Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How Accountants Ruin Customer Experience and Other Cautionary Tales

I am always amazed at how smart people can make stupid products. The quickest path to bad products is not bad engineers though. It's good engineers listening to accountants, especially cost accountants. Don't get me wrong, accountants are themselves usually good people and pretty smart. They just see the world in a certain way, as a giant spreadsheet. Make a cost number smaller, the bottom line gets bigger. Makes sense but not for customer experience.

A case in point is the new ATM at my local bank ( HSBC – “The world's local bank”). For the past 30 years, since the dawn of the ATM, these awesome machines have accepted deposit envelopes. While I am the first to admit it stinks to be stuck behind someone in line who didn't fill out the envelope before walking up to the machine (why is that anyway?), envelopes serve an important purpose in the deposit process.

  • They keep everything nicely bundled. This way you don't have checks floating around your car or flying away in the breeze.

  • They keep your deposit protected. Envelopes help make sure your money does not get crumpled, twisted, folded, spindled, or mutilated.

  • Envelopes aggregate your checks into one transaction. One envelope, one action. Done.

Given that envelopes are an important part of the customer experience when depositing at an ATM, why in the name of all that is intelligent in the universe would you eliminate them. Why indeed but HSBC has done just that. Their new ATMs will not give you an envelope and the machine will not accept one. So instead of taking my five checks as a unit I have to feed them in one at a time. Cash has to be fed in separately as well. The result – lousy customer experience. Here's the result:

  • It takes as many times longer to feed checks into the machine as there are checks. Five checks? Five times as long. Nice.

  • I am sure to have a check get away from me to be lost in the breeze or trashed in a way that the machine will not be able to process it. Thanks for the paranoia. As if I didn't have enough of that from banks.
  • Since it will take longer to process deposits, the folks behind me in line are bound to be more annoyed. Or have more opportunity to rob me. Now that's looking out for your customers HSBC!
  • I have to press a bunch more buttons raising the chance that I will make a mistake and have to spend more time correcting it or, more likely, start over. (Okay, for you statistics weenies out there – the chance is not higher, just the incidence since the number of tries is higher. You knew what I meant!)
  • Given all of that, more people will now go into the branch, overwhelming the few tellers left leading to even longer lines and delays. I get goosebumps thinking of that one.

  • I now have more incentive to take money out than to put money in. Huh? Don't banks need money going in faster than out... oh forget about it. It's too stupid for words.

Why would HSBC be so willing to wreck the customer experience of a technology that benefits them as much as it does the customer? Accountants, that's why. No matter what they might say (“Our research shows that customers like to punch buttons until they have carpal tunnel syndrome.”) this is an obvious attempt to not pay for envelopes. Someone in the bank calculated that so many pennies per transaction will be saved by eliminating envelopes. It probably never even occurred to them how it would negatively effect customers. That doesn't show up on the ledger sheet right away.

One more thing this requires to happen though – a gutless vendor. Likely scenario:

HSBC Bank: “Can you make an ATM that doesn't use envelopes?”

Diebold (ATM maker) : Sure! With out new optical scanning technology we can have customers feed checks in without an envelope. They will then be scanned with 98% accuracy!”

HSBC Bank: “Great! Let's do it.”

as opposed to:

HSBC Bank: “Can you make an ATM that doesn't use envelopes?”

Diebold: “Um. Are you sure? I mean, won't that really annoy your customers?”

HSBC Bank: “Well, how so?”

Diebold: “Where to start? Okay..”

ten minutes later...

Diebold: “and we would be making it easier for people to take money out and harder to put it in. You being a bank and all, they doesn't sound like your business model.”

HSBC Bank: “Holy CDO! Um. Forget we ever asked. And remember, this conversation was under NDA. Whew.”

So remember folks – the best vendor is the one willing to tell you what you don't want to hear even at the risk of a sale. That is the vendor that would not let you walk off the HSBC cliff. Also remember that the customer experience generates revenue. Never, ever even look to cut costs there. That is the path to destruction. Spend money there even if it means cutting executive salaries.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tweeted by Well Meaning EMC People

The problem with expressing oneself in 140 characters or less is that it doesn't provide an opportunity for clarity. This is why Twitter can be frustrating at times. Folks can't quite get your message. Not because there is something wrong with them but because of the limitations of the media. You have to learn how to operate within the restrictions of the form and still get across what you mean. It's like Haiku. You have to learn how to do it and I'm still learning.

So it was when I commented on the announcements for EMC's newest Symmetrix V-Max. I received a number of replies to my Tweets that defended the new architecture. Looking back, I'm sure that I was not clear nor that we could have a meaningful dialog about the technical aspects of V-Max. It was my bad for trying to make this type of point in the Twitter medium.

See, my problem wasn't with V-Max at all but the way it was announced. I complained about the video of the EMC executives, I complained about the web site description, I complained about the datasheet, and I complained about the blogs that pretty much reiterated what was on the other three. Here's why.

They said almost nothing of value.

I get that the V-Max architecture is somehow great for virtual server environments. The name alone told me that (good name by the way – huzzah to product management). So what? Lots of folks claim that. How does it do that? Even if you could tell me how (which is what most of the EMCers want to do), it still doesn't tell me why I should care. I'm left to ponder the Why.

That is, in nutshell, the core problem. All products and marketing have to pass the “Who Cares?” test. What serious problem do I have that this solves? What is so compelling about this product that I need to run out and buy it? Given my ever shrinking budget and staff, why does this doo hickey deserve a precious slice of my time and money? I don't get that from the EMC marketing.

The other thing marketing has to do is grab my attention so you want to listen to the “Who cares” message. This is not a gentle tap on the shoulder but a grabbing by the ears and shaking kind of thing. It doesn't have to be cute or loud or include music by nearly dead old rock stars. It has to be compelling. Even if you want to turn away, somehow you can't. Like an accident on the highway.

The product marketing for the launch of V-Max fails in this capacity. It is the same old formula. Have the executives get up there and make grand but vague statements followed up by bland and vague marketing literature. This doesn't even work for Steve Jobs anymore and he is as close to a rock star as this industry has. The EMC video, for example, almost looks like a parody of a computer commercial. The white background with the executive talking head is too much like a Mac vs. PC commercial but without the Mac. Actually, if they had made a parody, like the Microsoft parody of the Volkswagen commercial some time back, it would have been much more effective.

Check out the data sheet. It is a nine page white paper full of more hyperbole than this blog. Other than the claim to be able to scale to petabytes (an old claim that everyone makes) and that it supports a variety of disk types (like everyone), it's hard to pick out anything concrete from the first few pages.

I am sure that none of this matters to the EMC faithful. Current customers will bypass all this and get the message direct from their sales rep. EMC sales reps do a great job of connecting technology and features to real world problems. Potential customers on the other hand will see little here that makes them pick up the phone and call EMC. They will say to themselves “So what?” not “Holy storage problems Batman, we need one of those for the Batcave computer!”

So, before all the technical folks tweet me to death, it's not about the technology, it's about the marketing. It's tired. I know you don't want to hear that, especially when your best customers are going out of business, but you need to hear it. You can choose to chalk it up to one cranky, uninformed, blogger. On the other hand, you can see it as a wake up call to find better ways to market your products in tough times. Hopefully to find new customers to replace the ones that have evaporated in the recession.

Start with “The new V-Max will allow you to cut costs and operate with reduced staff by....” You can finish off that line. Then I will care.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Just When I Was Losing Hope

This has been a week of marketing hell. First, we get an ER episode on Hulu about the dangers of teenage drinking attached to an ad selling flavored vodka (thanks again Absolut). Then, I had to wrangle with Northwest Airlines in what has to be the single most frustrating customer service situation imaginable. They actually told me that they wouldn't assign me seats so that they could accommodate people “who don't plan ahead”. That's a direct quote. They penalize me for planning ahead so that they can accommodate people who don't. Sounds twisted. It's also probably not true. I think they want to sell me a more expensive seat.

But then, just when all hope is lost, I am reminded again what good marketing can be like. My reminder came via Marc Farley's StorageRap. For those who don't know Marc, he has been around the data storage industry for a long time. He knows his stuff technically (I have had the privilege of working with Marc on some projects) and has published several excellent books. But that is only part of the story. Marc works for 3PAR, one of the millions of storage array vendors out there. He creates some truly imaginative Internet marketing pieces under the StorageRap moniker. StorageRap combines animation, YouTube like amateur video, humor, music, blogging, and Twitter feeds to get the 3Par message out. The League of Suspicious Avatars and the Steering Wheel Cam are two neat constructs that Marc uses to accomplish the marketing mission.

Sometimes it's weird, maybe even a bit obscure (like the bit on chunklets). That fine because it is also eye catching and memorable. The latest video, talking about 3PAR's F Class arrays, is a classic. It uses hip hop and animation in a sort of video game way. Imagine Weird Al Yankovic combined with 50 Cent and living inside an Xbox game. Out there? Sure. It is supposed to get my attention and succeeds brilliantly. I even bothered to look up the F Class array because of it. I don't know if it meets all the claims on the web site but if I was buying arrays, I would probably call to find out (Message to 3PAR sales guys – I'm not buying any arrays. Don't waste time calling me).

That's what good marketing is about. Not only does it grab your attention but it holds it long enough that you can get the message. Ultimately, good marketing compels you to at least consider the product in question.

So in an age of horrible, irresponsible, offensive, ugly marketing that only seems to want to make you run screaming from the room, StorageRap is refreshing. Too bad the 3PAR palate is so small. Then again, at an EMC or IBM, would Marc be allowed to be this interesting and creative. I doubt it.

In a crowded field of very similar looking products, 3PAR stands out and gets our attention through superior marketing. I don't know what they pay Marc, but it isn't nearly enough for the value he creates.

Now, I want to know how he creates those cool avatars...

Friday, April 03, 2009

Absolut Disgust

Sometimes something is so wrong, so monumentally deplorable, so incredibly in bad taste, that you struggle to find words to describe just how wrong it is. It is the crossing of a boundary into the dark place. That place where we cease to be fully human and forget that we are members of a community, of a society.

I just found such a place and I am not pleased.

The trigger for this rant came from a recent experience with Hulu. Now, I absolutely love Hulu and other on-line video services. The ability to watch a show or movie whenever I want is a huge attraction. Because I see value in the ability to have ultimate choice in viewing I am willing to watch the commercials. Honestly, the 15 second ads are no burden and I am aware that it pays for the experience.

However, when those ads are insensitive or downright awful, you lose me and my loyalty. I am almost there with Hulu. I am on the verge of blocking it at my firewall altogether though this will gain me the ire of my 16 year old son. It is because of my teenagers that I might just block Hulu.

I was watching the final ER episode on Hulu. This particular episode has a story line about a teenage girl who is in a coma from drinking. Drinking vodka. The doctor, played by John Stamos, is highly disturbed by this since he has a teenage daughter himself. While a bit preachy at times, overall it was moving and thought provoking. I hope teenagers see this and it helps them avoid this kind of destructive behavior.

Right in the middle of the story about a girl who might die from alcohol poisoning pops up an ad for Absolut Vodka. Vodka! And what do you think these kids were drinking in the show. What puts the teenage girl in a coma? Vodka. The ad was not just for the usual nasty tasting stuff. Nope. Absolut chose this moment to advertise Mango Vodka. The kind of stuff teenage girls might go for.

Now, they couldn't have done this during the actual broadcast. TV dumped hard alcohol ads long ago. If you want to cheapen the message from the show, this is a great way to do it. It is so cynical, in such poor taste, and such bad community relations that I can only assume that somebody terribly callous or stupid arranged for this spot. Didn't they bother to see what the show was about before buying the ad? Doesn't Hulu have a “ no booze on this show” filter? Did it occur to anyone that it might be inappropriate to advertise vodka during a show about the negative effects of teenage drinking? Apparently not.

So, Absolut. You are now a bunch of unfeeling corporate tools. I hope you are happy with yourself. You disgust me and I hope the MADD people climb all over you and smack you around. You deserve it. I also won't buy your products. I won't drink your products. And Hulu, don't hide behind the “we only display them, we don't make them” argument. You should have told your client that this was a bad idea. I suppose the money mattered more.

Just because it is on the Internet, doesn't mean it is right.