The real problem that Google solves, is the problem of availability. When you have a problem and are searching for the solution, Google provides you with a list of most likely content that can address the problem. The problem is created by information asymmetry. You just don’t know and are willing to try out or read about the different solutions.
However, over a period of time this has turned into a problem of plenty. So many content providers are creating content for the average internet user, that the options tend to give all the creators a sliver of traffic. This has led to a bulk of copy-cats and me-too content providers eyeing for their search visibility. So much so that one of the default rules of inbound marketing is to start a content creation cycle and hope that you keep attracting traffic via Search.
What can new brands do?
Stay away from the whole attack of the clones! All marketers would swear on grabbing the attention of the customer as many times as possible in order to drive a higher brand share. However, at the cost of what?
Instead of creating very similar content? How about solving things that matter instead?
How about identifying a niche area where there is a genuine need and people are struggling to find answers?
This might seem contradictory to what I was saying, but once a brand (or a team) starts engaging with the customers, then you start seeing a slew of issues that no content provider is addressing. Talking about these issues and solving them via your product or service is a far better way to get discovered, rather than to keep talking about how your me-too offering is different from the competitor’s me-too offering!
Engage with customers to discover what message and positioning you need to take when it comes to working in a crowded market.
In case, if you haven’t really been following my blog, I generally tend to write about tech, games, some personal thoughts, some thoughts about my work at 13 Llama and some analytics.
What I do not write about is Design … be it any design. Systems design, Visual Design, Brand Design … even solutions design. I know for certain that I have a certain unhealthy fear of engaging with the design. So much so that it has now become a mental barrier in my head. Staying away from creativity isn’t necessarily bad since we do a lot of analytical and logical work. Having said that, breaking down problems into smaller bite-sized tasks is now a child’s play and there has become a comfort zone. So much so, that over the past few months I had started to think that we should focus on driving more business in these areas.
What does one do when one doesn’t have an option?
Of late though, some of the mandates we have been getting involved us having to work with and also having to define the design specifications. Some of our new team members were pretty gung-ho about working on design specifications instead of a pure play numbers game.
To add to that, at pretty much the same time, we had a couple of our main clients request that we get involved at a higher level and help guide the marketing briefs.
We could have chosen to keep focused on the analytics niche and not step up to the mantle. However, we decided to step out of our comfort zone and things have been taking an interesting turn.
Stepping out of comfort zones
This often involves stepping into a chaotic situation, spending some time taking stock and then working on multiple fronts and more often than not in an iterative manner. From an engagement point of view, it takes a special sort of client to work with. An organization which understands that is an organization that is also in a sense working out of its comfort zone.
This also means that the team which is actively engaged in stepping out of its comfort zone is very very focused on the purpose at hand.
Instead of worrying about things such as appraisals, office times, leaves and petty office politics, the team is then focused on doing what it takes to get the job done. The line of comfort just disappears and shit gets done.
Organizations and comfort zones
For a lot of organizations, functional teams end up becoming comfort zones. An example of this is when there are functional silos in a firm and cross-functional exchanges do not happen as smoothly as expected. This is when both the functions engaging are not stepping out of their zone of comfort. Unfortunately, we have all experienced the adverse effects when customer-facing teams do not step out of their comfort zone.
This severely impacts their ability and sometimes even the intent to engage. Symptoms of this condition are cases where the customer-facing teams cite company policies, or often play the victim, or end up misinforming or lying to the customer. This builds a trust deficit within and without the system.
What can organizations do?
Foster a culture of experimentation and over-delivering value. Sometimes force teams to work outside the zone of comfort. Align teams to the grandiose scheme of things and how their mundane job is, in fact, a purpose-centric activity and not a functional silo.
As a concluding note, assuming people are willing to often step out of their comfort zones is such a positive mindset that the rewards of the mindset alone are worth the efforts of stretching one’s boundaries. Over the past few months, I have seen my fledgling teamwork outside their comfort zones, get over their initial mental barriers and come out for the better. The decision to step out of my own comfort zones has been definitely worth it!
This is a narrative to highlight how we somehow miss the element of human engagement in our day to day interactions. In an economy such as India, where 56% of GDP comes from services – missing human engagement seems like a big concern for me.
In the month of December 2016, my parents and I decided to go to Gwalior. The reason was to attend a friend’s wedding. I figured that we would get some time to look around the city – as well as some time off from work. I did not wish to travel via train (since its a 20 hour journey). Thankfully we had enough time to plan ahead, so we bought tickets off Cleartrip.com (this being one of my favored sites purchase travel tickets – both air and rail).
Flash forward to December 9th, the date of the flight. We huddled up to the T2 terminal in early morning – hoping to reach Gwalior just before lunch. It’s not as if we had planned this in detail – it’s just that there is just one flight that goes from Mumbai to Gwalior. That flight being an Air India one, and that too once a day. So much for choice!
1 hour before the flight, we are checked-in and sitting at the boarding gate. Most of the other passengers have started showing up. My initial suspicion of this flight being empty are quickly put to rest as I count around 50 odd passengers at our boarding gate. Just then, Air India announces that the flight might get delayed by an hour or so – since there is fog at the Gwalior airport. Some folks have started grumbling, and the elderly lady sitting next to me is concerned that she may not reach the hospital in time.
An hour later, the flight is promptly announced cancelled and the hapless attendant at the boarding gate points the irritated passengers towards the Air India desk. Fortunately, I am quickly able to figure out the next steps in flight cancellation and I was able to get the entire PNR of both the flights cancelled (since it was a round trip – this was done de-facto by Air India when they cancelled my onwards journey!).
At this juncture, I realize that reaching by flight is impossible for my parents. I could have gone via Delhi or via Bhopal, unfortunately Air India was not willing to transfer my ticket to another firm’s flight and wanted me to wait for their next empty flight. Somewhere, the Air India helpdesk just stopped being customer friendly (who wouldn’t when faced with 50 angry customers all shouting for alternative flights), and started quoting the policies.
Cancellations and refund
Having my flight cancelled, I got on a call with Cleartrip.com and confirmed the refund amount we would be getting. So for spending roughly 35k for the tickets and wasting so much time, we would be getting most of that amount back. The attendant was super friendly and seemed to grasp the situation – he promptly had an Air India customer care operator on conference call and asked for the full refund. This process amongst the chaos took 5 hours or so. The customer care operator from Air India – Manoj, seemed diffident at first, however he agreed that I would be refunded in full when he learnt that it was a single PNR. The Cleartripper must have been trained for such situations – so he verified this twice on the call. Then he assured me of the refund and asked me to return back home and proceeded to cancel the tickets. We reached home in the evening, having deemed that some time and money had lost and we would be missing my friend’s wedding (sorry Jay!).
After the customary vows of not using Air India ever, and praising Cleartrip for their super awesome service, I went on with life. I was informed by Cleartrip that this refund would be processed in 25 odd days – since I did not have an endorsement copy ready.
Since, I did not have this aforementioned endorsement copy, I replied back stating that I’d rather wait for Cleartrip to do the same for me.
The Engagement Gap
Now, starts the real story. On the 5th Jan (almost a month after the flight was scheduled), I receive this email from Cleartrip.com.
I remember a cold dread going through this email. Fortunately, I remember that there was a recorded conversation between the three parties (Cleartrip, Air India and I) – where the Air India operator had confirmed and mentioned on record that the refund would be processed in full. So how can they go back on their word?
I picked up the phone and spoke to a Cleartripper about the same. The Cleartripper took some time understanding the issue, went and verified that such a conversation existed, and then asked me about the endorsement copy. I do not know how this looks like so I asked them to arrange it at their side (they claimed they could take care of this, however, it would take their 20-25 more days).
At this juncture, I trusted Cleartrip and said that the wait would be fine (since I have already waited month, another 20 days may not matter).
The Engagement Gap widens
On the 14th of Jan, I receive this email –
This is where I lost all hope of getting any money back. A cool 30k down the drain. Thankfully, it was a Saturday – and I had some free time on my hands to get into the heart of the matter.
I got onto a call with Cleartrip and 15 minutes later had explained the matter to one more Cleartripper (so now at least 3 of them know about my issue). In classic textbook style script, she proceeds to assure me that they will look into it and will get back to me in some time.
This is where I lost all trust that Cleartrip would indeed solve the problem. Please note, I am not bitching about Cleartrip or Air India – at least not yet! So, I decided to push for a turn around time. I was informed that the concerned person would contact me in an hour’s time.
An hour and a half later, I call Cleartrip to follow-up. A separate person this time, another round of explanations go and this chap also placates, re-assures and promises to get back. I refuse to hang-up, and call him on this point that everyone promises to get back – but no one does. At this juncture, the fine chap that he is informs me that it would be simpler if I had the endorsement copy in place.
Wait, what? So I waited 35 days for Cleartrip to get something which I am not supposed to get. Why did they not say the same in the first place? Why offer to do this if they do not really engage with the problem.
Look who’s talking!
At this point, I realized that screaming or ranting this won’t solve my problem. If I do not chose to do something about this state of issues, then my money is most certainly lost. Grumbling obscenities with Air India, I head on to T2.
I reach Air India’s office and explain that I need an endorsement copy for the flight number. The officer asks me the PNR number which I provide. She looks at the date for a minute and goes to the senior officer. He proceeds to process this (while handling 2-3 other emergencies), he asks me why did I not get this on the day of the flight itself. I narrate the entire incident to him and he gives me the copy in 10 minutes flat. My impression of Air India stands changed.
While this was happening, the Cleartripper (the last one) calls me and suggests me to get the endorsement copy to process the refunds. I email him the required photographs of the copy and there ends the matter.
As I was typing this post, I thought it might make sense to double check with Cleartrip. True enough, they haven’t yet received the endorsement copy from me. It seems that their CRM (which is Salesforce) is not configured to receive attachment to replies, and expects me to send a separate mail (not as part of the mail chain) to them. I send this, and receive acknowledgement of this. I have been told to wait for 2 days on this for any further update. There is a trust deficit in my mind when I talk about Cleartrip … a site which I have been using for around a decade now.
So who is not engaging here?
I don’t know! Is it Cleartrip or was it Air India that f**ked up?
Or was it me who simply did not chase these matters?
Does it have to be this hard? In this mess of exchanges, there were so many opportunities for one human to go the additional distance and close the gaps.
Air India could have given the endorsement copies the minute the cancellation was announced.
Cleartrip could have fetched this themselves and not kept buying time
I could have chased after both Air India and Cleartrip and addressed this matter. I certainly plan to do so now.
The Engagement Glue
If I have not lost you by now, most certainly you are piqued by what I mean by The Engagement Glue.
There are 4 basic interchanges happening here –
Purchasing the ticket on Cleartrip. I think they have nailed this experience.
The actual flight. Air India could not help here, the Gwalior airport is controlled by the army base and it shuts down operations after 3pm. The fog was a natural act, and could not be helped.
The cancellation process. This is where a clear engagement failure happened. Air India officials should feel more concerned about the emotions that a passenger goes through, and not cite policy.
The refund process. Another engagement failure, Cleartrippers should look further than providing text book responses. The user should also actively track this (I am the user), it’s his money after all!
In the last two points, there was a need to bridge the engagement gap with some understanding. With some Engagement glue. Human empathy could have been that glue.
At the end of this fiasco (when it ends!), all I want to say is that the trust with which I used to operate is lost and that could have been saved simply by being a bit more human-centric.
I see this in a lot of services, the great service providers go that bit extra and ensure that everyone around them feel customer delight.
The damn thing doesn’t end here!
26th January 2017. This addendum after 10 days.
After waiting for Cleartrip to respond, I called their Customer Care team up. It seems that their representative had forwarded the matter to the wrong team! I am being told to wait for 2-3 days more, guess I will keep this updated and see what comes of it.
As the year whittles down to a close, I’d like to look back towards both the highs and the lows of this year. Hopefully, I can then celebrate more such highs and try not to repeat the mistakes of the past year. Of course, it’d be great to bury all the proverbial hatchets and move on – perhaps this post (or if not this) is just that! Continue reading “2016 – A Year in Review”→
Have been staying away from posting these days. This is not going to be a post on what should have been or what could have been. The past couple of months have been the hardest to tackle, on the professional front. Continue reading “After the Dust settles”→
Every entrepreneur dreams of creating something scalable. Leaving behind a legacy which people look back in wonder and say … how did they achieve this.
What do we mean by Scale?
Scale could mean multiple things for different people. The CFO would look at scale and say more profits, the Head BD would say more clients, the Head Sales would say more revenues, the Founder would say more valuation, the HR would say more people!
At 13 Llama Studio, when we started the firm, it was just three people and we literally started in a garage. For us scale means all those terms combined, and in the past two years we have trebled our team, our sales and our clients.
I would not say that we have scaled up so far. In the past two years, we have faced a fair bit of challenges. I am pretty certain that most start-ups go through this issues, and only the ones who are able to solve these are able to become larger entities.