Guard Against These Eight Myths to Fuel Corporate Innovation

Anybody who has had the good fortune to work in a startup as well as in a corporatised environment will know that corporate innovation is an animal by itself. To make that animal move and keep it going, critical myths must be busted.


Myth #1: Innovation is all about ideas.


Truth: Innovation is as much about knowledge-sharing, collaboration and execution. As innovation becomes ‘the’ way of doing things for firms, the emerging structures of team formation and work allocation demand increasing openness of channels for communication and feedback. The devil, of course, remains in the details. Hence, systematic follow-through of ideas and their execution determines success.


When structuring the innovation process, bear in mind that there is a grimy and messy back end beyond the warm and fuzzy front end of innovation.


Myth #2: Innovation must be disruptive and create a white space.


Truth: While this could be true for an entity that is looking to establish itself as a player in the market (check out RentSher and MealTango) for the corporate engine that wants to weave innovation into its DNA, it is more likely to be incremental, addressing the core business.


Encourage employees to make incremental improvements to routine activities. The impact of innovation activity is only magnified when even the mundane gets a productivity boost.


Myth #3: Innovation means creating new products.


Truth: Early literature on metrics for corporate innovation is responsible for the belief in this myth. In reality, innovation also includes creating new processes and business models. Doblin, the innovation consulting firm, has in fact noted ten types of innovation in three categories. Some of the highest impact innovations have come about through business model innovation (think #Uber) and process innovation (think Aravind Eye Care).


Look beyond just product development. The gold could be elsewhere.


Myth #4: Innovation is the domain of R&D departments.


Truth: A corollary to the previous point, innovation can also be brought about by other functions. You can only build a culture of innovation in a company if all employees believe that they have a role to play. Just as innovation does not comprise product development alone, it is not the reserve of R&D teams alone.


Get all hands on deck.


Myth #5: Innovation happens at the grassroots.


Truth: Innovation requires a linkage of bottom-up and top-down approaches.

Innovation does require a willingness to defy convention, an attribute that tends to decline with increasing seniority. Hence, the bottom-up approach is necessary to fuel innovation. However, complex pivot points that involve decision-making accompany innovation projects. These are perhaps better addressed in a top-down fashion. Note, however, that the person who ‘knows’ more is not necessarily the person who innovates better.


Define scope and authority for the teams at the bottom as well as the executives at the top.


Myth #6: Innovation requires highly creative and intelligent workers.


Truth: In reality, innovation more often requires highly networked workers. Innovation success comes from carefully structuring the process for consistently better results. In fact, superior talent could serve to mask organisational inefficiencies. Instead, a well thought out innovation process would lead to more predictable results despite variability in talent.


Break processes down into well-defined steps; then talent will not matter much.


Myth #7: Innovation should be remunerated monetarily to increase employee motivation.


Truth: Innovation thrives on increasing degrees of empowerment – self-directed use of time, resources (human and capital) and authority. The battle between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be best seen in the case of innovation projects. In the long run, and a company is concerned with the long run, it is factors that help build intrinsic motivation that keep the innovation engine going.


Cater for serendipity and blurring of boundaries. Monetary rewards are an afterthought.


Myth #8: Innovation requires large capital outlays.


Truth: Innovation is often most successful when capital is constrained. Constraints engender creativity and novelty. They also foster sustainability and endurance. But most of all, they help focus efforts on the problem that must be solved rather than on administrative detailing.


Give your innovation project teams enough to work with but not everything they ask for.


Corporate innovation is a marathon, not a sprint.

Four Keys to Cracking the Case Interview

“How should I prepare for a case interview?”


For anybody considering a career in management consulting, this question would’ve popped up at one point or another. I’m often asked this question by eager beavers raring to don the consultant suit. As all management consultants will tell you, preparing for a case interview and cracking one can often be different experiences.


Here are four keys (because you do need all of them) to cracking the case interview:


  1. Define the Problem Situation


To be able to define the problem as accurately as possible, call in your listening skills. When in doubt about what you’ve heard, seek clarifications. Your aim will not be to gather deep understanding of the industry in question, but to gain a reasonable appreciation of the critical business decisions that must be made.


Once you have assimilated the information, verbalise your understanding of the problem situation. Let the interviewer know that you will be driving the interview from here on; summarize the problem statement and proceed.


  1. Solve the Problem


Take a minute or two to think through the key issues at hand. Identify at least two and at most five issues for the deep-dive.


Now, think aloud. Here’s where the ‘S’ word figures – Structure your analysis of the issues, ideally 3-4 levels deep, not more, based on a flexible framework. Where frameworks are concerned, incorporate them, adapt them, merge them, but do not be constrained by them. Do ensure, however, that your issue tree is mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE). Hypothesise the direction of the solution and begin your analysis of the issues.


Bear in mind that you are not only a problem solver but also a presenter all this time. The interviewer needs to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ how you are thinking. Take her along with you in your analysis. Signpost as you pass each step of your journey.


Collect evidence for each issue by seeking more information. Where it is unavailable, explain the assumptions you would be making. Be data-driven; correct your course if the information provided is contrary to your hypothesis.


  1. Make Recommendations


Develop (ideally) more than one solution and provide the ideal scenarios for use of each. Step through the key actions required to execute each solution.


  1. Summarize


End well. Finish in time, without requiring prompting. Summarise the case problem, what issues you identified, what evidence you collected for your analysis, what your key findings were, and what your key recommendations are.


Throughout the interview, remember to stay composed, look confident, and make eye contact. Show strong logic and stick to your guns.


Go ace that case!

A Seven-point Recipe for E-commerce Success

As an avid consumer of e-commerce, I’ve seen how some portals manage to do such a great job of difficult things while others flounder with even simple tasks. Problems occur when e-commerce players focus on the good-to-have items before the must-have items.

Five ‘Must-haves’ (because these are the basics to attract any customer)

  1. Genuine products and pricing

This one is obvious, really, a sine qua non, for any player to last beyond the first sale. The customer is smart enough to realize if he is being duped by fakes. A baby-care e-tailer (not going to name it) got a bad name because the diapers it dispatched were not the genuine stuff. Similarly, inflated prices, even if discounted later, seem like a case of smokes and mirrors – not good for businesses in the long run.

  1. Logical suggestions and reviews

The appearance of a website is one thing but the suggestions that it throws up while the customer is still filling up her cart can do a fantastic job of driving up the margins. The reviews for each product add to the authenticity of the suggestions. @Amazon does a brilliant job here, especially where books are concerned, also tying in one’s search and purchase history while they are at it.

  1. Prominent contact information

This relates to one of my earlier posts. Make it easy for the customer to reach you; flash your contact information so that it is easily visible, ideally at the top of the page. Man your helpdesk with capable people who know your business and products well. @UrbanLadder has put an efficient team, which keeps all product information handy, at the other end of its sales helpline.

  1. Convenient order tracking

Allow the customer to track his order at his convenience. It gives them confidence that their package is actually moving towards them, especially where delivery times are long. @Flipkart details every step, including location of each delivery, on the customer’s account page.

  1. Reliable delivery

Deliver as per the time estimate provided to the customer. Here, the golden rule should be: ‘Under-commit and over-deliver.’ @FirstCry regularly delivers ahead of the delivery times provided, which are already shorter than those of most competitors.

Two ‘Good-to-haves’ (because these can be the differentiators to keep ‘em coming back)

  1. Great cataloguing and search engines

‘Sales’ is really about making it as easy and quick as possible for the customer to make up her mind about purchase. Without the benefit of a convincing personality to make the sale, the biggest tool you have at your disposal is making the product easy to find and come alive in how you describe it. A well-thought out catalogue goes a long way here. @Zivame, the lingerie e-tailer, is easily ahead of not just its direct competitors but also most of the diversified ones. Take a look at the @Zappos search widget and you’ll know what a long distance Indian e-tailers still have to cover.

  1. Easy returns and Fast refunds

A customer who is dissatisfied with the product she received (because of wrong size, wrong colour, wrong fit, damaged product, anything) doesn’t have to become a customer who will never return to your portal… as long as you manage the returns and refunds well. Make it as painless and as devoid of follow-ups for the customer as possible. @Jabong has managed to exploit this opportunity well. I’ve talked about it here.

@Bigbasket, by Innovative Retail Concepts, refunds an additional 50% of the amount of the product to be returned or one found defective, as part of its quality assurance policy.

Get customers not just to come to you but also to come back to you.

Five Things (Not) To Do When Talking To Customers

Economics tells us that buying decisions are a function of price, the intersection of demand and supply, and a willingness to pay. ‘Willingness to pay’ – such a clever term that can encompass so many biases.

Ever decided to buy from one shop rather than another because the shopkeeper at the first talked to you nicely while the one at the second was too curt for comfort? Ceteris paribus, a rational buyer should be indifferent between the two shops, but buyers still do make different choices based on how the seller interacts with the customer.

Large corporations have been able to remove any personality-driven biases in the customer’s mind by having a faceless Customer Service Department (CSD), aka Customer Relations Department (CRD) or Customer Care Department (CCD), do all the talking with customers. Without a face, however, the brand takes a hit if something goes wrong.

Here are five things that a company should do when talking to customers:

#1: Talk to the Customer

It doesn’t get simpler than this. Open up channels for the customer to reach you and make sure that someone with a solid idea of what your business is about is sitting at the internal end of the channel.

On one end of the scale, there’s Zappos, the American e-retailer, which made customer service their raison d’etre and the phone their main channel of communicating with the customer. Zappos removed the ‘script’ from their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) process and allowed its executives to speak to customers for as long as was reasonable to resolve their issues.

On the other end there is Vodafone India, one of the largest providers of telephony in India, which does not want to talk to the customer at all! When you call them, you could press through their endless IVR architecture about eleven times before you find an option where you can speak to a real person only to be told that your waiting time to speak to a Customer Service Executive (CSE) is 26 minutes! Worse still, you actually have to pay for every extra minute beyond a stipulated number that you spend on the phone talking to the CSE. It would seem that Vodafone India’s processes and incentive structure for the CSD are driven by a single metric – the least time spent talking to customers.

#2 Listen to what the customer is saying

Duh! Instead of rattling off a spiel that your CRM Manual proposes, take the time to actually hear what the customer is saying.

Emirates, the international carrier, has possibly trained their CSEs to record the gist of conversations with their customers, especially in cases where issues were not resolved, such that they are able to make it up to them, if not immediately, then in the near future. So, the next time you are flying them after a customer upset, don’t be surprised if your name is suddenly called out at the boarding gate for an upgrade.

HSBC India, the Indian arm of the global bank, could take a leaf out of their book. Whether it is a new product that they want to tell you about or a delayed credit card payment that they want to remind you about, the CSEs will take a good 120 seconds to trundle through your account status before getting to the point. Never mind if the customer has gone to sleep by then.

#3 Empower the CSE

In addition to imparting a solid understanding of the business to the CSE, give her some teeth to actually resolve customer issues.

Hilton, the international hotel chain, has a transparent and speedy escalation mechanism so the front-desk executive can not only make a note of the grievance you bring to his notice but also propose a resolution that is satisfactory to the customer, without seemingly overstepping his authority.

HDFC Bank, the leading Indian bank, however, is a different story. Their so-called Relationship Managers, who change every three odd months (too soon really to be able to form any ‘relationship), are rarely able to answer basic account-related questions, let alone resolve queries without checking with another two levels in the chain of command.

#4 Time cross-selling opportunities cautiously

Ensure that there are no unresolved issues for an existing customer before trying to push more products/ services down her throat.

Jabong, the Indian e-retailer, has done this beautifully and unobtrusively. A hard-nosed e-commerce player, it has refined its website based on surfer clicking patterns, cookies and cataloguing. Their returns policy makes them stand apart from the Amazons and Flipkarts of the industry. A no-questions asked returns policy in almost all cases, effortless reverse pick-ups, Jabong credits (with a year-long validity) for returned items, and fantastic discount schemes for all seasons, keeps customers coming back.

ICICI Securities, the Indian financial services company, on the other hand, has not realised just how many hand-offs they could do without in their customer care routine. Certainly the time when many of the hands in their extra-long chain fail to pick up the load should not be the time for trying to sell an already frustrated customer the latest product that has been launched.

#5 Be fair

It’s far easier to retain a customer than to find a new one (true with any professional relationship, really), so don’t take her for granted.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Uber India, the taxi network company, will charge a customer for a ride that has been cancelled by its driver at will. It is then up to the customer to petition for a reversal of charges.

FirstCry, the baby and child care e-retailer, on the other hand, has made its EZReturns policy so easy and transparent that the refund could come into your account as soon as you disconnect your call to the CSE, much quicker than the goods to be returned will be picked up from your doorstep.

From ‘let the buyer beware’ to ‘real’ customer care…

Six reasons why #Uber could fail in India

The rise of the new economy has given rise not just to new industries but also to new business models. E-commerce led the wave of what has today become the positioning of choice for many an entrepreneur – the ‘integrator’. With technology playing a substantial role in ‘integrating’ various pieces of the model, several challenges got addressed. The same technology in turn, however, laid out a fresh set of issues that need to be resolved.

For Uber, these challenges centre around seemingly infrastructural but essentially human factors. It has overcome the ignominy that (an) errant driver(s) caused in its early days in India, but its problems are far from over. Here are six reasons why #Uber could fail in India:

Reason 1: Technology issue – Hi-speed Internet, the keystone of Uber’s business model, is not yet the norm even in metros in India.

Reason 2: Trust issue – Drivers don’t trust the navigation feature on their Uber devices, and so, bother customers endlessly for directions, making pick-ups a nuisance.

Reason 3: Agency issue – Drivers, at will, turn off their device, misleading customers as to their actual location. Worse, they can refuse calls and become incommunicado because calls to and from customers are routed through Uber.

Reason 4: Temporal issue – Drivers don’t respect the time estimate for arrival provided to customers. Hence, 5 minutes become 15, 10 become 25. Detours are rampant, sometimes for a snack break, at other times for a brief nap.

Reason 5: Cultural issue – We Indians have an oral culture. We don’t like to talk to an email ID (support@), especially one that doesn’t respond. As a customer, your only recourse to grievance redressal is to force-fit your complaint into the standard set of issues listed on Uber’s website, after which you will promptly receive a stock email from Uber in, no doubt, a personalised tone.

Reason 6: Holier-Than-Thou issue – Uber charges customers for rides cancelled by drivers, at will. That too without any notice. A case of taking the customer for granted, methinks.

A fancy name and a fancy app don’t a business model make; respect the customers – recognise their uniqueness – and their business is yours to take.

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