The Apprentice

OK, so it’s a guilty secret, I watch the Apprentice.

Once upon a time a TV programme would have been broadcast, it would last the hour and then be over. Newspaper comment and water-cooler discussions would follow the next day. Today the show is bigger than just the broadcast hour; it has a digital life that goes beyond the TV medium. It’s more than just a website that is hosted by the BBC. Viewers participate in the the ‘back channel’ so as you are watching the show you are not alone in your emotions. Following the Twitter hash tag provides a running commentary of how the audience is reacting. Some shows extend their reach with the fictional characters themselves engaging in the dialogue. What Twitter starts with its immediacy, Facebook continues with the audience setting up groups. And so we have Stuart Baggs on the Apprentice, a clone of David Brent, treading on twitter and now spawning dozens of Facebook groups and pages (as I write 3228 people like “Stuart Baggs from The Apprentice is a **** not a Brand”). And let’s not forget the forums and blogs where comment and discussion on the programme thrives.

The apprentice experience is more than just the it’s packaging and content. What about your product?

Anyway. So last night the final five in the Apprentice were interviewed, with Viglen’s CEO Bordan Tkachuk being one of the interviewers. He cornered Stuart Baggs about claims he runs a telco. “Stuart you’re blagging to me. I know what an ISP is. It’s an Internet Service Protocol.” An Internet what? The CEO of a company that “has developed a peerless reputation for excellence in IT innovation, delivery and service” doesn’t know what ISP stands for?!

It got worse. Later in the boardroom Sugar was grilling him about Stuart’s credentials. Smugly Tkachuk declared that Baggs “says he has a telecoms licence on the Isle of Man… What he had was just a very simple broadcom licence.”  A what? Broadcom Licence?  WTF is that?

So here we have the CEO of an IT company who doesn’t speak the most basic IT language with any fluency. My takeaway from this is, no matter who they are in an organisation, never assume that the client you are working with knows everything.  And never assume that they know what you are talking about either. Make sure you speak a common language by asking for clarity and explanation; there’s no such thing as a stupid question.  Alternatively, “Tkachuk.  You’re fired!”

How can I trust you if I don’t understand what you are saying?

Innocent are a great brand.  They’ve got a great product, but they also know how to connect with their customers.  From the packaging and beyond they come across as natural and friendly.  Watching this video by the founders of Innocent is five minutes well spent on how they do this; how they use natural language.

“A lot of businesses don’t speak the way they talk.  They speak the way they think a business should speak.  They start using language that isn’t real language, that isn’t language you’d talk to your friends or your family.  So our thing is don’t use any claptrap that you wouldn’t use to explain to your grandma what Innocent is as a business.  If she doesn’t get it, then why should somebody else get it?  Why should someone else have to wade through your layers of jargon and corporate waffle.  Just use the words that you are comfortable with…”

Friendships exist within companies, they exist outside companies.  Friendships are about speaking a shared language with a simple vocabulary.

Organisations strive to be friendly; they try to be social, open, transparent and service driven with employees and customers (look at your average mission statement to see how companies crave to be those things).  Yet beyond this vaneer they hide behind a language that your friends (who are not part of that corporate vacuum), your family, your granny would be clueless about. Innocent prove that you can build a successful business thinking and acting as friends rather than as the faceless corporate-speak bureaucrat.

Follow fast

I’ll pick on a random industry. Let’s say you are an airline. Part of your digital strategy includes a refresh to your website (maybe you were inspired by this presentation I did a while ago on digital for airlines!). You’ve built a business case and secured funding for the project.  First things first, you get a design agency in and set them to work.

Some sort of competitor analysis is performed that proabably includes features and functions that “we like”, (for example ‘the tactile sliders in We like!  And an iPhone-like coverflow, got to have one of those…)

The information architect takes these ideas away and starts building wireframes and the creative team produce designs that bring these wires to life.  The team come up with lots of new, innovative ideas.  This is after all a ‘refresh’, and ‘innovation’ was probably one of the words in the brief.  The creative is fresh and ‘of the moment’, the IA has developed some new interaction models that are unique and compelling.  The business is sold on a new, innovative way of interacting with their customers, something that no one else does and will blow all their competitors away.

I’ve been bouncing ideas around with Luke Barrett (and because he doesn’t blog, I’ll write them down for him) around this approach; specifically the value of innovation against ‘follow fast’.

Luke reminded me of a project we worked on together many years ago. Before we started designing webpages we did usability testing. We did usability testing of the competitors, and of sites that were getting a lot of press as ‘innovative’.  This was at a time that had just started and the client were talking about how cool an avatar would be on their site, just like boo. We put people in front of and watched them suffer. Clearly the avatar was an idea good on paper, terrible on execution.  So we killed it.  Not on our site.

We observed what worked and what didn’t on a multitude of sites with real users. Then, like magpies, we took what was good and worked. Nothing particularly innovative, (let other people do that), we took the best of what existed and delivered on that.

So back to our airline. How about a different approach where they start by usability testing their competitors. Ask participants to book tickets on competitor websites. Understand what interaction elements work, what don’t.

Those kayak sliders, cool for geeks (maybe), but how about the target audience that flies and buys online with you?  It may not be cutting edge design, but Does a drop down work better?

The coverflow may be cool on your iPhone, but how successful is it for people seeking a holiday?  A static list has worked for websites till now (and it wasn’t so long ago that horizontal scrolling was the Great Taboo), just because Apple do something that looks cool for a particular purpose on their products, doesn’t mean you have to follow by scrapping your navigation.

There are no prizies for (design) innovation (other than for some award that the design agency may covet). The only metric that counts is conversion rates and the ability of the website to deliver the business case. Leave others to do the crazy innovation stuff, let others go through the dip when they launch new features, make sure you have got the platform and expertise right and be ready to follow fast.

Pillars of a compelling experience

Pillars of a compelling experience

This is a model I often see in organisations when it comes to their web presence.  A product owner comes up with a commercial proposition, marketing work up the content, IT build the functionality and it is goes live.  With this model, no-one actually owns the customer experience.

Worse, this little temple model is repeated across different commercial propositions so you end up with something that is not very joined up.  I’ve blogged about this lack of joined up thinking before.

Now let’s construct a model where the roof of the temple is a compelling customer experience.

What are the ingredients of this new temple model?  It is still going to be founded upon commercial propositions, but they are going to be overlaid by a culture of test and learn.  That is a willingness and ability to experiment; to realise that what you have developed is never final and is always evolving.  It is about taking the learnings of experiments to inform and improve the experience, or to rapidly refine or kill propositions that just do not work.

Then we have the five pillars.  I describe these in a paper I wrote ages back (pdf here, google books here).

Unfortunately these pillars tend to sit within organisational silos; content and personality are ‘owned’ by  marketing, functionality by IT, and operational excellence (that’s all about fulfilling on the customer promise and beyond) is a mixture of IT and operations.  Usability is a ‘funny one’ in that might sit alone, sit in marketing or sit in IT.  But ultimately it is best placed to direct the horizonal filter of Quality Control.  Quality control is not an additional layer of bureaucracy, rather a cultural component that all the pillars feed into.  It is about ensuring consistency and meaningfulness of the experience.  It is about balancing the commercial needs of the product, with the marketing needs of the message and the delivery capability of IT.

Photo credit: K. Dafalias

Personal branding is more than stoking your ego

It is easy to knock social media and building a prescence and profile on the web as little more than stoking the ego.  “I’ve got more Twitter followers than you”, “I’ve got more facebook friends, more subscribers to my blog, more linkedin contacts…”  But there is more to it than that.  The way you use social media should be about building you as a brand.

Take a look at David Armano’s excellent presentation on Brand U.0.  Celebrities have brand, and with that comes influence.  Similalry people like you or me who develop their brand start to have influence.  And that influence gets you places.  At ThoughtWorks we are recruiting for a new Information Architect role.  Rather than describing the role in terms of skills and competencies, the starting point has been ‘we need a person “like that”‘, pointing to to both particular people within ThoughtWorks, and also on the broader web, looking at LinkedIn profiles, blogs etc.  If you have a brand you have already made yourself stand out.  In these challenging times your profile is not about your ego, it is about your future.

What’s your social strategy?

Last year Twitter grew by an incredible 752%. That is something too large to ignore. It’s not just individuals who are twittering, corporates are getting in on the act. But do they think before taking the plunge?

The tools for getting a social presence on the web are easy. Twitter is free, there’s little effort to setting up a blog, it is simple to plug in reviews and ratings with BazaarVoice. But with the tools comes commitment; you need to start listening and have a strategy for responding.


You can start listening by setting up Google News Alerts. You will be alerted whenever someone is talking about you (or your competitors, or anyone or anything you like). It can deliver alerts as a digest or as they happen. This gives you a fundamental tool to find out who is talking about you and where they are doing it.


Knowing people are talking about you is one thing, knowing what to do about it is another. Making a decision to start engaging in social media is the right thing to do, but with that decision comes responsibilities. This is where having a clearly thought-out strategy is essential.

The strategy starts with a role, someone responsible for the conversation. Jeremiah Owyang lists a number of oganisations who have a dedicated role for social computing and community management – Dell has a VP Communities & Conversations. This is not a PR role, it is not something that will have messages crafted by committee with formal sign-off before speaking. It is about having an authentic voice, speaking with honesty and personality. Using Twitter to broadcast your traditional press releases is more likely to alienate than win you friends and lovers (you want people to love your brand right?).

Your customers want to help

“But why?” is a question I’ve often heard asked when talking about social media. “Why would anyone want to comment, or write advice, or be bothered to ‘get social’ with us?” Good experiences and (especially) bad experiences bring out the passion in people. And then there are the people who just like to have their voice heard. There’s an often used ratio, 1:9:90 – for every one regular contributer there are 9 occasional contributers (commenter’s) and 90 ‘lurkers’ – see Jakob Neilsen’s post on this.

Even if they don’t engage in the conversation themselves, most people listen to the contributer – it is (usually) an authentic voice, and that authenticity is priceless. Word of mouth is more valuable than any advertising, it is by far the most trusted source for purchase ideas and information (funny how so many organisations when they ask that question, “how did you hear about us, they list their channels- TV, Radio, Press, but often leave out recommendation from a friend, or heard about you from an acquaintances, or even “I just know you”). The challenge is to harness the conversation that others are having and where appropriate engage in it in a natural and honest way.

Rather than questioning why someone wants to talk about your brand, or offer support to the community on your products for free, build a relationship with that person. They will feel all the better for being listened to. Invite them to customer panels, tell them about your ideas, and let them generate buzz about your product.

Some listening anecdotes

Here are three brief anecdotes of organisations who have started by listening and then engaged in conversation. To be contrasted with doing it the other way round.

A client we’ve been working with had been ignoring the conversation in technical forums. There was a wealth of discussion about issues with their hardware, fixes and work-arounds. Much of the comment, whilst positive about the brand overall, was negative about certain aspects of the product and customer service. They took the plunge and engaged in the conversation. A regular poster who was being particularly vocal (and getting a lot of response) was directly connected. His issue was simply addressed. He then posted to the forum how he had been listened to, and the negative experience was transformed into a positive experience. Inviting him to customer panels makes him feel even more valued.

A while back I posted about a negative experience with Norwich Union. I blogged about the experience – a few days later I had a comment from their Head of Customer Experience. I was listened to. NU had a face, we spoke and I will now sing the praises of Norwich Union (I’m still a customer). I’ve forgotten what the problem I has was all about.

Another blog was about a poor experience with the Fedex website. Their Application Development Team left a comment thanking me for the feedback, again I was listened to. This has erased the memory of the bad experience I had.

Speaking, not listening

I don’t know anything about internal operations, but my experience suggests the following. Someone suggested they get a Twitter account and they started tweeting. Only their tweets were for PR messages. They were not ready for inbound Tweets from customers about them.

I heard about from a friend as a good site to get a home insurance quote from. I tried it and had a far from satisfactory experience. I persevered (because of the personal recommendations) but after a bunch of techinical problems with the site I gave up.

I then actively sought out on Twitter, my thinking if they have an account I can give them my feedback direct (I am one of the 1 of the 1:9:90 who so many business people don’t understand. I also have almost 17 years of usability experience behind me which I would be happy to share with them – as a customer, not professionally). So I did a search for on Twitter and found them. I was pleased to see they had an account and wrote a tweet to @confused_com. But it seems twitter was just a mouth piece for their PR and all I was greeted with was silence. I heard nothing back.

I returned back to their website a few days later and tried again to get a quote, this time I had an even worse experience, the site failed to return any results to me. Again, I Twittered about it. I was creating some negative feedback, and feeling doubly annoyed. Not only was I having a crappy experience but they weren’t listening to me on a channel I expect to be heard. Now I am a small fish in the big ocean and easily ignored, but look at Motrin and you can see the consequences of not engaging in the Twitter conversation.

To their credit, have recently sent me a private message on Twitter informing me they are going to start “more interactive twittering soon”. I look forward to that. If there is a lesson in this it is when getting onto Twitter you have to be ready to engage in the conversation that is likely to ensue.  Have a strategy before playing with the tools.

A pat on the back

Listening to your customers is not just about understanding how you can improve, it should also be about recognising when you do good. Especially if you are a people business, do you have a mechanism for enabling your customers to thank a member of your staff for outstanding service?

In your IVR do you have an option at the end of the call to let the customer give positive feedback on the representative who handled the call?

How about on your website? Do you have a form like British Airways does to enable a customer to simply “thank a staff member“? And if you do, do you have the process to ensure that the staff member will learn of the feedback, that it will feature in their review process and will be recognised for being what your brand should be all about, delighting your customers?

Why you should care about twitter

Motrin, a US healthcare company put on their home page a large video advert with the basic premise that mothers who carry their babies are likely to get back ache and their pain killers are right for the job. Nothing wrong with that, however the message was ill-judged “Wearing your baby seems to be in fashion…” going on to “supposedly it’s a real bonding experience”. Oh dear. That ‘s the sort of language that stokes the fire of mothers. There once was a time that they would have complained to each other at the NCT meeting (or whatever the US equivalent is), more recently a few might have blogged about it. But there is overhead in setting up a blog, and you need to think about what you write. Not so for Twitter. Twitter is low cost of entry, instant gossip.

Over the weekend Twitter has been buzzing with mums complaining about Motrin and their ad at #motrinmums. Look at the stats. From nothing to hundreds of negative sentiments in a matter of hours. Over a weekend.

(From Twitscoop)

It will be interesting to see how long before the ad is pulled. Will one person take responsibility, make the right decision (and do the right thing and apologize), or will it be a decision by committee and ultimately hurt the brand?

I started with the title “why you should care about Twitter”. Not so long ago I would talk to people about blogging and its importance to the enterprise and was told it was not relevant to that persons organisation. I’m surprised at how many CxOs I talk with today either don’t know what Twitter is or don’t seem to care. This is a good wake-up call. (Oh, and I picked this story up on Twitter via Jerimiah).

What is it that makes your product distinctive?

In the recent copy of the Hong Kong British Chamber of Commerce magazine there is an interview with Fergal Murray, the Master Brewer for Guinness. He is asked “what do you think it is that makes Guinness so distinctive?” He replies,

I think there are a number of elements. From the brewers point of view, we want you to have a great all round experience. We don’t just want you to have a beer that’s refreshing, we want you to have an experience, to go through the ritual and theatre of emptying that glass. We want there to be a visual impact as well, it has to look fantastic. Finally, there’s a lot of flavour…

And you thought you were buying a pint of the Black Stuff because it was refreshing and tastes good. Yet for the Master Brewer these are bottom of the pile. Most important is the experience.

This is something that is missing in much software development. There are very few master brewers who go beyond just satisfying their customers with features and functionality, to focus upon delivering “a great all round experience”. To turn the mediocre and mundane into theatre. Like Apple have done with the iPhone. Like Guinness do with their stout. Yet something gets lost as you move away from the strategic owners of the Brand, to those responsible for tactical implementations. And this loss can obviously be costly. If the Guinness Master Brewer was only responsible for a drink that is an acquired taste, would it still be the sixth top ranked global Beer brand?

Bag of risk

I’ve only thought of blogging about Lois Vuitton once before and that was on how they positively encourage queueing outside their stores during busy periods. It’s a pretty strong brand that can tell its customer to hang about before being allowed to come in and shop.

This time I’m not blogging about them in a positive light, and nor are many others. Jeremiah Owyang describes the situation they are in well. Their brand has been hijacked by Nadia Plesner, an artist trying to raise awareness about Darfur and how the media considers Paris Hilton with her “designer bags and ugly dogs” to be more worthy of attention than genocide in Darfur. She uses an image of a LV bag in her T-shirts. LV take offence and sue, she refuses to budge and suddenly the image, the issue and LV all hit the spot-light. And in this David and Goliath contest, who is going to come out worst? There can only be one looser.

So why didn’t LV just ignore it, or even as Jeremiah suggests, harness the issue, turn it into a conversation that would paint them in a good light? I’ll argue that it is because they don’t understand risk.

There was always a risk to the brand be de-valued by being associated by asociation with Dafur. And this is what the marketing and legal team jumped on with such zeal. Did no-one think about the risk to the brand of turning this into the issue it has become on the web? Laying out the options and doing a risk analysis would have been a worthy exercise.

Option 1. Assess the global impact of nadia plesner, assume it is minimal and do nothing. Risk to brand: minimal.

Option 2. Follow standard route of brand defamation and sue. Ignore association with ‘good cause’, ignore blogosphere. Risk to brand: potentially significant.

Sadly, it seems that LV ignored the whole concept of risk and went with the default option – sue. They are not alone in failing to assess the risks properly before pursuing a course of action. In IT this approach is endemic. Where is the greater risk? Placing all your eggs in one basket, investing heavily in a desired outcome that will be many months before it sees the light of day. Or take a more gradual approach, investing ‘just enough’ to get ‘just enough’, ‘just in time’. The latter approach is lean and agile. A good agile project is a lesson in risk management, building resillience into the process and testing options as you go. It is organic and evolutionary, (rather like nature), as opposed to the plan and control approach of waterfall which is brittle and will struggle to react to or accommodate risk appropriately. I should write more but there is a day’s work ahead.

1 of 2