Lotus flowers in the East

It appears Lotus are moving the production of their, as yet unrevealed, Espirit replacement to the Proton plant in Malaysia. It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of the Lotus Elise, having test-driven one (an early series one example) from Motorway Sports a couple of years ago. Fortunately the Elise, buoyed by the success of their 'federalised' Toyota engine, is to remain a Norfolk built car. In fact, the plant at Hethel will expand to cope with demand and it is, in part, a result of this that there is no more room to include their new project. Undoubtebly the replacement will be designed and developed on the track and roads around Hethel and, in essence, it will be born of British DNA, even if it was reared in infancy in the far East. I guess we have to be pragmatic and say that the Eastern economies are better placed to produce this car in a lean, efficient way that will ensure the model provides as much value for money as it can. However it is with some regret that we find we are unable, in this country, to provide a home for higher-volume motor manufacturing - even though we do the extreme stuff with celebrated professionalism (Mclaren, Aston Martin, Rolls Royce ... variously designed, engineered and hand crafted in Britain).

For my part, the dream of owning a 111R inches closer day by day and I'm quite sure that, whilst I jealously survey the pristine Type 25 example parked on my walk-home along Neptune Quay in Ipswich each evening, my time will come to enjoy the roads of East Anglia at the wheel of one of its most famous products.



Keep meaning to post this ... next door to the chaps at Creative Sponge is a fantastic little cafe called Cafe Mu. Been going there since late winter for takeaway Americanos on my walk to work, great personal service, exceptional coffee. Recomend it to everyone in Norwich. There, job done.

* - it's part of the complex around the Museum of Contemporary Art by the way...

Loyalty = Growth doesn't it?

Loyalty = Growth, doesn't it?

Reichheld and his chums in the HBS press espouse the role of loyalty and, more specifically, evangelical referrals as key indicators for growth. I loved this idea, I still do, but I'm beginning to worry that it's not all it's cracked up to be.

To start with, I can see the benefit of a two question satisfaction survey ("Was your experience with us ... exceptional, good, ok, poor, very poor" & "Would you recommend us to others") in terms of the likelihood of faster and more abundant responses but struggle to see the raw benefit of a one-question survey (focusing on referral). My problem is that both of these don't produce anything usable. It produces a headline on the customer's experience but the provides nothing to identify what the problems, solutions or potential innovations are. It might present the patient's symptoms but goes nowhere close to providing diagnosis or curative suggestions .

In a sense (see 'Do Customer's Know best?') it's not for customers to self diagnose, but we can't do this for them if we don't even ask them what's wrong. Well, we might find out by some later ad-hoc research in to the matter but isn't that what the two-question survey was supposed to avoid, a costly 'customer insight' bill? The trouble is we tend to strive towards over-simplification, the 'less is more' approach pervades.

It might be great to walk in to the board room and present the facts that improving top-box satisfaction leads to x% increase in referrals and therefore x% growth, but the first question is going to be "and how do we do that then, what's wrong with us at the moment?" (ok, technically that's two questions, y'see we all do it and it's difficult not to.)

I just want to cite one example, Apple Computers. I bet they could point to genuinely high
top-box scores for satisfaction, they could point to high scores for customer loyalty (people love the iPod and are committed to it) and even high rates of customer referral. How many iPod owners have been overheard telling friends and family that they simply must buy this amazing gadget? Countless. The issue here is then why do Apple only occupy 2% of the $180bn
market for PCs? Why is it that their growth is such that they're not making ground on the likes of
Dell, Microsoft, IBM and HP? Reichheld himself acknowledges that referral is a weak growth predictor in the information technology sector but explains this away with a belief that he simply surveyed the wrong people and that senior management choose systems ahead of
employees. Whilst this may be true I'm not sure it gets to the heart of the matter in Apple's case. And there's the rub. I don't honestly know all the reasons why Apple isn't more successful given the emotional satisfaction that people have for its products and the high levels of referral they clearly experience. The same is true of
Alfa Romeo, a product so universally liked and placed into a niche by its enthusiastic owners that they even have a name, Alfisti. But by not exploring the customer experience beyond the headlines as Reichheld and chums espouse,
companies would simply believe that a single question survey will help them to grow.

[Possible digression ahead...] In my opinion the reason Apple and Alfa are not the major players in their respective market places centres around rational customer satisfaction, the objective facts are that Apple Macs are expensive and not universally compatible. Outside of the satisfaction sphere, they have suffered at the hands of some catastrophic management decisions not to build upon their innovative momentum to produce a range of products that have mass-market appeal (their competitors churn out boxes at an astonishing rate). Even with the iPod Apple failed to anticipate demand and supply lagged woefully behind. Returning to satisfaction, their iTunes package is adored by its enthusiastic users for its efficient simplicity, but delve deeper - beyond the satisfaction scores - and the shop is poorly stocked, leaving the burgeoning MP3 market to mop-up the wayward customer searching for an elusive tune and wider compatability, they're stunting their own growth (q.v this article). In terms of Alfa Romeo,
they're prone to reliability problems and are expensive. But, before we make another assumption, cost isn't the common factor, look at Linux - technically a superior product to Windows (so I'm told) it's also free, recommended by all who use it and accessible. But it still occupies a smaller personal consumer market share, why, because Windows is ubiquitous, universally accepted and standardised, it's populist and it's marketed aggressively in the way only paid-for products can be. There are many other reasons I'm sure but yet again, asking one or two questions about satisfaction/loyalty/referral will not reveal the answers and will not allow executives to accurately predict and amend growth without first considering the external environment (c.f. 'Burke-Litwin'
model of organisational performance and change).

Did I answer the question?


Do users/customers know best?

This has been one that's puzzled me for a long time. I remember a JN Alertbox ("Are Users Stupid" http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20010204.html and "Don't listen to users" http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20010805.html ) that warned against accepting everything a user suggested and I'm mindful of much of the management-world's concern around suggestion boxes - principally that they generate an awful lot of noise and resentment for very little innovative gain. In essence this boils down to a human trait that we (generally speaking) don't like to hear that someone knows better, that we haven't acknowledged a problem and that, when we believe we're right, that we struggle to accept alternative viewpoints. As usability practitioners and advocates of a customer-centric philosophy are we biting off more than we can chew by attempting to please all of the people all of the time? How do we strike the balance between integrating user-feedback with our own objective (oft empirical) understanding of what works and what doesn't? Customers and users seem to be more able at telling us what they don't like in preference to what they do like, and consequently it's much easier to eliminate and reduce than it is to innovate. When customers do tell us what they want we can often find ourselves (metaphorically) furrowing our brows with the thought "I really don't think that's going to work". Should we be giving in to this thought and applying our own usability spin on it or should we accept the users comments un-appended and without question?

I suppose the answer lies in that old chestnut, 'a bit of both'. Whilst listening to users and customers is useful, actually observing how they behave is absolutely critical. Someone may say they find a site easy to navigate because they are satisfied in the expectation they will need to explore but you may observe them taking a significant amount of time to perform basic tasks. Implication: Make the navigation process more straightforward and you take the user from being satisfied to being impressed. Users may well express satisfaction with a site simply because it looks good (what is beautiful is usable), before they make an assessment on usability. They may over-rationalise their behaviour, assume mistakes are their own ("silly me, I didn't see that link") and play to what they think you want to hear. Is a customer invited to a focus group and plied with refreshments really going to recall their true experience?

All this has come to a head in my mind because we're talking about adopting a suggestion-box scheme (albeit an intranet-based one) here at work to capture employees thoughts about improving the customer experience. I remain cynical. I still think that there's a need for leaders to be leaders and for experts to be expert. The effect of sorting and evaluating the most credible suggestions will be highly resource-intensive, it'll be subjective, it'll create resentment in those whose ideas were rejected and there will be an exponential drop-off in submissions as people feel disheartened that their idea was not taken up. There are ways, of course, to combat this through constructive feedback on suggestions, championing of successful suggestions and other incentivisation but the potential for noise, in my mind, outweighs the potential benefit. The role of consultants in this case must be to see the wider picture, can front-line staff see the processes behind their experiences - do they need to see them to know whether or not they're broken or indeed changeable?

Ultimately I'm starting to feel that pure customer-centricity or user-centricity is not enough and that taking second-person (user) perspective is worthless. The hardest challenge for me will be to ensure that, when in third person perspective I given enough credence to users and metrics alike, performing the role of mediator to ensure that, ultimately the user/customer-experience is the winner.