Who owns the customer experience

I have been a regular and very loyal customer of Flipkart. They have a neat UI, collection is great, prices are good and they manage deliveries very well.

Chariots of the GodsWhile shopping for books last week I was shown a recommendation for “The Chariots of the Gods” a book whose introduction/teaser looked exciting. Needless to say I added it to my shopping cart (proof that recommendation engines are maturing fast).

I got my consignment of books right on time, neatly packed with bookmarks etc. I finished the first book and then it happened. When I opened this book – The Chariots of the Gods- the print quality was shocking. It was so bad that it would have made the pirated road-side versions look like hard-bound editions :-).

I tried reading the book a couple of times but just couldn’t get beyond the first few pages. So I wrote to Flipkart. I told them my angst and they promptly agreed to replace the book. I reminded them that they should do so only if the print quality was different from what I had got. So I got my revised copy and it was the exact same quality (or lack of it). Guess its just a badly printed book. Can’t really blame Flipkart ! Or can I?

I guess as the leader in its space, Flipkart is viewed as the entity that promises to deliver a superior customer experience. Though their customer service was prompt and empowered to quickly respond to my case, they failed to investigate if they could really solve my problem.

Also the promise of a good online experience also includes a guarantee that sub-standard products would not be stocked. The book might be awesome, but if the print quality is bad, someone at Flipkart should decide against stocking it.

And I feel this is amongst other factors would determine which of the two models – marketplace vs inventory-driven models would emerge. Would marketplace managers be able to deliver a better experience, esp in categories where the product quality can vary?

I for one would bet my money on those who know how to control and deliver a great experience, marketplace or otherwise.

CSE – Custom Search Engine – Bing’s Opportunity

bing-googleRecently Microsoft shared some UK market specific data, wherein they highlighted how Bing has managed to gain traction and bring Google’s share of the pie below the 90% mark.

One can only begin to imagine the kind of uphill task Bing product and sales teams must be looking at. But, its also a time for them to be focused, to search (no pun intended!) for possible weak spots in Google’s fortress.

One such area that comes to my mind is Custom Search Engine (CSE) – this product was designed to allow website owners/managers to provide a quick search across their site by just copy/pasting a few lines of code. Also, Google shows its own ads along side the search results (like it does on its own inventory), allowing the webmaster to make some extra revenue – from search ads.

Many sites adopted it, few of them discontinued it in favor of their own search technologies and many don’t know how to make it align with the site’s overall, look and feel.

CSE is good opportunity because being where the search gets initiated is probably half the battle for a search engine. Unfortunately, (for Bing) pure-user initiated across-web search mostly begins at Google.com. If the user is not on Google and still thinking of search, thats the best use-case for a Google Challenger.

So here’s why Bing teams should focus on an awesome CSE product:

  • Google is not really the de-facto leader here. Its a whole set of solutions that exist.
  • CSE can be a great gateway for the complete Bing experience. External links on CSE could tunnel the user towards Bing.com
  • It allows them to build the Bing brand as the preferred search destination by tapping into the long tail of web-users. Taking Google head on in web-search will only lead to bleeding. Here each site that installs this product, is helping convert potential future Bing users.
  • Its a seemingly simple product, for each of its installation(s). Deliver the right set of pages in the search view from the site or the web.
  • Many webmasters might be willing to switch, just for a better design or a better set of options or maybe even a better revenue maths.

Do you agree ?

Building a brand’s buzz through conversations

Baat karne se baat banti hai !

In today’s connected world, conversations are the key for a brand’s buzz . Its no longer sufficient for brands to just advertise, and inform about their awesome products and services. They need to do way more. Brands today need  a better way to engage with their end customers. To build a better connect – one conversation at a time.

Interestingly, a lot has changed about the very nature of these brand-centric conversations. With growing digital channel adoption, consumer discussions are now getting captured on blogs/forums/review portals and easy to track. Add to this the exponential growth in social media and internet-on-mobile (more people share within the first 5 mins of their experience) .

While most conversations are still happening in a way where its difficult to track or measure them, brands now do understand the critical aspect of tracking/managing these conversations.

As marketers we need to ask ourselves these 6 questions about brand-related conversations –

conversationsLife cycle of a Conversation

Conversations have a natural life – their impact decays over time.  Once a conversation is started, it might grow (if it catches the customer fancy) or as in many cases, die immediately after birth. Even the ones, which spread and create a lot of buzz, finally start seeing a decay- when fewer customers want to join in or spread the word.

Hence, brands need to

  • Start new conversations every now and then
  • Find fresh themes/content/ads are needed which keep the consumers engaged
  • Evaluate the relevance of a message in its immediate context
  • Identify what resonates with the target audience , thereby leading to longer life cycle of the message

Whats been said in the conversations

This parameter, though important, suffers from the fact that we are not able to track most of the conversations – the ones that happen in real world.

Consumers tend to write and talk more about their negative experiences about a brand, rather that the moments when the brand came close to wowing them. Its probable that slightly positive experiences do not motivate the customers to overcome the hurdle of writing/sharing. E.g. a friend of mine had a great experience at the Carnation Service Center in Noida. Though I have heard him refer to that incident twice, I guess he was not motivated enough to go online and talk about it.

Now that the data-bias is known, if we focus only on digital conversations, brands today have a whole suite of listening products available, which tell them about the location/communities/products that are creating the buzz.  Many brands also spend a lot of effort in seeding these conversations- they might call them viral campaigns, paid-bloggers or social media enthusiasts – these efforts help the brand build more dialogues around their chosen positioning.

How many are talking about it

The brand’s buzz should help increase reach apart from the recall-value. A good indicator is to measure how many people are talking about the brand.

Please note that this parameter needs to be seen in two ways

  • How many individual conversations are happening – do more people trigger/initiate a conversation? An engaged customer is more likely to trigger a conversation. So higher the number of concurrent new conversations, deeper is the engagement. Its also a function of what kind of catalyst the brand provides. We have seen how Apple Launches get covered/re-covered in every media, how Amul keeps coming up with interesting takes on current affairs, to spark new conversations.
  • How many participants are there, for each conversation – is it popular, going viral ? We are past the time of – “Forward this to 20 people to get xxxxxxx” kind of gimmicks. In today’s world, a message needs to resonate with the individual, for it to be shared further.

But as we identified above, most consumers do not end up talking about the brand. Call it inertia or lack-of-incentives, most brands are unable to get their happy customers to become a brand-ambassador.

Who is talking

Who initiated the conversation, was it the brand, or the paid-blogger or was it a genuine customer?

Even if it was a genuine customer, is this customer a fan-boy/girl, is she been with the brand for a long time? Does she hold a significant equity in her community about the industry that the brand represents.E.g. I have noticed that celebrity endorsements work really well in sports, but would it be as powerful if Sachin Tendulkar tells us that he prefers a Rolex over a Tissot.

Who is listening

This one is slightly tricky. Many would question the need to have this, once we have already identified who is talking. But if we add the “platform” or the “conversation-setting” angle to this, we get a clear context of what impact a certain conversation would have on its audience.

A negative review on the Official Facebook page with 100K fans, means that it has the potential to fireball, simply if many more raise their hands saying they too had a similar issue. And most brands have teams/solutions to manage this.

On the other hand, a person referring to a brand in her stream is probably not even noticed by the brand’s service/social-media teams. But it has been found that negative or positive reviews shared with friends are decision-changers. McKinsey reports have claimed that across all the stages of a customer’s decision cycle, referrals play the most significant role. If thats really the case, brands should focus on getting happy customers to talk about them to their individual friends.

Looking at both the speaker and the listener, we could have the following scenarios :

  1. Brand talking about itself – ads
  2. Customer talking about a brand – Testimonials/Celebrity endorsements/Reviews/Ratings
  3. “Real” Customer talking from her own experience – Customer’s Social Updates

I would assume that while brands have Pt 1 covered amazingly well, and Pt 2 reasonably ok, most of them still are struggling with Pt 3. And this is the real opportunity that we have in the world of Facebook and Twitter.

What does it lead to

At the very minimal, a conversation helps re-inforce the brand and at the extreme maybe cause an impulse switch. A smart marketer would build/manage conversations which lead to some increased commitment by the customers, and hopefully a commitment that they wear proudly.

rBus wants to bring affordable happy commutes to our cities

Meet Siddharth aka svs. A guy who loves to code. A graduate from IIM B who didn’t quite enjoy the Investment Banking world. A music lover who built a core-banking system equivalent for MFIs- as an open source. An idea, which aspires to make city dwellers stay happy after those tough daily commutes-rBus. You can email him at svs@svs.io

ValueMax: Tell us a little about RBus

svs: Commuting in India, for the most part, is really painful. Either it is expensive, or it is terribly uncomfortable. rBus intends to use modern technology to provide you with a guaranteed seat on a point-to-point bus from your home to your office and back, while being able to accommodate changes in time of travel from day to day.

ValueMax: How come you moved from Banking to IT to rBus

svs: I’ve always been madly in love with software and even in the banking world, I chose to do the geekiest work I could find, building large models and dealing essentially with software. So I guess it wasn’t surprising that I eventually wound up doing this full time. Building financial models is fun for the first few years, but it can become quite repetitive. Besides, I always felt there were bigger problems that one could solve with software. rBus is one such attempt.

ValueMax: You mean open source technology? Your previous venture was also an open source platform, right? Why this love for open source?

svs: rBus is built on a lot of open source technology, but the platform itself is not open source. Actually the web app is quite trivial (for now), but we’re hoping to implement some hardcore routing algorithms and so on. I expect most of these will be open source. With rBus, the value is not so much in the technology as in the execution. Everyone has access to cheap GPSs and Google Latitude. The question is – how many people love public transportation enough to execute this vision with a lot of care?

I love open source because of the community of people who contribute to it and I love to count myself amongst them. However, this does not mean that open source is always the best approach. Sometimes it is easier to attract people and execute the vision as a business than it is to build a strong open source community, and in these cases, it is perhaps better to adopt a commercial approach. However, the discussion is so nuanced that I’ll stop now before I am misunderstood 🙂

ValueMax: But why RBus? What drives you to solve this “problem”?

svs: Having lived in cities with decent public transportation systems, I understand the impact that this one thing can have on the lives of the citizens. Just reaching work in a relaxed and cheerful state of mind and reaching home likewise make for a productive workforce and happy families. These seem to be quite important things in my opinion.

Secondly, the private car seems to be a perfectly wasteful way of getting to and from work. Not just the waste of fuel, but of time spent in the endless traffic jams and the devoting of precious space in our cities to more roads that fill up as fast as they are built. this doesn’t seem like a good direction to go in for the long term.

Of late, the technology to build a responsive, commuter-centric shared transport infrastructure has become quite easily available. Cheap and ubiquitous GPS, smartphones, mobile ticketing technology – all of these can help us to connect the demand side of the equation (the commuters) with the supply side (commercial bus fleets).

The power of the internet to connect people so that they can solve their own problems has always fascinated me, and I would love for rBus to be a manifestation of this.

And lastly, the market for commuting is IMMENSE. It gives one the opportunity to build something truly significant and hopefully, robust, durable and something that people really love because it is simple and it solves some deeply felt problems.

ValueMax: You talk about a happy rBus experience. What aspects are you referring to and how will you manage this?

svs: The rBus promise is as follows – no waiting, no standing, flexible timings. The convenience of a car at the fraction of the price.

You choose your trip time, get an alert when the bus is approaching, walk to the bus stop, board the bus, sit on your reserved seat and reach your destination with zero stress. In my opinion, this beats any other mode of transportation. It is orders of magnitude more comfortable than the other public transport options and orders of magnitude cheaper than a chauffeur-driven car.

You will always have people for whom priorities are different. However, there are a number of things to consider here:

  •  In a population as large as Mumbai’s I am really hoping that there are enough early adopters who share the vision of rBus to adopt it even in this unproven state.
  •  Once we can demonstrate just how convenient and economical it is, we hope to attract atleast a critical mass of people on Mumbai’s main arterial routes to allow us to run a sustainable service.
  •  Once the service is self sustaining, we will start to allow ad-hoc travel, giving people the opportunity to leave their car at home for a day if they so wish.

Beyond that, the service itself will have to perform and exceed expectations.

Also, do remember that there are a number of college students that do not have their own cars. They’re just waiting for the day when they have enough money and they can stop using public transport. If we can provide them a robust experience on rBus, perhaps they will delay buying the car, or use it sparingly when they do. The young hopefully do not have the same prestige issues as their parents, and I do believe they care deeply about the environment. Hopefully.

I’m an optimist and I believe that people will ride rBus precisely because it’s way cooler! In 3 years, rBus should be the de-facto mode of reaching office for commuters in Mumbai and hopefully other cities as well.

ValueMax: People have run chartered buses for office commuters before also. What’s the tech layer that rbus provides? Can they be used by current operators to improve their services significantly?

svs: GPS tracking of all buses and mobile based ticketing are the main technological advancements. We also plan to build advanced routing algorithms (once we have enough data). Implementing the GPS tracking is quite trivial and there’s even a company called http://yourbus.in which specializes in this. However, most bus operators aren’t really tech savvy and so they haven’t implemented these.

ValueMax: Who do you target through rBus?

svs: If your commute stresses you out, wastes large amounts of time or is inordinately expensive, you should definitely try out rBus. If you own a small-medium sized business and you are fed up of your employees walking in the dorr in the morning already stressed out from just getting to work, then you should definitely support rBus.

I can segment my customers based on the mode of transport they currently use. The people who currently commute by bus/train are very price sensitive but I am hoping there are significant numbers there that can pay a bit more for a vastly improved experience.

Amongst those who use private transportation, I would love for the reluctant driver to give up his car. So far this seems the most difficult segment to convince. I think people don’t believe just how convenient the rBus can be, and there’s always a radio taxi for the exceptional circumstances. In the end, rBus is about 1/4th – 1/10th the cost of driving to work, so again I am hoping that I can attract more than a few car commuters to rBus as they take up a disproportionate amount of space on the roads.

ValueMax: Your toughest challenges right now?  Looking to expand the team?


  • Marketing
  • Pricing
  • Logistics – negotiating with bus fleet owners, ensuring quality of service, etc will be big challenges for the future.

Yes, Absolutely. I need programmers, marketing people and energetic people to supervise operations. Do get in touch (on Web – www.rbus.in or on Twitter – @_svs_ and @rbus_in). And yeah, some funding would be great too!

ValueMax: What are the learnings from the first 50-75 days of rBus?

svs: Over the last few weeks I have been validating my assumptions by using BEST buses for my own commuting needs. I found out that the bus is not slow at all, once you get on it. It is getting on the bus that really hurts.

One is never really sure about anything – when the bus will come, how full will it be, etc. I also found that the bus is quite comfortable, if you can get a seat. So I think my main offerings of “no waiting and guaranteed seating” are the correct product features to offer. However, rBus not being subsidized  by the government makes it significantly more expensive than the BEST bus and so it’s been a challenge convincing people that these features are worth paying so much for. I hope to convince many more people once they see the first rBus running.