Friday, August 21, 2009

Chief Customer Officers and the Digital Living Room

The Digital Living Room still continues to fall between the cracks of the silos in organizations. Consider a recent experience with major vendors.

An evaluation HP Windows Media Server that I purchased recently for a project came with MacAfee for virus protection. The protection expired after the initial trial period of 7 months.

So, I decided to use Norton, which I use on my other machines. However, Symantec does not make it clear whether their products work on Windows Home Server. Nor did they reply to my support request. So, I decided to upgrade the existing MacAfee solution as the lazy man's approach.

After two support calls separated by three days, and after 50 minutes on hold, I determined on the second support call that the product currently has installation problems and also does not upgrade its data files. The conclusion was not shared with me on the first support call where a different answer had been suggested.

Now, as a past CEO of various software companies, I sympathize with the challenges of supporting continually changing software. And I am not particularly worried about this server, which is primarily used for file back up and music sharing.

But the whole experience of:

1. Having to determine whether a product works with a home server.
2. Inability to offer a clear and simple decision process on what to buy.
2. Confusing installation processes.
3. Difficult to use administrative software more appropriate for a small business than a home user.
4. Delivery of support via the small business support line causes unnecessary phone calls and downloads of support software.

reflects an inside-out silo'd view of the customer.

Persuading consumers to tackle the Digital Living Room will require a more customer centric perspective. A Chief Customer Officer would help a company transform the customer experience so that successful customers would become ambassadors on behalf of products and services.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Getting Sued

I recently had an off the records conversation with a former CEO of major firm who had spent much of his CEO tenure dealing with more legal suits than any business should have to deal with.

The take away from our discussion was that with the full benefit of hindsight, the company's problem was that (1) it was small, (2) its patented technology was really valuable to very large customers, (3) the company priced licensing of its technology based upon the value of the technology to licensors and their customers.

What the company forgot -- and this is a common mistake of small companies in the United States -- is that a large company looking at a small company always has the choice of litigating and use the law as a weapon to beat the small company to death.

So, when I work with small high tech companies and their business plans talk about barriers to entry including a patent, I will often grimace.

If the technology is unsuccessfully, nobody will care.

If the technology is successful, then the chances of being sued go up.

If the technology is exceptionally successful or useful, it's pretty much a sure thing that you are going to get sued.

Without major reform to patent law in the US - which is clearly needed -- there are no simple legal answers to this problem, except to using pricing as a tool.

Pricing can encourage licensing and make it more attractive than suing. What people forget is that there are many ways of pricing a product. Pricing creativity can reduce legal risk, accelerate revenues and in some cases increase total revenues.

It's worth thinking about before you get sued.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Digital Living Room - Miles to Go Before You Can Sleep

Yesterday, I attempted to watch a Blu-ray movie obtained from Netflix, produced by Sony studios, on a six month old Sony Vaio multi-media laptop, hooked up to a 25.5 inch Samsung monitor as a secondary monitor. Blu-ray of course is a wonderful standard for high def movies developed by Sony.

It took me two hours and two support calls to get the movie started.

Now it's pretty hard to argue that compatibility should have been an issue with Sony controlling all the technology. If I were not doing consulting to firms in the digital living room area, I would have broken something in frustration. I rarely get so annoyed by technology that I curse out loud, but it was one of those evenings.

So, you may ask, what happened?

The problem began with the InterVideo software shipped with the notebook. When I stuck in the Blu-ray disk, it told me that I need to renew a key in the Blu-ray viewing software. I was sent to a confusing page with the software vendor Corel, a relationship I was unaware I had. My immediate thought: is this some kind of virus problem? The key transaction then failed twice. So far ten minutes wasted.
The courteous and knowledgeable support person in Costa Rica talked me through disabling user account control on my notebook and obtaining a key upgrade. I was fuming by this stage. Not only do I object to an unnecessary key renewal, the software does not even work well. So far, 60 minutes wasted.

But the problems did not stop there. I could not escape the previews on the DVD. Now, I would like to think I am a pretty knowledgeable about the digital living room. People hire me to look at their products and do competitive comparisons. But it was practically impossible to get to the movie. I think I saw the previews seven times. Unlike most people I have two media computers with Bluray from different vendors. Same problem on both my desktop and my notebook. Total time wasted now at around 70 minutes.

On the second support call, we determined that a second Netflix Blu-ray disk, immediately went to a main menu from which you could play your movie easily. Admittedly, the second disk did reveal I had a bad setting on my desktop, causing the colors to be wrong, which I eventually fixed by letting the video app control color settings. The conclusion from the second support call was that the Blu-ray disk was defective.

Now, I am not a typical user. I am way more persistent. I eventually figured out a way of getting to the movie with some additional experimentation. Total time invested over the entire evening ended up at over two hours. But I would have to say that the experience was ridiculous. A media notebook that can't play media. A Blu-ray disk that won't let you get to the movie on it. Disappearing menus. Software that won't let you play your movie on your external monitor. Multimedia computers that have non working registration software that prevent usage.
Is Amazon the Most Interesting Media Company in the World Today?

The move to digital content has to a large extent was initially spearheaded by Apple. It's initial focus on its business system was on simplicity. Pricing per track was set at 99 cents. Simple and understandable. A good pricing model for a new and complex technology.

But today, the world looks quite different. Digital music is now mainstream. And with mainstream businesses, traditional retail issues and innovation start to become more important.

Amazon is at the forefront of this new trend. It is a result, possibly the most interesting media company in the world.

Consider the following:

Amazon sells traditional books, electronic books on Kindle or iPhone/iTouch, traditional physically delivered music, downloadable MP3s, new and second hand DVDs, downloadable movie purchases and downloadable rentable movie viewing. Other than a subscription model, Amazon has most of the purchase options covered.

Even more interestingly, unlike Apple, Amazon is behaving like a smart retailer. It uses free songs, free Kindle copies of the first book in a series to create traffic, in a way analogous to the supermarket offering cheap milk to bring in customers or samples to get customers to try a new brand.

And Amazon is testing pricing. It offers daily specials pricing anywhere from 99 cents to $2.99, with $1.99 as the most common price point to encourage traffic, obtain sampling and give customers a reason to keep coming back every day to their web site. It's better than advertising, because revenues are produced by the hook that pulls in the customer. And of course, the big problem with an ecommerce site is getting traffic. If they visit, you have a chance of selling them something.

But the really interesting capability that Amazon is building is deep understand of individual customer tastes and price elasticity, something that Apple has spurned. Amazon is learning about the tradeoffs that individual customers make on different types of purchase, lease or download of content. When will a customer own or rent? What do you need to do to create trial? When does it make sense to discount to trigger additional purchases of content from a writer or artist, or to addict a reader to a book series?

Great businesses don't freeze their strategy. They continually improve them. Amazon seems to be aggressively learning faster than other players. Kudos to them.

Monday, August 03, 2009

To Pareto or Not To: Changing the Profitability of Your Business
Copyright Alistair Davidson, August 2009 as an unpublished work. Alistair Davidson is a strategic consultant with turnaround experience who has been CEO of several companies and helped companies improved their revenues and business development activities.

Contact: Phone: +1-650-450-9011

Certain key insights in strategy seem to be continually important. Flanking a competitor is often a better strategy than attacking them head on is one example.

In many business and economic analysis, 20% or so of a market, customer group or products seems to account for a disproportionate result, often characterized as 80% of the results sought (revenues, profits, etc.). This Pareto or 20:80 rule became very popular in the 80s when activity based costing exercises revealed that for many companies profitability was driven by a small number of customers. The less intuitive conclusion, one that frequently has to be explained to first time readers is that if 20% of your customers account for in excess of 100% (say 150-200%) of your profits, then the you are losing money on the other customers.
What is challenging about the Pareto insight is that it offers a universal rule of thumb, frequently and consistently important, but the prescription from the insight is often less obvious. And sometimes it is wrong. The Pareto insight leads to one of two conclusions:

1. The 20% of customers represent a unique group and lessons learned from them are not directly applicable to the rest of the market.

2. The 20% of customer represent a model for my future business.

Business Model Revision

The Pareto rule is often difficult to apply is where a new business model is introduced. It is never 100% clear whether a potentially disruptive technology at the low end of a market will change market requirements or provide a platform for an initial insignificant competitor to build upon. In a parallel way, migration of high end features from premium products and services to the mass market is also difficult to predict in some markets.

The concept of Track and Trace (making parcels and envelopes trackable though out the logistics process), offered by FedEx and UPS was extremely threatening to the Canadian Post Office. They could see no way of matching the capability given the volume of mail and packages they delivered.

The internal debate revolved around whether they should take a Pareto approach and focus a Track and Trace capability only on parcels and high value added packages, or whether this would be a long term capability for all logistic operations. Their eventual conclusion was they needed to have more presence in the premium package and envelope business and Track and Trace would largely be restricted to the high end of the market. To this end, they bought a courier company, Purolator.

Dropping Customers

One potential prescription from learning that 20% of your customers account for 150% or more of profits is to slim down the business and focus upon the profitable customers. However this strategy is often emotionally very difficult for many managers and often pursued too late. Managers have spent so much time investing in acquiring customers that given up the customers is distressing.

Raising Prices

Raising prices for the less profitable customers seems like an obvious solution to a 20:80 insight, but resistance from the sales force, inadequate systems for tracking discounting behavior and negative feedback from customers are likely barriers that will need to be overcome. Slightly more clever approaches change the basis of pricing in ways that are more palatable to customers. Leasing and usage based pricing are particularly attractive to capital constrained customers and change the nature of the evaluation process.

Reducing the Cost of Delivery for Unprofitable Customers

Financial services organization frequently have used self service with ATMs and online banking to reduce the cost of less profitable services and less profitable customers. In contrast, wealth management services offer higher levels of service and advice.

Reducing Marketing Costs

A less obvious approach to making many customers profitable is to delight customers so that they become your sales agents. Strong word of mouth can significantly reduce a required marketing budget. Amazon uses daily specials in e.g. the MP3 download market to encourage daily visits to their site, a low cost way of generating traffic. Heavy users may tell their friends about hot music they have found a deal on.

Life Cycle Management

As with most costing decisions, it turns out that pricing is often a strategic decision. As a result, the time frame over which you measure customer profitability is critical as are the implications for organizational capacity.
  • Mature software companies like Oracle will often discount their software significantly to obtain sales (with the largest discounts occurring at quarter and year end when sales reps are under pressure to meet their goals). Part of their willingness to do so, is their knowledge that software is actually more a service than a capital expenditure with maintenance revenues a critical part of the annuity relationship with a customer.
  • The success of the Apple iPhone is based in part upon the fact that that a $600 cost of purchase by AT&T is resold to a subscriber for $200 in return for a two year contract that might add up to $2400 of revenues and a strong probability of retention at the end of the contract. These high ARPU (average revenue per user) clients are likely some of AT&Ts most profitable.
  • The challenge for AT&T is to how to grow their business. Are these customers atypical, i.e. a 20% that is atypical or do they represent a different business. Research suggests that there is a large gap between the number of subscribers that would like an iPhone-like service (i.e. with easy to use Internet access) and the actual number of data subscribers. One interpretation is that subscription rates would increase with lower data plan prices. A move in this direction would have significant implications on network architecture for AT&T mobile network capacity by reducing the revenue per user from data plans and lowering revenues per byte transmitted.

Increasing Value Propositions

Bundling is one example of changing value propositions. Companies like Hyperion (now Oracle) and Microsoft have used bundling to reduce the cost of individual applications, but create more value for customers. In telecom, triple and quad plays (combination of voice services, broadband, TV services and mobile services) are a common marketing approach.

In some ways, bundling can be slightly unintuitive. Most purchasers of e.g. MS-Office probably don't use most of the features they purchase, but the incremental cost of having compatible features available has value. Most fixed rate pricing programs e.g. Netflix make this same tradeoff. Netflix may lose money on some customers who are heavy users of the service, but the reality is that most people are at or close to the limits of time they can devote to viewing videos. Value perceived is not necessarily usage.

Changing the Basis of Competition and Cost of Delivery

The Pareto insight is one that many companies are facing in the current recession. When demand for a product category drops dramatically, downsizing assumptions are often affected by assumptions about demand and profitability distributions.
In the automobile industry, the politically unspoken "elephant in the room" is that gasoline prices will in the future be maintained at a far higher level than previously for reasons of balance of trade, security and global warming. This increase in the total cost of ownership of a car will make likely make small cars more popular and more expensive than they have been historically. It will also make driving more expensive reducing total demand for cars. Auto companies are faced, as a result, with downsizing, a cyclical downturn of unusual size and a longer term secular shift in purchase patterns.

As with many markets, the automobile market is likely to become far less homogenous. The market may evolve towards predominantly electric powered microcars for in city driving, hybrids for trips requiring greater range, and larger hybrid capacity vehicles for transporting larger groups of people.
For automobile companies, their cost structure, traditional assumptions about profitability, scale and scope economies are all open to question.
In the same way, telecom service providers faced with demand for low priced unlimited data plans are having to rethink their network architecture to divert home and office data traffic away from cell towers to home fixed broadband connections.

The key take-away from any Pareto analysis is that it is a useful rule of thumb that inspires important questions about making money in your business. Making the right decision means not only looking at product and customer profitability, but also your delivery process and value chain from the perspective of both current and emerging usage patterns.