Thursday, 18 December 2008

Killing confusion, connecting with customers

It's not unusual to find businesses whose customers are confused about their products.  Often, the business' salespeople (and others) are only a little more on top of things.  They can talk about individual products, but not in ways that connect with the customer, and not so that the entire portfolio they're presenting makes much sense.  If the salespeople can't articulate it, it's hardly surprising that the customers are confused.

I've found that things are different with businesses whose customers understand and want what they're being offered.  The best of these businesses talk relentlessly about business value first and about product and service superiority second.  They capture that value in propositions that exhibit 4 'C's:
  • Clear - simple and easy to understand
  • Coherent - their portfolio hangs together and makes perfect sense as a whole
  • Consistent - their people all tell the same story, regardless of context and medium
  • Compelling - they describe 'must have' business value and benefits
It's usually relatively straightforward to create the story that underpins 4Cs propositions for a business.  The challenge (as always) lies in adoption and execution.  That can be time-consuming and tough.  It's worth it though - don't we all prefer being customers of 4C businesses?  Aren't we more likely to buy earlier and longer?

Monday, 15 December 2008

To everything there is a season (turn, turn, turn)

In the late 1980s I worked for a consulting practice that was then just beginning to push Information Engineering (IE) and associated CASE tools.  There was real excitement about the concept - provably correct systems; engineering rigour applied to application development; massive savings in development cost; etc. 

I remember that I loved the insight (from Quality movements) that getting things right in early lifecycle stages was much cheaper than fixing them later.  And identifying and monitoring an external critical assumption set, tied to critical success factors, seemed so obviously sensible.  The graphical nature of the tools, too, pointed the way forward pre-Windows.

But I was also puzzled.  I'd been working in 'office systems' - later 'desktop computing'.  From that perspective, it seemed self-evident that most of the information with which organisations worked was unstructured or semi-structured.  And IE seemed to have next to nothing to say about this.  Second, despite its recognition of the criticality of external assumptions, I saw it doing nothing actually to capture or monitor information relating to them.  Maybe these weren't what killed IE, but they seemed both beyond the tools available then, and pretty fundamental to me.

Reflecting on this now, the technology I use, and the Net environment within which it operates, demonstrate that both these shortcomings have pretty much been overcome.  So, there's a question about why there's been no resurgence in IE, given that its promise was so attractive.

I think the answer points beyond 'IE was ahead of its time' explanations.  Yes, it needed technology capabilities that came along later.  But it also needed a context that asked questions to which it had an answer - and that considered those questions compelling.  And, for whatever reason, IE has stopped being an answer to the most important questions organisations are asking.

So what?  A recognition that having an embryonic question to a compelling question may not be enough.  If by the time the answer is fully gestated the question is not longer critical then we're sunk.  I wonder how many of the current key questions businesses and consumers ask are being changed by the present socio-economic conditions?  And, I wonder, how many businesses are doing the scenario planning that might prepare them for this.  

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Aging Communities / Online Communities

I'm enjoying following Rich Millington's blog and tweets (@richmillington).  Rich is an online community builder, asks great questions about online communities, and has published a fine manifesto.

In the Manifesto, Rich argues (rightly I'm sure) that we need to know much more about communities and less about technology.  This made me think about a my parents-in-law's Golden Wedding Tea about 15 months ago.  They invited around 40 of their friends and we were there to help host.  Friends of those celebrating Golden Weddings tend to be older, and so it was this time.  Many of those there were frail and physically failing; others were fading in other ways.  Many had lost loved ones - and of course others who would have been there had died years before.

I found the gathering deeply moving - because these were people who had journeyed together for, in many cases, around 40 years.  These were people who had been committed to each other; had shared joys and pain; had disagreed with and forgiven each other; had loved each other; had got each other through the hard times; and had shared the good times together.  Shared experience, not just opinions and information.  This was community at its best.

What made it community wasn't technology (obviously).  And whilst there was intentional community building going on in the background (my father-in-law was a pastor) this wasn't the 'formal' community he'd built, but a community of friends.  So what marked it?  There were people committed for the long haul; there had been years and years of acceptance, integrity, and transparent living.  There had been giving of each other to each other - friendship at its best.  It was organic - nobody was 'managing' or 'running' this community.

I think there are lessons here, but figuring out how they might apply to online communities is hard.  Well, maybe some of the lessons are actually not that hard.  I wonder if we need to recognise that the best communities are not instant, but long term; that the relationships they nurture are multi-faceted and based on shared experience; and that whilst communities can be built, the best ones are not 'managed', though (perhaps) they are served. 

Monday, 8 December 2008

Lasagne, Priests & Online Communities

Very near where we live is a small Pizzeria & Trattoria.  Run by Italians it serves great home-made pasta and good pizzas.  We eat there a lot - not just because of the food, how near it is, or its reasonable prices.  We eat there because they recognise us, seem pleased to see us, talk to us, find us seats - and even gave us a Christmas present last year.  There's relationship.  It was the same with the Indian restaurant where we used to live - a warm welcome, a Christmas card and present, and frequent visits from us.  And we're getting there with the Indian restaurant we now eat at in Oxford.

In each of these, there's a person around whom it all revolves - who sets the tone, leads the welcome, engages in conversation.  Manager or owner, this is who the staff follow in how they treat us and other customers.  And the person who, you sense, binds the staff team together.  All very obvious, I guess, but I've been thinking about the impact of this, and how the same principles of hospitality and a person at the centre flow through into other areas.

It's the same in many church communities, where the priest or minister isn't just a teacher, isn't just a pastor, but is a welcomer and community gatherer - the person around whom the community coheres.  They set the example for small / cell group leaders - again individuals around whom smaller communities form - and who can create and sustain those communities as powerful places of safety, change, faith, and growth.  The food element is also there - with the centrality of the eucharist / mass / communion - celebrated by the priest as a meal that brings the community together.  

Talking and working with the founder of an online community last week, I was struck by how they sought to function in the same way.  This person does most of the invitations to join the community; they're at every event when community members gather.  I compared this with other communities / networks I know, and was struck by the way in which that's often the founding principle, but how it can easily fade over time.  Networks / communities grow and commercialise, and - especially if the founder leaders move on - there's an understandable concern to minimise dependence on any one individual.  So, the emphasis shifts to managing and facilitating relationship through specialist roles and process.  And long-established members hark back to the way things used to be - despite the fact that (objectively) the community is offering them more, and delivering it more professionally.

So, maybe the model we need for leading commercial communities (online or not) needs to learn from restaurants and churches, as well as from more corporate process.  Does there need to be a person around whom the community coheres?  Does the CEO have to be as much a maitre'd or 'mine host' as a business person?  Should they look to learn from the parish priest as well as business gurus?