Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Can You Fool Some of the People Some of the Time?

I spent 'a week' in an auto repair shop one day recently and watched an energetic guy wearing yellow rubber boots while waiting 3-hours for an 'about-an-hour' work on my car.

This guy was fascinating - 'Boots' was in perpetual motion – heading toward the parking lot, the front office, the mechanic bays and elsewhere. He showed a sense of purpose and moved with great determination. But he never made it to any destination before changing course – off to a different one - lickety split!

Fascinated by this constant activity, I flagged down Boots and asked what he was doing – “Keeping this place organized and working!” was his reply. Interesting; I never saw him touch a car or accomplish any task during the entire time.

When paying my bill, I asked the service rep about Boots and he told me that 'Boots' is of our most valuable employees – this guy is on the move from the time we open until we close.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Did Dr. Welby Need a Certificate?

Marcus Welby, MD had a diploma and a license, both unprominently displayed somewhere in his office. He was known by reputation in the community. Although Welby was a fictional TV character, he portrayed the community doctor.

The community was close and people talked regularly – reputations were shared, recommendations offered.

Today you still need a license and it is popular, but usually not required, to have a certificate if offering a service. This documents that you have the minimum requirements and have passed a test – both originating from the professional society, training organization, college, or university providing the program. These organizations are strong proponents of certification programs – which represents a 'product' in their offerings. The certificate-holders may frame and display their certificate, but will certainly add the designation behind their name in professional documents to convey certificated status. This process evolved as the communities disbursed and local conversations all but disappeared.

Thirty years ago in the human resources field, a certificate program was launched with time-in-role minimums and qualifying tests – all provided by the HR professional society. I carefully reviewed the value of these certificates and determined that they offered no unique advantage to serving in the HR role, did not mean anything to the employees served, and were not valued by the employer. My performance (and reputation) was determined by results achieved for both the 'customer' and 'boss'. Now 30 years later, with many certificate-designated HR roles, performance and reputation continue to be based on results, certificate or not.

As I see it – when the buyers are segregated from the beneficiaries, certificate do matterto the buyer; however, the beneficiaries continue to evaluate on results achieved.

Given the choice, would you rather receive services from a certificated person or one with a positive reputation among their peers? Why?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Breakthrough Approach

A common topic at business meetings is smartphones and cellular service, often with a new owner attempting to show the features of the latest phone.

Whether the phone is Android, iPhone, Windows, or Blackberry, the on-board features and upgrades - along with the extensive collection of apps - make this hand-held device the user's portal to the internet, email, text messaging, navigation, or finding deals and restaurants.

The carriers sell time on the cellular network and provide help for some of the basic phone features – such as setting up voicemail - but are not much help with complex questions or undocumented features. Republic Wireless is has created a powerful structure by setting up a community to discuss and solve the complex questions raised by users.

A beginning trend for smartphones is to use wifi when available for voice, data, & text, and use cellular at other times. The cellular signal has a much smaller bit rate and around home and work, the user spends 80% of the time on the faster wifi.

Republic Wireless is capitalizing on wifi/cellular service – they encourage and support a community for excellent user support (better then carrier 'customer service' reps), no lock-in contracts, and unlimited voice, data, and text for a flat rate of $19.95 per month.

Once you buy your phone (with the switching software installed), at activation you are invited to join the user community and contribute to forums on discoveries, problem & resolutions, and suggestions for new features, all raised and answered by users.

Republic is using game theory to encourage participation in the forums by users, awarding points for solutions to problems and discovery of undocumented features. Republic staff participate in the forums as well to validate user solutions, cheer on the discovery of undocumented applications of phone features.

The knowledgebase is an extensive and growing collection of tips, techniques, and answers asked by users and answered by users and staff. The response to user questions is very quick – often within hours.

With this intimate and continuing conversation with other users, the customer gets a flood of referral prospects. The company receives intensive feedback about service and hardware, as well as thoughtful suggestions for improvements. The company communicates with their customers through the forums and users can communicate with each other and develop a road map for future versions of the service, operating system and new business areas.

This innovative collaboration of Republic staff, users, and others creates a rich, functional environment and gives all stakeholders role in a highly responsive process for solving immediate problems and developing future improvements. Their active community setting is not only more effective than other approaches, the savings are evident in the cost of service.

Imagine inviting the users to participate in the discussion, solutions, and development of a communication system – a true breakthrough!

Know of another innovative breakthrough? Please share.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Modern Legacy

This is the most blatant example I've seen about how a traditional business can adapt the internet revolution to increase value.

I sat down with a high school buddy, who for the last 40 years has run a specialty instrument company. These instruments, which are globally famous, are used by labs, hospitals, and research facilities - they are the clear leader of biological/electronic devices world-wide.

In the past we rarely met in person due to her extensive travel schedule around the USA and Europe for business development and distributor recruiting and training.

When asking about the business, I was surprised by the changes since we last met – her travel is now almost nil while sales are steady.

Her explanation:

  • Each instrument is showcased by a 5-minute video showing the features from the users viewpoint, how to do typical operations/tests, and a sample of output/report options.
  • The videos are incorporated into their website and available on demand at any time
  • There is an 'anytime' link to take the viewer directly to the pricing/purchase screen
  • She has become the entire sales force, supported by their website and videos
  • A global network of warehouses to provide immediate local delivery has been consolidated to single central national warehouse near an airline hub for overnight shipping.

She now spends time with customers by phone and video conference and uses their input to guide development of new features and products. As a result, her improvement cycle captures and responds to changes suggested by her users, who she admits, know more about the products than the maker.

Effective use of the internet, immediate shipping, collaboration with users, and a rapid development cycle has dramatically transformed this manufacturing business. 

A poster child of the trend for the future?

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Artist

As a young boy I lived with my family in Cuba, where my father was stationed. We lived in a village near the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and I played with the neighborhood kids or fished off the back deck of the house (when I wasn't in school).

I have a vivid memory of a street vendor, wheeling a rickety cart down the dirt streets each day selling oranges. To a young child's eyes, these oranges were huge (so sweet you had to smile while eating them), and the vendor would peel it for a buyer. He was full of fun, jokes, and laughter as he made his way down the dusty street, clearly enjoying life, his customers, and followers (us kids).

What I remember most was him peeling the orange – he had an old kitchen knife, sharpened so much that the cutting edge of the blade was curved like a replica of Guantanamo Bay – but sharp as all get-out!

He started at the top of the orange and create a single 'rope' of peel precisely a quarter of an inch by a quarter of an inch – it would cascade down in curlycues from the orange at almost blinding speed. Perfect every time. One long peel every time. A peel-rope with ¼ x ¼ dimensions every time.

We kids would follow him for a while, begging for the peel and playing with it until we only had a handful of pieces left...and then we'd beg for another one from the orange vendor.

As an adult, I look back to that experience fondly, realizing that I was seeing an artist at work. He chose to spend his time enjoying those around him and chose to create and meet the challenge of peeling the orange in a distinctive and incredibly difficult way – drawing satisfaction from his creation. I realize now that I was in the presence of a true master – an artist creating a unique experience for the buyer (or the kids following him around).

Illustrations of the orange vendor at work today – the 'bagger' at the Costco checkout who engineers a precisely packed cart.

I think about the expressed desire by many in business and public service to have the higher-ups create a challenging and rewarding role for them – and wonder if the manuals, regulations, and procedures we've put in place have extinguished the 'artist' in each of us?