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The Constructal Law and access to content

January 24, 2012 3 comments

I remember when I was a kid, and this great new invention came. The Movie Box! At the time, Video players were expensive and we couldn’t afford one. Movie Box solved the problem: You rented one, two or three movies, and you brought the movie box with you and connected to your TV at home, it worked for 24h. Awesome! We didn’t go to the cinema very often, so my guess is that the movie box at least quadrupled the amount of money our family spent on the movie industry.

A couple of years later, VHS was mainstream, and the movie box died. It had fulfilled it’s purpose and was outcompeted by something smarter. Today video recorders are replaced by Netflix, Blu-Ray players and whatnot.

This brings me to the topic of this post. Providing access to services. There is an interesting theory about what governs the generation of designs (patterns) in nature called The Constructal Law. It tries to explain design phenomena in nature, e.g. why do trees look like trees, why do rivers meander etc.

Image of meandering river

Alternative representation of the movie box's destiny. It was meandered and left only as a parentheses in the flow of content to end users

The Constructal Law states:

“For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.”

And I was thinking to myself, if you apply this to an industry or a company, for a second accepting the assumption that it fits the definition of a finite-size system, and we see the flow of currents as the distribution of services it provides, what does it tell us? It says that to continue to live it needs to improve the way it provides access to its service.

I’ve worked before as an eCommerce consultant, it is easy to draw parallells to the advent and acceptance of eCommerce as an established sales channel, and in the later years mobile access. By necessity, companies have to improve the access to their flows, or die slowly.

Kodak just went belly-up, why? They invented the digital camera in 1975, but failed to provide access to the masses. It seems to me like it was a conscious strategy to impose restrictions and try to control the access to the service, protecting it’s old analogue “core” business.

Applied to the music industry, it’s all about access to content. There are some really great posts out there that really helps visualize the current trends in terms of revenue streams, for example this one. The flavor of the day is streaming services, the CDs, LPs etc will slowly become more and more irrelevant. It is easy to argue that the growth of music piracy got a strong start much due to the resistance in the music industry to innovate and evolve in the digital space. Hopefully piracy, that started the competition with CDs, will become a meander due to the improved access of streaming services, iTunes and the likes.¬†And the future will find a way to improve or replace the streaming services.

I am happy to see that streaming services now make up more than 50% of the revenues in Sweden. Pretty awesome. Maybe it will get to the 95%-or-so that CDs once had. But then something else will come. Eventually. The Constructal law will place it in the history, just next to the movie box.

With the above in mind, it seems like a sensible strategy to any business to look at how to improve access, and don’t settle for short term protection of old revenue streams. You’ll risk becoming a meander like Kodak eventually did. Talking about old industry structures, it seems appropriate to end with a quote from the movie Jurassic Park: “Life, it seems, always finds a way out”.

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Social Media Reporting – when will it become a “real” channel?

February 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Ok I admit the title was intentionally provocative. ūüėČ

Typically organizations are organized with someone owning marketing and/or sales, someone owning customer service, someone owning the retail line. As I described in this post the digital “channels”, e.g. website, mobile touchpoints, kiosks or other digital signage typically fall under marketing.

Lately the use of social media to solve different types of problems have matured, in the sense that it’s gone from experimental to clear articulated purposes and with that demands for bottom line impact and measurements.

Something I’ve always enjoyed when working with call centres is the detailed measures on effectiveness. It is typical to get numbers on AHT (Average Handling Time), Availability (incoming calls vs answered calls), categorizations of types of questions, sales per minute. This is delivered weekly, every second spent gets a $ amount and changes and operations are thoroughly reviewed. Anyone working with website analytics or PPC is also used to detailed reports and breakdowns of virtually everything, ROI calculated and improvements identified. But… I have not seen any examples of that type of weekly reporting from a social media initiative that have entered a Business As Usual state.

This is really an open questions, but for the service focused initiatives out there do you have the weekly excel report of number of contacts, average handling time, or is that the next step? What KPIs do you report on? And tying back to the organizational questions above – who gets the report? Or is it not needed, and if so, why? I’m curious…

A Customer Experience Model and On-site Searching

January 11, 2011 2 comments

In this post I’ll try to introduce a few of the tools I use when thinking about customers behavior and needs and how they apply to onsite searching (note I’m not discussing e.g google searches).

The importance of search as a complement to navigation are thoroughly researched, since early days of the internet (see e.g.  http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20010513.html from 2001) I personally think the search function on a website is particularly interesting as customers intent are shown, and poor search can really frustrate users. A significant amount of websites have poor search, and few have great search. Given the importance I hope that will change.

One of the things at the center of my thinking when looking at websites or cross-channel sales processes is how well the online experience caters for the different modes or mindsets a customer/user can be in. Since I’ll come back to it more in later (intended) posts about channel strategies & tactics, I’ll quickly introduce a Customer Experience Model. If you think about the process of purchasing a product or a service, a number of natural steps occur. In a simple generic case it could look something like this:

  • Pre-discovery
  • Discovery
  • Planning
  • Order placement (*)
  • Waiting for the product
  • Getting the product
  • Using the product
  • Telling the world about the experience

Especially in the last few years, the final step has significantly influenced the top 3 through social media. Also in reality the process is not linear, and it often goes across channels with e.g. research online and purchase in store. The key message is that it can be used as a mental tool to think about users intent and therefore help to create a good experience that matches that intent. The key with search is that it shows that the customer has an intent – so what is that and how can we best meet it?

This is my position: you shouldn’t primarily have search to surface your cool content, deflect calls, or to cross- or upsell. You should have search to meet the users needs and intent and thereby creating a great customer experience. Let’s keep the thinking from the outside and in. The rest will follow if you design for the users.

So after this somewhat theoretical start lets check out a few examples of searches today. I picked the telco sector and decided to check out the big 4 in the Swedish market: Telia, Tre, Tele2 and Telenor, and then compare with Sprint which I think is doing a great job from a customer experience perspective.

I’m thinking that I am a user in the planning phase, I am fairly decided on a smartphone and interested in a Blackberry or iPhone and researching online. I intend to use it both for business and privately. Let’s explore how these different sites helps me progress the customer experience if I end up using their search.

Tre.se

Searching for Blackberry on Tre.se

Search on tre.se for Blackberry

Click on the link for larger image. URL to try yourself is http://tre.se/Privat/Sok/?q=blackberry&qform=global

What I like about this is that it categorizes the results for me, with Products, post-paid offers & services and other pages. What I think is missing is information about prices, calls to action (why not a “buy” or “help me choose” in case of many products). For me as a potential customer this should be treated as the start of a sales funnel. Some room for improvement here I think.

Tele2.se

Tele 2 search

Search on tele2.se for blackberry

Click on the link for larger image, URL to try for yourself is http://www.tele2.se/sokresultat.html?page=&query=F%C3%B6retag+-+Blackberry&search=privat&doctype=0#

So the main problem I have here is that there is actually a nice drop down as I start to type blackberry that says that F√∂retag – Blackberry is a valid search term. But I get zero results. If I choose F√∂retag (company) I’ll get 1 result. But why (thinking as a user) do I have to choose that? I am sure there are tons of technical reasons with different content repositories, different organisations internally etc, but as a user I dont appreciate this approach as it a) doesnt support my intent to learn more so I can make a decision and b) it hands over internal issues on me as a user.

If you try the tele2 search for iPhone instead http://www.tele2.se/sokresultat.html?page=&query=iphone&search=privat&doctype=0#, you’ll get better results and you can use the categories to make sense of it. As a user I’m not overly impressed with this display and the experience, no images or overview. It is not helping me progress, I feel frustrated.

Telenor.se

Search on telenor.se for blackberry

Search on telenor.se for blackberry

Click on the image for larger size, to try it yourself the URL is http://www.telenor.se/privat/sok.html?q=blackberry

There are several things here, the list is only results from their newsroom, comes in an irrelevant order and cant be filtered or sorted. It doesn’t recognize the string “blackberry” as a product. Why? Because apparently blackberry’s are only sold for corporate customers. In this case, Tele2s solution that makes me aware that there are differences between searching as a consumer or as a corporate customer is more clarifying. I got to this page from the main search box on the homepage – I have not indicated that I am a B2C customer, it is assumed by the system. The same search as a corporate customer is available here¬†http://www.telenor.se/foretag/sok.html?x=0&y=0&q=blackberry and is better, although the listing is not managed.

On the other hand, if you look at the http://www.telenor.se/privat/sok.html?q=iPhone the search recognizes the string as a product and presents a listing including price indications and product images. Much better! I am now being taken through the start of a sales process.

Telia.se

Search on telia.se for iPhone

Search on telia.se for iPhone

Telia doesnt seem to sell blackberries so the search is for iPhone. Click for larger image, to try yourself the url is http://www.telia.se/privat/sok/sok.page?q=iphone

What I like here is that they have incorporated results from forum posts to the right that immediately drew my attention, great even though I’m in purchase mode I know I can go here for help later! What I don’t like is that the relevance of the list is not great, the top hit is linking to a headset. Why is that? An actual phone ends up on place 5. Again not an optimal customer experience for someone set out to buy a smartphone. So I tried to be even clearer, and asked the system “How much is an iPhone with a post-paid agreement”? (*evil grin*) URL:¬†http://www.telia.se/privat/sok/sok.page?q=vad+kostar+en+iphone+med+abbonnemang%3F

Note that I intentionally¬†misspelled¬†abbonnemang. What happens is that HTC desire comes up, nothing about iPhones… Looking back at the Nielsen article referenced on top, these kind of misspellings needs to be handled better.

So lets check out what I believe is a really good example.

Sprint.com

 

Search on sprint.com for Blackberry Curve

Search on sprint.com for Blackberry Curve

Click the image for larger size, or the URL to try yourself is http://search.sprint.com/inquiraapp/ui.jsp?question_box=blackberry+curve&ui_mode=question

As you can see from the URL they are using a product called InQuira. Quite impressive.

A number of things to note. I started with just writing “blackberry” – the system gave me a similar view but clearly helped me to qualify my search so I added Blackberry Curve. That made me feel good. There are several interesting features here.

  • A promoted area up top – what is coming up
  • Clear support links depending on model
  • Very clear and ordered list of products, including prices with clear calls to actions (including a see more option to not clutter the experience and drown me in information)
  • Below the fold are a good and clean answer section with videos

In short a mix of service and sales messages without overloading me. I can easily scan and find what is suitable to me. To the right are two key cross-channel functions.

  • Click to chat & email support ¬†that connects me with customer service
  • Find a store – so I can figure out where I can go and touch and feel the product

The importance of these two functions should not be underestimated especially for complex purchases where many customers want to have human interaction. Making it easy for users to connect the online experience with the retail and call center will keep the prospect from wandering in to the competitions stores on the lunch break to make the purchase, after researching the product on your site. ūüėČ

Summary

As I’ve tried to show in this quite lengthy post, it is quite common that the search experience is not what it should be and definitely not what it could be. Getting it right is hard and there are many challenges, but there is also good examples to be inspired from out there. Most sites will rely on their navigation and users ending up in the search area are not likely to have a great customer experience. I’d say The telco industry is not special in this regard, try searching for e.g. bol√•n (home loans) on any of the major¬†Swedish¬†bank sites.

Comments? Thoughts? Let me know what you think about the importance of onsite search for a good customer experience, is it worth the hassle or is a great navigation enough…?

(*) Traditionally most websites emerging from the “low cost of acquisition channel” thinking are focusing on the planning and order placement steps too much which I’ll probably get back to in future posts