So what is Customer Strategy?

Believe me, this was a question I definitely asked myself a few times before I took this new role. It seems customer “is the hot thing right now” (as one unsuccessful interviewee told me) so there is a risk people look at customer strategy as just a typical internal strategy role with the word customer slapped onto it.

That isn’t what I am doing thankfully.

Lets start with what strategy is. My favourite way to describe it is the Michael Porter classic “Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different”. Strategy in an organisation can come in a number of flavours – it can be group level strategy, where you choose what businesses to be in, it can be channel strategy where you choose how to get your products / services to the consumers / businesses that purchase them, and many others, but it all comes down to choices.

So, if we take that definition and apply the notion of customer, customer strategy is about the choices you make with respect to your customers. These choices can range from what kind of experience you want to deliver, to which customers you want to focus on. It is still a pretty broad definition, but serves as enough of a guideline to understand what it does and doesn’t apply to.

So that is essentially what I am focused on these days – better understanding the customer, so I can help make the right choices with respect to truly meeting their needs. It is a bit of a change from the typically internally focused strategy consulting I have done previously, but it is proving to be pretty fascinating.

 

New Chapter – Customer Strategy

So about five months ago, I decided to change careers. After spending all my working life in the world of strategy consulting, I decided to move into industry, specifically a customer strategy role in a financial services organisation. i did this for three reasons, in no particular order.
The first was lifestyle – consulting’s demands on one’s personal life are well chronicled, and while I have been certainly putting in the hours in the new role (more on that in a later post), it has been a big change to my lifestyle. No weekend work, and I am able to maintain a semblance of a weekday social life. Win.
Second, after many years in consulting I had (admittedly somewhat slowly) started to see the cracks in the consulting model. The focus on the deliverable over the good of the client, the lack of concern for implementability, and the pretty poor work practices. I needed a job which addressed these issues, and in my current role I have definitely found that.
Third, and probably most important, after spending my time at business school doing an inordinate amount of self reflection, I realised I needed a career I felt passionate about. I am nothing if not a thinker, and for a long time, I have been thinking about the increasing power of the customer. It is a trend I am incredibly excited about, and this role affords me the opportunity to take a fairly traditional organisation and really work on orienting it towards the customer. It is unquestionably a huge challenge, but more importantly if we get it right, we will have achieved a great measure of economic success, while still achieving great outcomes for customers. That will be satisfying, and an objective I can really get behind.
So this job ticked all the boxes for me, and so far it has definitely met or exceeded all my expectations. As I embrace on this new chapter in my career, I have decided I am going to start putting my thoughts on customer strategy down on paper. It is a new area for me so apologies in advance is we start out a little rudimentary, but hopefully we will get to some interesting areas soonish. Any tips / pointers to good resources welcome – my personal blogroll is sadly pretty deficient in this area, and if anyone can point me to anything good I will link it up on this page.
To start off, here is an article recently in the SMH – if they are picking up on the trend, it must be pretty obvious.
Next up, I will tackle the surprisingly difficult task of defining what the hell customer strategy actually is.

Time Travel, courtesy of the BBC

I remember starting university sporting the flower of the year 2000’s mobile technology, the flashy Nokia 8810 –

Nokia-8810

I felt very much like I was sporting some technology from the future, a feeling I always like to have being the kind of early adopter that I am. I often joke with my iPhone that if I went back in time with it to 2000, people would think I had come from fifty years in the future, not the paltry 14 that actually lies between the 8810 and the iPhone 5.

Given my love of all things futuristic, it is strange that my interest has been captured recently by the BBC Radio 4 podcast A History of the World in 100 Objects.  In it, Neil MacGregor from the British Museum takes you through 100 13 minute or so episodes that each focus on a specific object in the collection, and thereby tells the story of human history. It is absolutely fascinating – I am only on episode 8, which puts me in the period 9000 – 3500 BCE, and I can’t stop listening. I strongly urge you to have a look.

iTunes link here

 

The Importance of Writing

“The ability to process, synthesise and communicate information efficiently is the premium skill of the future”

Michael Brooks, Curator of the Waterloo Global Science Initiative Learning 2030 Summit (http://www.wgsi.org), writing in the recent Christmas edition of New Scientist. He goes on to quote John Maynard Keynes on why Newton was great (yes, the gravity Newton)

“I fancy his pre-eminence is due to his muscles of intuition being the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted”

While the world is safe from a paradigm shifting scientific discovery from yours truly, those words resonated with me, and reminded me of some thought of the always educational Fred Wilson I forwarded to a mentee of mine recently – “Writing it Down”, and previously here,  “Writing”

What these articles have sparked in me is the desire to go back to working on my own written communication skills. I spend a lot of my professional life cramming insights into bullet points and two line powerpoint headers, along with a informationally rich graphic or two. Don’t get me wrong, this is a valuable skill in its own right – being succinct and to the point is valuable, as indeed the thinkers above posit, but there is something about the power of long form writing that is undeniable. As someone who fits the definition of library nerd to the T, I have long been subject to the spell of well written prose, and it is a skill I want to develop myself. So therefore, as a little pre new years resolution, I am getting back into the blogging game.

I realise that if you look at the most recent post before this one, it says the same thing. I mean it this time though. Really.

Anyway, I hope you are all enjoying the holidays – I will be back shortly with some thoughts on various things.

Oh, and as a bonus, here is a vlog from Nika Harper, Vlogger on the GeekandSundry vlog channel (as well as many other things), on why writing is important. It is more about creative writing (which I hope to get to eventually), but the message is right on point.

 

MBA Ethics

So today in our Negotiations class we revisited (from a core class last year) the topic of ethics. Once again, the professor insisted that she wasn’t there to tell us what was right or wrong, but to ensure we knew the legal ramifications of what we were doing, and to be comfortable with our own boundaries.

The super-rational part of me wants to agree with that approach. Morality and ethical frameworks differ between people, regions, even companies, and what right does a b-school professor have to dictate an absolute code to everyone? However, there is a more idealistic voice inside my head that insists that maybe the world would be better place if we named and shamed poor ethical practices in our class. Why not be didactic about it? After all, my class (and other MBA classes) constitute the future leaders of the business world, and we have all seen the disproportionate effect business leaders can have on everyone.

I am not sure of the right answer. But I am sure that at most business schools, they are a bit soft. Maybe it’s not just teaching ethics at all (which was a big step for a lot of institutions) but maybe it’s about how soft or not you are about teaching it.

For further reading, please check one of my classmate’s posts on insider trading.

Textbooks 2.0?

Update: at least some real experts agree with me on the need for social …

So, the big news on the internets is that Apple is shaking up the textbook publishing game. Its an interesting move in my opinion. On the one hand, Apple tried (and so far has failed) to knock Amazon off its ebook throne with the iBookstore, while on the other hand, digital textbooks have not yet reached the heights of regular ebooks (so there is some opportunity).

I can understand why digital text books aren’t quite there. While I love my ebooks (usually on my Kindle, or my iPad’s Kindle app), it is harder to imagine doing that with a textbook. Since you typically go back and forth a lot more with a textbook (something hard to do on an ebook reader), there really needs to be a bunch compelling other features in order to make the switch.

I am by no means an expert in the area, but I had heard of Kno, a company which used to make (I thought) a double screen tablet specifically for textbooks, but then pivoted to become a software provider – providing digital textbooks through an iPad app. Here is a video showing a walkthrough of their technology:

Pretty cool right?

iBooks 2.0 is doing something very similar –

 

and as well iBooks author, which will allow home authoring of textbooks (which kinda seems stupid).

It will be interesting to see it how it plays out – will Kno manage to hold its own against Apple? I hope so.

My two cents is this – I think this could be of great value in the MBA market. An idea I have been kicking around is to replace traditional business textbooks with some kind of crowdsourced equivalent. In this case, crowd would be successful professionals, most likely alumni, and the text would have a living quality  – frequently updated with current content, videos etc. This sounds like a perfect job for either the iBooks or Kno formats – anyone interested in giving it a go?

Of course, there is one feature that I would like that isn’t in either as far as I can see. I would like to see some kind of social element built in for classes. Looking at what my particular class highlights in a book, or discussing issues with them online, could be a great way to open up interaction with my fellow classmates to a new level. Or, people could think it is lame – could really go either way. In any event, that would be my perfect MBA digital textbook. Any MBA readers have a thought on this?

 

I like plans

 

So its a new year, and I ithink I might have to start working on my New Year’s resolution, which is pretty broad, but I think important. It is simply to be more disciplined – in all areas of my life, from the gym, or more relevantly here, by blogging regularly. So I am going to commit to a weekly post at least.

This week marks my return to LBS, here in dreary (but not as cold as I had feared) London, for an intensive 5 day course on Project Management. It has been pretty good albeit basic so far. The professor is pretty impressive, often called in to consult on projects as varied as the Joint Strike Fighter, or the rebuild of NYC’s transit system post 9/11. We have been absorbed in the planning stages of projects so far, and he has just about convinced me that Gannt charts are evil – we will see how they like that point of view back in consulting.

Anyway, the focus on proper planning (and more importantly, building flexibility into plans), has made me think about how I actually plan my own life. I have been counselling friends and relatives recently on career moves, and have been thinking about what I want to do next, after this business school experience is over, and what is often interesting is to what extent people don’t even have a general plan. I have always had a general idea of where I want to go. It may be a pipe dream (hopefully not), and it does change (I will write in a later post how business school has changed my target), but I find I always need something to aim for, something that makes sense out of the chaos of daily life.

I think this is why I am enjoying this class so much – its all about defining goals, putting some structure around chaotic activities but still realising things may change a lot. It may not be the most profound insight on a general level, but knowing that I like plans actually explains a lot about the way I behave. Score 1 for self knowledge.

See you next week.

When stereotypes come true

I have had an excellent and productive time the past 15 or so months doing (and continuing) my MBA. I am surrounded by a group of extremely smart people, and am learning lots about how businesses work above and beyond my consulting experience. Thus, I am always pretty pissed off when I hear standard MBA stereotypes, such as:

  • At the techy (and to be honest, famously successful) company I interned with, sneering “MBA” was a totally accepted put-down;
  • Common startup wisdom would suggest that MBAs in fact have negative value for new ventures; and
  • How we also get blamed for the financial crisis
I happen to believe that these are unfair stereotypes – my class at least is pretty well balanced, and while I can point to some people who may in fact ruin the world, I don’t think there is a higher concentration than anywhere else.
Imagine my surprise then in class today, where these bright business scions were flabbergasted by the idea of non-monetary incentives.
We were looking at the case of Pentagram – a wildly successful design firm, that is in fact the most successful independent design firm in the world – check out their work here. Pentagram is somewhat unusual in that it is set up as a company of equals – the principals share in the wealth equally, and there are no monetary incentives to excel. This attracted the ire and disbelief of a number of my classmates. How dare a company succeed without rewarding over-achievers with a greater share of the spoils! What they missed initially, and only came to begrudgingly, was that for the principals at Pentagram, there was something more at work. What they got out of the company was the sense of partnership, of having peers appreciate their work, and the joy of designing things that were great.
As I mentioned above, I was shocked by how hard my MBA classmates had to work to realise that not everyone is motivated solely by monetary incentives – thus confirming one of the standard MBA stereotypes that we are concerned only with the generation of money.
By the way – props to the professor for including this case on the curriculum. We are doing a course focused on the challenges of growing companies, and this was a nice counterpoint to help us consider the limits of growth. More broadly, it helps us think about the differences between employee satisfaction and benefits – they are not always the same thing.
Anyway, rant over. Please do believe me that more often than not my MBA colleagues surprise and delight me – its just every so often I despair when a stereotype is proved correct.

What non-profits really want

During my time at business school, one of the major activities I have been undertaking to avoid spending my entire life at the student pub is working with our school’s student run non profit consultancy, Impact Consulting (non profit in that we provide free consulting style services to NGOs). It is a nice way to keep my consulting skills fresh, and give back a little. Anyway, doing a couple of projects with this organisation led to the thoughts below, an amended version of which will appear on Impact’s website at some point.

If you have worked for any size corporation, you have probably had the experience of going on a community day. You know what I am talking about right? A whole bunch of desk-bound wage-slaves turn out in force to revitalize the local community garden, or paint a fence or something similar. I have done it, and to honest I loved it – it got me out of the office for a day, and I really felt like I was doing something worthwhile. Well, let me tell you something – non profits actually hate this type of volunteering. The provision of simple manual labour is not exactly a valuable commodity for them, especially when they see a group of people with skills that could benefit their organisation in much better ways.This is why the organisation I was working with, which historically has distributed unrestricted funding to various other NGOs, wanted to work out how to best broker non financial support between NGOs and corporates, in such a way that NGOs themselves determine what support they need. It was interesting problem, and I think we got them to a good starting place (they have been piloting the concept over the summer).

I wonder though if there isn’t a place for some kind of scalable platform where NGOs can “advertise” their needs,and corporates can offer highly skilled help. It seems that a lot of the current platforms out there tend towards the “weed a garden” type of engagement – maybe there is a gap for a platform that is targeted towards more complex engagement.
Does anyone know of such a service? If not, its something I might try and take forward.