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Why I Prefer Not To Do Business With Customer-Centric Businesses

Why is it that I prefer not to business with a customer-centric business? Allow me to share my answer by referring to the UK grocery market.  Which supermarket chain was applauded, by many, for its customer-centred way of doing business? Tesco.  What was held responsible for fuelling this customer-centred way of doing business? The Tesco Club Card. Through this loyalty card, Tesco captured and made effective use of customer shopping data to grow revenues and optimise profits.  In the process Tesco came from nowhere to became the world’s second largest retailer.

Where is Tesco today? Here is what The Economist said back in July 2014:

… on July 21st Tesco abruptly announced that Mr Clarke would be leaving his job, apparently prompted by a warning that profits in the first half of 2014 would come in “below expectations”. In June Tesco revealed a drop in same-store sales that Mr Clarke admitted was the retailer’s worst performance in 40 years….

Recession taught middle-class shoppers that discounters like Aldi and Lidl were cheap but not nasty; they spent some of the money they saved at higher-end grocers, such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer……

Tesco is faring badly. Its sales dropped by nearly 2% in the year to June while those of its closest rivals, Asda (which is owned by Walmart) and Sainsbury’s, rose by 3% or better. Despite his exertions, Mr Clarke failed to persuade consumers that Tesco offers better value than the discounters or quality to match the upmarket merchants.

Is this as bad as it gets? No. Here is what the Guardian newspaper stated in on the 22nd of September this year:

Tesco has suspended the head of its UK business and called in independent accountants and lawyers to investigate after discovering that its guidance to the City overstated expected first-half profits by about £250m….

Tesco shares fell almost 8% on Monday morning to an 11-year low of 212p, making them the biggest faller in the FTSE 100 index and wiping £1.5bn off the retailer’s market value. More than £6bn has been wiped off share value since 21 July, when the previous chief executive, Phil Clark, was ousted.

Why is it that Tesco is in such deep trouble? I say that Tesco has arrived at where it is at due to its customer-centric way of doing business.  What do I mean by this?  I mean that the Tops got fixated into harnessing the data yielded by the Club Card to get customers to part with more of their money in Tesco stores.

Was this done by offering customers superior products as in higher quality products? No.  The products were middle of the road yet ways were found of selling these at higher prices through clever marketing and merchandising.

Was this done by providing superior customer service in the stores? No. Tesco cut back on the number of people working in the stores so it was not unusual for the customer to find that there was nobody around to help when help was needed or find long queues at the checkout tills.

Was this done through a superior shopping experience? No. Management chose not to invest in the stores or the shopping experience in the stores. As a result the stores become less and less attractive over time.

I prefer not to do business with a customer-centric business because the management of such a business is more likely to be focussed on extracting value from their customer base through a variety of clever manoeuvres than earning its keep through superior products (Apple, Waitrose), superior service (John Lewis, Zappos), low prices (Lidl, Aldi), or a combination of service and low price (Amazon).

If you are a customer and your supplier is touting customer-obsession then  you might want to think about whether that is a good thing. Is the obsession with providing you with a superior product, superior value,  and/or experience? Or is it an obsession with with finding clever ways of getting you to buy more, pay more for what you buy, and get less in return? You might want to keep in mind that which many remind me of: business is not altruistic.

In The Age Of Technology Do People Still Matter?

Why Not Replace People With Technology?

In the second half of the 90s I was involved in consulting in the area of shared services.  Being a sidekick I got to witness the sales pitch.  What was the sales pitch?  No human beings.  Everything in the back office was subject to business rules. The business rules could be codified, programmed and back office work could be automated.  No human necessary. Nirvana: 24/7/365 nirvana of efficiency guaranteed to deliver the same outcome each and every time.

Today, I notice the same love of technology as regards the front office: where the customer meets the enterprise.  In this age of technology do people still matter?  Do we need sales people given that content marketing will generate the interest, product demos can be put on the web, and the ‘inside sales’ people can take the orders?  Do we need to have any people in marketing given that big data will generate the insights, decision engines will contain the heuristics, market resource management systems will hold the marketing assets, and marketing automation will take care of the execution of marketing campaigns?  Do we need people in the call-centres taking calls given the extensive self-help that can be enabled through digital channels and every customer would prefer to interact via Twitter?  Do we need people in the stores? Why not rebuild the stores so that they resemble a combination of a website and a vending machine?

What Do These Two Women Say On The Matter?

Allow me to share a conversation that I overheard the other day between two women.  Before I do that let me set some context.  Waitrose is supermarket chain in the UK and it is owned by The John Lewis Partnership.  The John Lewis Partnership has been and continues to do well despite tough times for retailers. Tesco used to be the darling of the CRM press and used to be the dominant supermarket chain. It has not been doing so well since austerity hit.  Morrisons is the fourth largest chain of supermarkets in the UK.

As promised here is the gist of the conversation (between two women) that I overheard at the weekend:

Mrs A: “Waitrose is known for their great customer service and rightly so. It’s easy to find someone to help you. And when you ask for help in finding something, the Waitrose person walks you across the store and takes you right to the item you are looking for.  They are so helpful.”

Mrs B. “I was in Waitrose this week and wasn’t sure what ingredients I needed for eggs Benedict; I haven’t cooked them before. So I asked for help. The Waitrose man didn’t know either but he told me that he would find out. I saw him walk to one of his colleagues. Then he came back and told me what I needed and how to cook eggs Benedict. He was so helpful: he made my problem his own. That’s such good service.”

Mrs B. “The staff in Morrisons don’t walk with you to the item you are looking for. Yet, I always find them  warm, friendly and helpful.”

Mrs A. “I don’t like Tesco. It is hard to find people in the store to help you. And when you do find someone to help they tell you where you can find the item, point towards it, and then leave you to it. They don’t walk with you and show you where it is.  They don’t care – not at all like the Waitrose people.”

Mrs B. “I used to do all my shopping at Tesco. Then Tesco got greedy – pushing up prices and cutting down on the customer service. Now, I shop for the basics at Morrisons and the rest from Waitrose.”  

My Take On The Situation 

I’ll leave you decide whether people matter or not in the age of technology.  For myself, I am clear that humans are simply more at ease in dealing with other human beings. And there is no substitute for great customer service – the way that the folks in Waitrose (and John Lewis) stores interact with their customers, and amongst themselves.

Before you rush off to revamp your customer service remember that one ingredient does not a dish make.  A great dish always consist of the insightful application of a recipe – and the recipe requires a mix of ingredients, in the right measure, and sequence, cooked for just the right amount of time.  How does one generate such insight? Through experience: on the battlefield of life.  What is the recipe?  The business philosophy and organisational design: what matters, who matters, the operating principles, how conflict is handled, how rewards are shared, how people are structured into groups, and how interactions-relationships-differences-conflicts are handled…

Please note: I am not in the business of giving advice (in this blog). So you shouldn’t take anything in this blog as constituting advice. In this blog I find myself involved in sharing my thinking and experience.  That is all. Then you make of it what you make of it.

Musings on Big Data, Customer Analytics, and Data Driven Business

On LinkedIn, Don Peppers is sharing his perspective on making better decisions with data.  This got me thinking and I want to share with you what showed up for me. Why listen to my speaking?  I do have a scientific background (BSc Applied Physics).  I qualified as a chartered accountant and was involved in producing all kinds of reports for managers and saw what they did or did not do with them. More recently, I was the head of a data mining and predictive analytics practice. Let’s start.

Data and data driven decision-making tools are not enough

Yes, there is a data deluge, and this deluge is becoming down faster and faster. Big enough and fast enough to be given the catchy name Big Data.  What is forgotten is the effort that it takes to get this data fit for the purpose of modelling.  This is no easy-cheap task. Yet, it can be done if you throw enough resources at it.

Yes, there are all kinds of tools for finding patterns in this data. And in the hands of the right people (statistically trained-minded, business savvy) these tools can be used to turn data into valuable (actionable) insight.  This is not as easy as it sounds. Why?  Because there is  shortage of these statistically trained and minded people: amateurs will not do, experts are necessary to distinguish between gold and fools gold – given enough data you can find just about any pattern.  It statistical savvy is not enough you have to couple it with business savvy. Nonetheless, let’s assume that we can overcome this constraint.

The real challenge in generating data driven decision-making in businesses is the cultural practices.  We do not have the cultural practices that create the space for data driven decision-making to show up and flourish.  A thinker much smarter-wiser than me has already shared his wisdom, I invite you to listen:

On the whole, scientific methods are at least as important as any other research: for it is upon the insight into the method that the scientific spirit depends: and if these methods are lost, then all the results of science could not prevent a renewed triumph of superstition and nonsense.

Clever people may learn as much as they wish of the results of science – still one will always notice in their conversation, and especially in their hypotheses, that they lack the scientific spirit; they do not have the distinctive mistrust of the aberrations of thought which through long training are deeply rooted in the soul of every scientific person.  They are content to find any hypothesis at all concerning some matter; then they are all fire and for it and think that is enough …….. If something is unexplained, the grow hot over the first notion that comes into their heads and looks like an explanation ….

- Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human)

It occurs to me that the scientific method never took route in organisational life. Put aside the rationalist ideology and take a good look at what goes in business including how decisions are made. I say you will find that Nietzsche penetrating insight into the human condition as true today as when he spoke it. The practice of making decisions in every organisation that I have ever come in contact with is not scientific: it does not follow the scientific method. On the contrary, managers make decisions that are in alignment with their intuition, their prejudices, and their self-interest.  It is so rare to come across a manager (and organisation) that makes decisions using the scientific method that when this does occur I am stopped in my tracks. It is the same kind of unexpectedness as seeing a female streaker running across the football pitch in a league match.

What are the challenges in putting data driven decision-making practices into place in organisations?

Technologists have a gift. What gift? The gift of not understanding, deeply enough, the being of human beings. Lacking this understanding they can and do (confidently) stand up and preach the virtues-benefits of technology.  If life were that simple.

Truth shows up as attractive to those of us who do not have to face the consequences of truth.  Data driven decision-making sounds great for those of us selling (making a living and hoping to get rich) data driven tools and services.

The challenge of putting in place data driven decision-making practices is that it disturbs the status quo. When you disturb the status quo you go up against the powerful who benefit from that status quo.  Remember Socrates:

The very nature of what Socrates did made him a disruptive and subversive influence. He was teaching people to question everything, and he was exposing the ignorance of individuals in power and authority. He became much loved but also much hated …. In the end the authorities arrested him for …., and not believing in the gods of the city. He was tried and condemned to die …

- Bryan Magee, Professor

Beware of being successful in putting in place a culture of data driven decision making!

With sufficient commitment and investment you can put in place a data driven decision making culture. Like the folks at Tesco did.  And by making decisions through harnessing the data on your customers, your stores, your products, you can outdo all of your competitors, grow like crazy and make bumper profits.  Again, again, and again.  Then the day of reckoning comes – when you come face to face with the flaws of making decisions solely on the basis of data.

Tesco is not doing so great.  It has not been doing so great for several years – including issuing its first ever profits alert in 2012.  What is the latest situation?  Tesco has reported a 23.5% drop in profits in the first half of this year.   What has Tesco been doing to deal with the situation? This is what the article says:

Last year, Tesco announced it would be spending £1bn on improving its stores in the UK, investing in shop upgrades, product ranges, more staff, as well as its online offering.

There are a number of flaws on data driven decision making. For one data driven decision making assumes that the future will be a continuation of the past.  Which is rather like saying all the swans that we have come across are white, so we should plan for white swans.  And then, one day you find that the black swan shows up!  The recession and the shift in consumer behaviour that resulted from this recession was the black swan for Tesco.

Furthermore, I hazard a guess that in their adoration at the pulpit of data driven decision making the folks at Tesco forgot the dimensions that matter but were not fed into the data and the predictive models. What dimensions? Like the customer’s experience of shopping at Tesco stores: not enough staff, unhappy staff, stores looking more and more dated by the day, the quality of their products ……

It looks like the folks at Tesco did not heed the sage words of one of my idols:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

- Einstein

No payoff from good customer service and customer friendly focus?

Is Richard Bove on to something?

When an anomaly comes along and/or someone questions that which is taken for granted by a community we can either ignore it or we can dive into it, grapple with it, and see what we can learn.  This piece by the New York Times about the poor service Richard X. Bove experienced at a Wells Fargo branch caught my attention.  And in particular the following statement

“I’m struck by the fact that the service is so bad, and yet the company is so good,” said Mr. Bove, an analyst with Rochdale Securities. “Whatever it is that drives people to do business with a given bank, in my mind, now has to be rethought.

Lets be clear on this.  Richard Bove has come across unhelpful bank tellers, unexplained monthly fees and fumbled mortgage application.  On the other hand, as a securities analyst, he observes that the bank is doing well financially.  And on that basis he questions the value of banks being good to their customers as opposed to pushing products and managing risk.

I say great, we should keep an open mind and question the taken for granted.  Further, I say that there is no simple relationship between customer service/customer focus and financial performance. What mattered yesterday might not matter today or tomorrow.  What did not matter might be critical in the future.  In any competitive industry, one has to be mindful of competitors and consumer needs/behaviours.

Is it really possible to treat your customers badly and do well financially?

Why might it be possible for a bank to do well financially despite lacking the customer orientation and not delivering good customer service?  The simple answer is that customers keep doing business with the bank – they keep accepting poor service from the tellers, accept/don’t notice unexplained monthly charges and put up with fumbled mortgage applications.  So the question becomes: why do customers stick with their existing banks and not move to other banks?

It is fashionable to peddle the view that many customers will take their business elsewhere if their existing supplier treats them badly.  I am not convinced that this is actually the case for the majority of customers. I say that customer surveys get access to what customers would like to do (switch after a poor experience) as opposed to accessing what customers actually do.  Why the difference? We stick with what is convenient and we accept what works well enough.  Furthermore, we get used to being lied to, being hit with unexplained charges, difficult to use/irritating IVRs, company staff that are clueless ….. And we learn to cope.  For example, we use online banking as opposed to going to the branches.

My experience, UK experience, suggests that many if not most customers are firmly convinced that one bank is pretty much like any other bank. Furthermore, they are convinced that it is a difficult, time consuming, chore to move banks.  Lastly, they are convinced that the process will go wrong and then they will have to expend more time trying to get hold  of unhelpful banks and companies to fix what is gone wrong.  Given this, it is no surprise (to me) that banks have some of the highest ‘customer loyalty’ levels around. I wonder if some of this also applies to the USA.

At this point you are most likely to be thinking that I am in agreement with Richard Bove: that treating customers right simply doesn’t matter and banks should focus on pushing products and managing risk.  Not quite.  To get a rounded perspective we have to deal with competition and time.  Let’s start with competition.

Lets consider the impact of time and competition

Where each player in the industry works to the same theory of business and thus goes about business the same way customers really have no choice.  However, when a new entrant comes along and does things differently then the opportunity for disruption occurs.  Think Amazon.  Hasn’t Amazon fundamentally changed the book buying and reading experience and in doing so attracted and retained hordes of book readers. Has it not thrown the incumbents to the wolves?  Think Apple: how many sleepy/cosy industries has Apple disrupted?

So my key point is that as and when a new entrant shows up in the banking industry and offers a superior value proposition centred on honesty, convenience and customer service in the banking industry it will be interesting to see what happens. In the UK I am watching the progress of Metro Bank with interest.  Also, it will also be interesting to see if Richard Branson and the Virgin Group do anything interesting given that they are looking to buy branches from the existing banks.

Time matters.  The best way for me to make this real is to share the example of Tesco.  For ten years or so Tesco did extremely well financially, it was the company to beat in food retailing in the UK.  That is no longer the case as this piece shows.  What happened?  In the UK Tesco failed to invest in the customer experience.  Specifically, Tesco failed to invest in the stores and in the people that served customers.  Over time the customer experience became poorer and competitors caught up.   Then the recession arrived, customers went to competitors, Tesco lost market share, issued a shock profit warning and the value of the company dropped by £5 billion.

Yet, to get that time matters we do not have to go beyond the financial services industry.  Look the banks made a fortune over the last 30 years.  More and more deregulation delivered more and more revenues and profits. Then the financial services industry as a whole went bust.  Yes, bust.  Time caught up with financial services industry – it just took 30 years for the consequences to catch up with behaviour. And we, through our governments, have socialised the losses.  It is only because the citizens/taxpayers have taken the hit, a big hit, that the banks continue.

Summing up

Wells Fargo may be doing well today because it is reaping the fruits of yesterday and/or sacrificing the future.  Yes, you can always boost short term revenues and profits by milking lazy, confused, gullible and helpless customers.   Put differently, the only way we can know if Wells Fargo can get away with poor service by bank tellers, unexplained monthly charges and fumbled mortgage applications is to see how things play out in the next 10 years or so.  If you are tempted to take your customers for granted then I urge you to reflect on: what Amazon did to the book publishing/selling industry; what Apple has done to numerous industries including music, mobile phones, computing; and how the mighty like Tesco, Nokia, RIM have fallen.

Note: This is my first and last post for August.  I am taking time out and intend/expect to be back in September.  For my part, I wish you well and thank you for taking the time to read what I write and share your views.

Tesco: great example of the perils of data driven marketing & neglect of the customer experience?

Tesco continues to do ‘badly’ in the UK

The other day I was reading the business press and the following piece on the poster child loyalty schemes/analytical CRM/data driven business management caught my eyes:  Tesco UK sales fall for more than a year.

If you don’t know then let me remind you that for many years the loyalty/CRM folks were holding up Tesco as the shining example of how to run a business intelligently/smartly and out compete your competitors by harnessing data and using this insight to drive/run the business.  And about a year ago the wheels came of the bus.

What got Tesco here?

Looking at it from the customer perspective, I say that the difficult economic environment forced customers to take a closer look at Tesco.  Some of these customers noticed that the ‘great deals’ from Tesco were actually more marketing gimmicks than genuine value.  And they noticed the poverty of the overall shopping experience – stores, products, service….. Here is a comment that speaks of the marketing gimmicks:

“..   It is consistently more expensive than Asda, Morrisons, even Sainsburys. It’s offers are phoney.  Strawberries “half price” at £2. Never seen them at £4 at Tescos or any other supermarkets. Asda had them at £1 so Tesco offered 2 for £2.50 next day, but smaller punnets. Their price drops are a joke, they drop from inflated price (Sometime BOGOF price) and are still expensive. They must think the public are fools and I suppose some are – they don’t even look at prices.”

As a strategist and business consultant, I say that like many successful businesses that end upon hard times Tesco’s strength became its weakness.  Put differently, Tesco placed pretty much all of its emphasis on data driven marketing and business management.  And in the process it gradually sucked the life out of brand and the customer experience. Rather like a television whose picture quality degrades gradually such that you don’t even notice these small changes until one day you happen to view a television that works properly. The recession was the wake up call for customers.

The data driven marketing allowed Tesco to maximise response and sales by personalizing the offers and coupons to the needs/interests of shoppers.  One the business management side, the Clubcard based analytics allowed Tesco to stock the right products in the right stores.  It also allowed the business to penny pinch on various areas including the stores, the products and the staff in the stores.  This is the classic example of the ‘extraction’ mentality powered by data driven analytics – in my view they power each other.  If you have worked  with database marketers you might have learned that their focus is on optimising return on the campaign as opposed to maximizing the long-term value of the customer. Often what optimises the ROI on the campaign does the opposite for longer term customer lifetime value and loyalty.  The opposite also applies.

What do retail experts say?

According to the Guardian piece (bolding is my work):

“At its annual results in April, Tesco’s chief executive, Philip Clarke, announced a £1bn makeover of the UK chain designed to “put the heart and soul back into Tesco” after domestic profits fell for the first time in more than 20 years. With more than 2,700 stores, Tesco’s domestic chain pumps out two-thirds of the group’s profits and Clarke admitted it had taken “a little bit too much away from the shopper” during years of penny-pinching to boost the bottom line.

And according to the Telegrah piece Phil Dorrell, a director at retail consultants Retail Remedy, says the following ( the bolding is my work):

“Tesco is treading water but the paucity of its long-term marketing strategy could still drag it under. Tesco… continues to offer a bland and soulless shopping experience and will be hard pushed to maintain its market share over this financial year. The leadership still seems to be focused on the quick fixes, more appropriate to running a store than a business”

And finally 5 questions for you to ponder

1.  If Tesco was genuinely customer-centric, all those years that it was touted as being the poster child of customer-centricity, then why is it in the state that it is in today?

2.  Is it possible that customer-data/insight centricity (which is what often passes of as customer-centricity) is not actually authentic customer-centricity?

3.  If intuition is such a poor guide to decision making and salvation lies in data driven insights that drive rational decision making then how is it that by pursuing this path Tesco has ended up here?

4.  Is it possible that what is rational over the short-term is not rational over the longer term?

5.  Is it possible that what occurs as rational to data scientists and data driven marketers and business managers is actually irrational because customers are human beings and as such irrational factors such as the brand, the customer experience, authentic customer care matters and weaknesses show up over the longer term?



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