Monthly Archives: January 2012

Smartphones Anonymous

I feel as though I should start this post with a confession: My name is Jennifer, and I am addicted to my Blackberry.

 

Remember the old days when cell phones did nothing but make phone calls? Heck, remember the even older days when there were no cell phones? Back then, people went to work at the start of the day, and then they went home at the end of the day. That was it. If something happened during the evening or overnight, it was dealt with in the morning. I know it’s hard to believe, but this is a true story – I read about it once in a book.

 

The time when workers left work at work really wasn’t that long ago, and yet here we all are, a world full of people now have their work cells strapped to them at all times, ready to respond instantly to any email or phone call that comes through. After all, we live in a global world that operates 24/7, and the business that lets problems slide without dealing with them ASAP could be the business that doesn’t exist for much longer. It’s a sound business practice to ensure that everyone responds to their customers at any given moment. Here’s the problem: we now have a large segment of the population that can’t put their work away because it’s with them all the time. What started out as a convenience has turned into an addiction. There are a multitude of symptoms to this type of compulsion. See if any of these sound familiar to you:

  1. You are not able to sit at a stop light for more than one minute without checking the phone.
  2. When grocery shopping you check your messages at least once before you head to the cashier.
  3. If you leave the Smartphone at home/work/wherever you currently are not, you feel as though you cannot function until you retrieve the device.
  4. You have been known to check your work email during a meal while on a first date or during your anniversary part or midway through the birth of your child.
  5. When you leave work at the end of the day, you then spend the rest of the evening answering every “urgent” email that comes through on the phone, even if it’s just to thank someone for their email.
  6. You lunge across the table to grab the phone every time it makes a noise, because someone has sent you an e-mail or a BBM or a Tweet or a text and what if you don’t answer back right away? What if you don’t get to it in time? What if you sleep through the Zombie Apocalypse because your Smartphone was not within a one-metre radius of your bed?!

 

Okay, maybe that last one isn’t so common. But you can’t tell me that I’m the only person who thinks this way.

 

Here’s one symptom of Smartphone Addiction that I find particularly fascinating: you have checked your phone because you thought that you heard the phone ring or vibrate, only to discover that you didn’t have a message after all. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve gone running for my work Blackberry because I thought I heard the email alert, only to discover that I don’t have a message. But…I know I heard it. Didn’t I?

 

According to a study that was conducted at the University of Worcester in the UK, the phenomenon of “phantom vibrations” is becoming more and more common. More than 100 volunteers were tested from a variety of professions and the results showed that while the majority of the participants began using Smartphones as a way to make their jobs easier, being constantly plugged in to work drastically increased stress and pressure levels in the workers. The more the stress increased, the greater the compulsion to check the phone even when there was no reason to do so. Of course, the more that the phone was checked, the more work was being done, which greater increases stress levels, and so on. It’s like the song that doesn’t end. This really does go on and on, my friend.

 

So, how do we put an end to this vicious circle of stress and addiction? According to researchers who led the study, the solution lies in the hands of employers who hand out the phones in the first place. Companies are being encouraged by mental health organizations and researchers to tell their employees to turn off the phone and to spend more of their non-work time doing non-work activities. When employees go on vacation or take extended leave, make sure they understand that their phone can stay turned off or even left at the office. In some countries, laws have even been passed to allow a worker to claim paid overtime for checking their work phones after hours. Of course, there are some calls or emails that really are emergencies, and having a Smartphone at hand can help businesses assist their clients and customers better. But do all after-hours emails and phone calls need to be answered with the same level of urgency that is currently occurring? Probably not. Will industry collapse and the economy tank as a result of people putting down the phone long enough to enjoy their meal and tuck their kids into bed? Highly doubtful.

 

Does your company encourage workers to put down the phone when they’re away from the office? Or are you in a job where there is no such thing as “after hours”? If you’re a manager, how do you feel about your employees being disconnected?

Advance. Or Die.

OK, you are not going to die but rather the company you own or work for will – maybe.  It’s no surprise that continuously looking for, and executing opportunities to make your business better is a necessity.  Unless you are advancing more rapidly than your competition, you are moving backwards.  Do you think your competition is sitting back waiting for things to happen?  Some are.  But some are not.  The latter are aggressively improving – or perhaps reinventing – their business in response to financial, market, customer or competitive pressures.

I have always had respect and admiration for companies that successfully develop or utilize technology.  Further back than I would care to admit (my computer was a 286 Compaq if that gives you any idea) I was keen to learn how new technology was impacting businesses and their efforts to innovate and compete for customers.

General Electric recently released a report based on an independent survey of 1,000 business executives in 12 countries. The “GE Global Innovation Barometer” looks at big-picture innovation questions such as economic policy, national growth, innovation drivers, likely opportunities where innovation will have the most societal impact and so on.  Now, “innovation” can be considered the extreme of “advancement”.  Innovation, in my view, is a game-changer and disruptive like the iPod, Amazon etc.  These are well-known consumer examples but in each industry there are companies that break new ground and change the rules.

The GE survey highlights some interesting thoughts for small business and individuals.

  • 75% of executives Strongly Agree that SMEs and individuals can be as innovative as large companies
  • 69% Strongly Agree that innovation is driven more by people’s creativity than by high level scientific research
  • 76% Strongly Agree that, more than ever, innovation needs to be localized to serve specific market needs
  • 75% Strongly Agree that the way companies will innovate in the 21st century is totally different than the way they have innovated in the past.

The GE survey focuses on technology innovation with a global perspective.  But, does this mean that the results have no relevance to smaller businesses?  I don’t think so.  Notice that SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprise) and individuals were prominently mentioned.

And what if your company doesn’t build new technology?  What if you are in retail?  A rare, few companies will develop and introduce a disruptive new innovation that redefines the rules (i.e. iPod).  But even without ground breaking innovation, every business needs to advance the way they do business if they want to grow.   Maybe your advancement is a unique and better customer buying experience, superior training for managers and staff, leapfrogging your competition by employing technology, a new customer service model, etc.

If you believe, as these 1000 leaders do, that innovation is the key to growth, then how are you going to foster and tap into the creativity of your people?  How are you developing your staff and what environment do you have in place so they can express their views?  What about execution?  Unless the idea gets successfully executed, it is still just an idea.  And, if you have been an innovation leader in the past, how are you going to maintain that energy and ability to deliver?   I bet you can name a tech giant or two that is struggling to keep pace with the competition’s new product and service offerings.

Successful business owners and entrepreneurs know that there is always a better way, always an opportunity.  Relying on past successes as an indicator of future performance, or not delivering a product or service that is somehow superior compared to your competition, is a recipe for a slow or quick death.  You don’t want to die, do you?  That’s a rhetorical question.

If you had to name one challenge that gets in your way of advancing or innovating in your business, what would it be?

A Brand By Any Other Name

When I was attending university, I took a marketing class in which the professor was convinced that brand recognition was the only requirement of a successful business. Sure, you needed capital to get started, and you would need a good sense of the product that you were selling, and sales skills and some knowledge of your market were a bonus. But he truly believed that the only thing a company needed to do to ensure their long-term success was to make their name synonymous with their product. He pointed out examples like Kleenex, Aspirin, Band-Aid and Jeep. He made sure that we all walked out of that course with the belief that our businesses would succeed so long as our brand names were part of the public lexicon. Make your product known and you will stay in business forever.

Eastman Kodak would probably disagree with my professor after the year that they’ve had.

It’s well known that Kodak has had a lot of problems in the last ten years, and the majority of those troubles are being blamed on the growth in the digital camera market. And yet for a brief period of time in 2005, Kodak was actually ranked first in the U.S. in digital cameras sales. But here we are, seven years later, with a different company in the first place slot and Kodak struggling frantically to keep afloat.

But this is Kodak! They invented the Brownie camera, which was the first camera available to amateur photographers at the start of the last century. They were the first company to produce and sell color 35mm film. Would we be able to go the movies or even watch DVDs if Kodak hadn’t been there in the early 1900s to help develop the film stock that was originally used to shoot motion pictures? Who amongst us has not had a “Kodak moment”? And here’s a little piece of irony for you: the man credited with inventing the digital camera, Steve Sasson, worked as an engineer for Kodak at the time that he developed the equipment. Kodak engineers also invented the megapixel sensor, which is a key component to making your digital pictures look so great. That’s right – the company that is currently being brought down because of increased competition in the digital photography market can actually lay claim to being part of the invention of the digital photography market.

So how does this happen to a company that has dominated the landscape for over 100 years and can lay claim to being one of the most recognizable brands in the world? It’s actually quite simple. It’s because they were dominant and had brand-recognition. Sure, they tried to expand a little and open their doors to different products and ideas. But in the mid-1990s, Kodak executives were sceptical that this whole “digital” thing would even become a thing. They were confident in their brand, and while they were willing to branch out a little into new areas they firmly believed that staying the course of their original marketing and production paths was what would keep them at the top of the heap. When others within the organization tried to say differently, they were shut down in favour of management’s plans. To say that management failed to take into account the speed with which the consumer market changes is an understatement.

Now, of course, the management at Eastman Kodak is singing a different song. And with new people and new voices being heard within the organization, there is hope that Kodak will be able to reorganize while under bankruptcy protection and come out even stronger on the other side. But this path is going to be long and painful, and what makes it worse is that it could have been avoided if the company had spent more time ensuring that their brand stayed at the top of the market rather than just assuming that it would because they were a Brand.
If I could take this information and go back ten and a few years to my university professor, I would tell him the following:

  1. The key to brand recognition is making sure that your brand continues to be seen by the consumer. People have short memories. If your brand disappears from the market, consumers won’t stop buying that product in protest. They’ll move on.
  2. Price can trump brand, but only in those cases where the brand doesn’t have legitimate strength and clear competitive advantage.  If you’re going to rely on product quality as your value proposition, then you need to be sure the quality of your product allows for it.
  3. All the brand recognition and all the excellent product development in the world will not help your company if management fails to plan ahead and think about the future. Listen to the market, listen to your employees, and remember that what goes up must come down and nowhere does that analogy ring more true than in a capitalist marketplace.

Class dismissed.

Do you think your customers are buying your goods/services because of the product itself or the brand behind it? Which do you tend to promote more when you’re making a sale?

Don’t let your warehouse become a “where”house

When I say the word ‘inventory’, what comes to mind?  (Hopefully it’s not thoughts of crawling into a warm bed).  When I think inventory, I am reminded of a horrific three month saga when I was working in IT Support.  How can inventory be horrific, you ask?  Read on.

When I was working for said IT Support company a few years ago, one of my many responsibilities was to oversee the RMA process of failed hardware and ensure that we received replacements.  Pretty straightforward, or so I thought.

One day, a clients’ network switch died a spectacular death.  This switch would quickly become the subject of my nightmares.

I called up Big-Name’s support line (names have been removed to protect the guilty).  I described what was happening, the errors/flashing lights, etc.  After finally convincing them that it was indeed broken, I was given an RMA number.  A new unit would be shipped to us in a few days.

A few days came and went, so I placed another call back to Big-Name support.  The rep checked the computer and told me that “The system hasn’t been updated.  When we have information we will let you know”.

Okay, weird.  A few more days went by and I placed another call with the same result.

The same thing happened the next 10 times I called.  Escalations to managers did nothing either.  Weeks and weeks went by, and still no switch.

One day, I hit pay dirt.  I must have gotten a) the new guy or b) the most disgruntled employee at Big-Name.  When I pressed about the switch, they replied “We can’t send you your switch because we are in the process of moving warehouses, and until we re-count our inventory, we are not allowed to send anything out.”

<insert choice expletives here>

At this point my supervisor threw herself into the mix.  After some stealthy investigation, she discovered phone numbers for several high-level corporate types at Big-Name.  She flooded them with calls and emails.  There were apologies, and promises that our switch would soon arrive.

A few days later, it actually did.

And a few days after that, so did a second one.

And then…a third!

This must have been a bid to make us quietly disappear, or it was just another sign that their inventory troubles were more widespread than I originally suspected.  Either way, we were never contacted about the two extra switches.  I almost wish they would have asked.  What a fun conversation that would have been!  “I’m sorry, we are in the process of moving and seem to have misplaced them…”

Having the right product in the right place at the right time is one of the most essential business tenets.  Customer service issues aside, I was most upset with Big-Name’s gross failure in this area.  This experience gave me a new perspective on inventory.  If you don’t know where your product is, you can’t sell it (or replace it).  Whatever you do, don’t let your warehouse become a “where”house!

Have you ever been let down by a lack of inventory?  How does your business stay on top of it?

Sell Your Smarts

I first discovered my passion for gadgets in 2004.  Back home in my small town after completing first year of university, I found a job at a cell phone store in the mall. I figured ‘Hey, I get along with other human beings quite well, why not try out sales?’

It’s harder than it looks! Apparently, reading a product brochure verbatim to a customer while they are standing in front of you wasn’t exactly a sales booster.  After a few unsuccessful and slightly stressful shifts, I discovered that knowing what the heck I was asking people to spend their hard earned cash on was going to be important. Right around here is where I learned about and fell in love with the awesome devices I was selling and began to love working in sales for that reason.

Of course now I had to get my own cell phone! Oh man, the Audiovox 8500 was it! A sleek little flip phone with changeable backlight colours.  I rocked that hardware.

Alas, as is technological tradition, it was soon outdated and dumped for something that could better entertain me.  My subsequent cellular relationships ended similarly, as I spent the next six years in wireless sales.  This obsession with having the coolest devices kept me at the top of my game, however.

One of the most important tools to have in any sales environment, to me, is knowledge. Know what you have and know what’s coming next.
Everybody “Googles” before they shop now. Why wouldn’t we? It’s harder to get roped into a spiffed product by an apathetic sales person when you already have an idea of what you’re buying, right? Or worse yet, you get to the store and the sales person knows less than your minuscule “googling” taught you…

I challenge anyone who has spent time in retail to say you’ve never experienced that horrific moment where your client was more informed about your product than you.  If you are not familiar with this situation, I applaud you.  It’s painful, it sucks, it’s embarrassing and you can flush all that confidence and rapport you’ve built with that smarty pants right down the porcelain throne.

Avoid this! Control your sale, try teaching your client something about the product. Show them why they came to see you instead of ordering it online while checking out the user reviews. Keep up to date with your industry news through newspapers, handheld apps or blogs.

If you haven’t yet, check out the online coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2012) to learn about exciting new product launches and manufacturer’s grocery lists for this year.

What’s on your geeky wish list this year?

Bias and manipulation

I have a confession to make. As it relates to the battle of wills, I am known to succumb to good sales people every time I go shopping. It’s even worse near Christmas when I’m getting desperate to find better gifts than a gas-station jug of washer fluid.

I bought so much junk that I didn’t intend to buy that I had to take a step back and figure out what had happened to me. It turns out we’re all victims of our own minds. There are so many hidden biases trapped in our minds that it’s almost amazing we don’t constantly trade our houses and cars for magic beans.

So I looked into it a bit. It turns out we anchor our choices to a single trait when making a decision. If the salesperson knows this (and which trait to target), they only have to convince you of the one useless (but superior) feature in order to make the sale.

We also like to think we’re always right, so we look for support of a previous decision. Again, if the salesperson knows this, they can push the right buttons. This is part of the reason salespeople always ask you what you’re looking for – it’s much easier to encourage an existing opinion than to change it. That’s also probably why I bought this year’s release of the same crappy phone I was unhappy with last year – somehow it was still a good move in my mind.

These effects don’t just occur when we’re purchasing something new, but also when we’re being sold “add-ons” like extended warranties. For some reason, I’m happy to pay more to prevent the malfunction of something than I would be to just buy it for the first time. Evidently this happens to a lot of people, since they have a name for it: the ‘endowment effect’.

The surprising part of these biases is that they work on us even when we’re aware of them. And further: we all believe we are less biased than everyone else. This is related to our universal belief that we’re all above average (despite the mathematical difficulties inherent in this claim). Somehow, ninety percent of us believe we’re better than average drivers. But alas, ninety percent of skilled sales people probably already knew that.

Are your sales staff aware of these behaviour biases?  Do they utilize them when making sales?

Make time to find the right idea

I recently had what I considered to be a great idea. It was something that would help both me and my department and it was, in my opinion, the next best thing to sliced bread. I shared my brilliance with some of my co-workers and everyone agreed that I was on the right track, that what I was looking for not only could be accomplished but that it could be considered a benefit to our clients. I modestly pat myself on the back, and then tried to find someone with more experience in these matters to help me.

After a month nothing happened and no one could find time to help me. I assumed that my proposal was dead in the water.

It’s not that my idea wasn’t a good suggestion, and it’s not that no one else thought it was a good plan. But when your employees are constantly trying to help clients and improve current products and bring in new clients and put out today’s fires, who has time to think about tomorrow or the next day? It’s great to be creative and try to bring something innovative into the fold, but unless that new product is a time machine that lets you get more done in the course of a day, there’s a big chance that your next big thing is never going to leave the drawing board.

Innovation is what drives the economy. Without someone creating and implementing an idea for a product, businesses would never develop. Some of the most creative people that you will ever meet are highly successful entrepreneurs, because they can see something that the rest of the general public can’t and they can see how to make that idea happen. The problem is that this surge of inspiration can be hard to maintain over the long term, especially once your business starts to grow. Many business owners and managers are struggling to keep their operations above water, fighting recessions and downturns in economy and competition and market saturation. Bringing something new into play usually is not an option. But innovation is what can keep a business afloat even if it seems like too much time/effort/money at the start. The right idea at the right time can mean a whole new avenue of options for your business, including an increased market share, new clients, and new branding. Of course, all of these things usually result in more revenue, as well.

The best ideas and inspiration will come from two places: your employees and your clients. Who knows your product better than the people that you’ve hired to create it, and the people who pay you to use it? Keep the lines of communication open, both internally and externally. No idea is too small or insignificant to be looked at. Encourage your staff to work together and brainstorm and help each other come up with solutions to problems, rather than just managing the day’s to-do list and moving on. Not every suggestion is going to result in a reasonable product, but you’ll never know that if you don’t take the time to examine the risk/reward factors and determine the idea’s true potential.

If your organization doesn’t currently have something in place that allows employees to communicate ideas to their managers, you can always suggest that it should be. I’m fortunate enough to work at a place that is encouraging this type of openness (which is how I found out that my idea isn’t dead but rather it’s being considered and talked about), but not everyone has that creative channel available to them. Maybe that can be your first great innovation. You should never be afraid to talk to the people in charge and let them know that you have an idea that could make the company better.

Is innovation something that your business focuses a lot of time on, or do you find it hard to come up with new ideas while juggling current problems? What does your business do to encourage growth and improvement in your product?

Many (un)Happy Returns

I hope that all of you survived the Christmas season and that Santa was good to you.

Were you one of the unlucky ones whose newest thing-a-ma-bob didn’t work as advertised?  Maybe it was hurtled a little too vigorously down the chimney, or maybe the assembly line elf was asleep at the switch.  Regardless, I’m sure it was frustrating as you agonized in the customer service line waiting to return that defective product.

If that did happen to you, my sympathies.  But, as it turns out, there might not have been anything wrong with it after all.

Before the break, I read an interesting article on the ‘Retail Info System News’ website: “Consumer Electronics Returns Costs $16.7B Called Unsustainable”.  You can find the original article here: http://goo.gl/Nd3Ub

This article discusses a study by Accenture which examined the high cost of returning consumer electronics.  This includes receiving, diagnosing, repairing, re-packaging, shipping, then eventually re-selling.  They found it amounts to $16.7 billion dollars a year.

That’s right.  $16.7 billion.

Is this just a cost of doing business?  Some would say so.  But here’s the kicker.  68% of ‘defective’ product returns, when investigated, are deemed to have ‘No Trouble Found’.  Only 5% of returned products are truly defective.

So what does this mean for the retail industry?  It seems that a majority of returns are related to poor customer education.  Here’s a great opportunity.  Imagine implementing an in-store program that helps customers understand, setup, use and optimize the products they purchase.  What a great way to improve the customer experience and turn customers into repeat, happy customers.

And, more importantly, save money.

According to Accenture “Reducing the number of NTF customer returns by just one percent would translate to roughly a 4% cut in return/repair costs. For a typical manufacturer, that represents approximately $21 million in annual savings; for a large retailer, about $16 million.”

Now that’s a kind of return we can all appreciate.

How do product returns affect your business?  Do you have any programs in place to curb the amount of unnecessary returns?

%d bloggers like this: