clean bathroom and a quick stretch of their legs and quick food. This is a small percentage of McDonald’s customer visits but still a very large number of visits each day I am sure. Understanding, and catering to, the problem your customers are trying to solve is important.

The point to remember is what your potential customers say they will do is different than what they do. It is sensible to listen to stated preferences of customers just understand them for what they are.

We need to pay more attention to revealed preferences. Doing so can require putting in a bit more thinking than just asking customers to fill out a questionnaire. But it is worth the effort. A simple restaurant based example would be to have wait staff pay attention to what people leave on their plate. If you notice certain side dishes are not eaten more often, look into that and see what can be done (improving how it is prepared, substituting something else…).

Related: Voice of the CustomerThe Customer is the Purpose of Our WorkCustomers Are Often IrrationalPackaging Affects Our Perception of TasteBe Careful What You Measure