Removing the P from PPT

Saravana Stores in Chennai is a place where you can buy all sorts of things for cheap. But for me the most memorable aspect of it is the line-up of a dozen or so greeters whose only job is to bow to you as you enter the store. I think it’s meant to signify respect for you, the customer, and to display that they have many, many, people at your beck and call. It is assumed that the customer will need to be guided and assisted to make a decision.

People – Process – Technology, and in that order, have been the golden triumvirate of organizational success. The reality is that businesses throw people at the gaps in their processes and technology. Online banking troubles? Call your account manager. Food delivery messed up? There’s an account manager for that too. Not getting your insurance claims on time? What are batchmates for, if not to take your call and expedite your rightful payment?

I’ve been playing around with health apps over the past week. I paid for BetterMe and am enjoying the workout suggestions and general ease of use, but its calorie tracker doesn’t have a comprehensive library of food. So I signed up for HealthifyMe. I am struggling to find stuff I need in the app or to delete incorrect entries. I have also discovered that the app doesn’t talk to Apple Health – which is a real problem of data silos. And for every point where the user journey breaks down – the answer is simple, go back to chat. And the chat operator has a sales target. Worse, the ‘coach’ sends you an invitation to chat and relentlessly calls you even if you don’t accept the invite.

I’m sure the intent was to give me a personal experience. It just resulted in me being irritated. I’ll explain why.

The desire to know exactly where we are and how to get to our destination is very strong. Apparently it makes us more at peace when we have clarity of direction. For example, places with better signposting make you more comfortable. Google Maps has made finding your way in the physical world so much more predictable. Before Google, I have a done a road trip to Coorg with directions like “hang a left at the old banyan tree” then take a right at the elephant. We succeeded by asking people.

Socially, we may miss the human contact of asking directions from strangers. But reality is we have traded the serendipity for predictability. And are not going back to that way of life any time soon.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a very popular post about the trends I see for 2021. Two of them stand out in the context of increased digitization and COVID-induced social isolation – “Make it Easy for Me” and DIY.  To succeed, brands need to imagine their customer journeys to be as close to “Straight Through Processing” as possible. Instead of measuring “time spent on site’, transaction oriented websites need to figure out how fast a customer can accomplish their task. Rather than measure how much or how little the customer service team spent on a call, the goal should be to ensure that the majority do not need any customer service, or even onboarding. Most of us are willing to pay a premium for anything that “just works”.

Apple fans pay a premium for a product that is easy to use and their brand is built on simplifying tech. Hotels and retail outlets made it easy for customers by replicating layouts and ambience – so you didn’t have to deal with the complexity of finding stuff. In the new world where everything is mobile first, how easy your app or website is to use will be the key differentiator.

Cred was recently valued at $800 million. Despite most people not knowing what they actually do. They even ran an ad campaign built around that theme. Its value proposition? Removing the complexity of paying your credit card bills, and gamifying it. There’s clearly big money in simplifying a process, and making the little bit of effort that remains more fun.

Not so long ago, credit card companies would call you a couple of days before your payment due date to remind you. And there was a time when a collection agent would visit your home to collect your payment cheque. What was intended to be a shaming experience ended up a service – many customers thought it was a privilege to have a person come home for the cheque and made it a habit. So yes, of course there will always be a segment that wants a ‘concierge’, and you must cater to them too. 

Just as travel agents continue to thrive in the age of online travel aggregators, the market will evolve into “DIY” (do-it-yourself) and “do-it-for-me”. My prediction is that the size of the DIY market will grow faster and bigger as we move to an anytime anywhere world. And brands that are able to craft these friction-free experiences will be the market winners.

Does this mean we don’t need people? Not quite. We need people to design the awesome processes and technology that will make these things work smoothly. We also need the creative types who will make the experience enjoyable, and problem-solvers who will take care of the exceptions. We even need concierges. What we won’t need – at least in such large numbers – are the sign-board holders, the ones who are stepping in because the path is unclear.

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