Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Test first – don’t hire an analyst? Project management reorged.

"Grumman E-2C Hawkeye" which is a fl...Coders are being asked to write tests before coding. Testing first sounds cutting edge. But let's get real. You don't have anything to test so it's not testing. It has to be something else.

I’m not objecting to the practice, just the naming. That’s because I’m thinking like an analyst instead of a programmer. Naming determines the direction of the thoughts from that point on. We shouldn’t tell people to test something they don’t have because it’s not right.

Ask any Denver bound passenger on a plane to navigate where they are going. The chances of getting to Denver are about as good as having a project complete successfully without analysis. The analysis is your plan, your map, and your radar. The destination is your business goal.

Testing in project workflow
There are several concurrent workflows during a project. Each basic workflow takes up a majority of the current activity during the project at some point can occur concurrently with most other workflows. Here’s my version of the project workflow without any particular allegiance to another methodology. It’s what I’ve found to be a cohesive set of activities that require unique skill sets.
  • strategy - coming up with a good business idea
  • project initiation – committing assets to making the idea real 
  • needs – talking to folks about what they want based on that idea 
  • requirements – understanding and communicating those needs in testable terms 
  • analysis - organizing business data and workflows based on those requirements 
  • design - figuring out how it's all going to work with what we have for the technical folks 
  • implementation - the construction 
  • testing - the double check of validation and verification 
  • deployment - getting it launched 
  • maintenance - keeping it working and updating it 
What do you do when you test?
Testing is about two things. It's about validation and verification. Validation is checking stuff that has been planned and making sure that the plan was carried out. Verification is about seeing happy faces on your stakeholders no matter what they said and what you wrote down in your plan. Valid product + verified happiness = project success.

Testing can start as early as the requirements phase. Since the project is being expressed as testable statements, it follows that testing can start early. The information that is extracted at that point is useful for planning and setup. Then more planning is done throughout analysis and design for the large scale types of tests that match up with the large granular data definitions and workflows.

When the granularity of design comes down to chunks of code and individual statements, you still have testing that goes on. It is this drill down into the finer details of design that the test first advocates are talking about. Here the design is put forth as a supposition and as it gets implemented it is pushed back into the validity loop of testing. Hopefully, there’s enough high-level analysis and design to make this low level design and testing stress free for the coder.

Test-Driven Development in isolation
Testing is not what is done before you write code. It doesn't matter how much you like Kent Beck. Kent says that Test Driven Development (TDD) is a style of development. So, it's not a style of testing? What's the first step? It's assert. What do you assert? Now you have to go to your data and workflow models to figure that out. What? No analysis and design models?  But if you did have some analysis, then you could do technical design and get the rough sketch of the code.

The TDD coder is supposed to come up with types of tests to run (analysis level testing), rename identifiers (analysis), assert first (analysis), test data (design level testing), and practice this iteratively. If the analysis and design work had been done previously, the coder could use it.

And if you don’t have any of that, you do the best you can and try to figure it out. Some programmers use pseudocode and activity models called flowcharts for their technical design. They were trained to take exercises in programming class and wrangle them into code without any supporting analysis or design. Management got trained into thinking that the real world was the same and programmers could pseudocode the entire business project given enough bright students.

So, as an analyst, I was interested to figure out what programmers were being told to do if they only had a listing of needs from the stakeholders.  That list is usually so hard to understand that without proper editing and rewriting, the resulting code is flying without radar. Testing first in that case could be about several things including
  • testing stuff that you make up on the fly
  • doing something else and calling it testing
Most of the principles used in TDD are based on doing what hasn't been done before which leads to higher stress in the programmer because they have a greater responsibility. With the TDD process in a less than perfect design world, the programmer has a way to manage this chaotic development cycle from their chair. Management is more satisfied when the coder does the analysis and design on the computer because a business analyst position would cost money. Productive work on computer is good, work on paper – not so good.

Make it work first, then make it better.
The mantra of TDD is red/green/refactor. When I personally use it in practice it turns out to be, guess/make it work/make it better. I was told to do that by senior programmers.  I've been doing that as a programmer for too many years as a way to manage when the analysis wasn't done. Guess what the stakeholders want and try to get it into words that you can manage. Then turn that best guess into workable code that won't break. And if you have any time after that, give it some thought on how to reduce the code or make it more reusable.

I know that Beck is more interested in getting the gap controlled between decision (design) and feedback (test) so any thinking is good when it shortcuts the path to better code. But analysis isn't good at giving feedback so to a programmer, it's better to have some concrete metric of success rather than a bunch of papers. Write another automated test. One more green light.

Maybe that's partially the fault of revamping our programming curriculum in school and leaving out structured programming. The dearth of analysis after object oriented programming took over had the programmers clamoring for some sort of control that worked.

What's the most important quality of a requirement? It's testability. So if you gather some related needs and can conceive of a test for them, then it usually becomes a good requirement. The remaining tests are easy to extrude from the requirement.

I think coders flipped this on its head. They say that they should be able to conceive of a test and see if it fits the requirement. From their perspective, it makes sense because they have to see the linkage back into the stakeholders' requirements from where they sit in their 8x8' cube. Without guidance they have to draw the map.

But coders aren't looking at the big picture so I'm against TDD being a stand-in for analysis. It works for low-level design though. And it makes sense. So as long as the analysis is sufficient, TDD works well as a design phase validation of the requirements in analysis to the working code put to the fire by automated tests. If activity is anything before the unit tests, the lowest level test possible, then it's not about the test, it's about the requirements.
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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Share your business assets for the future. Business models and social architectures.

Bla-bla List: Share list
While designing a social web site and being annoyed by all the bickering social media (share me!, no share me!), I was distracted and came up with a new way to understand business assets. Some people would call it Web 2.0 or social marketing but to me it's an evolution of web site or enterprise level architecture assets no matter what buzzword you like. The public (the internet) and the enterprise are thinking along the same lines. Business has always used the same types of assets, but without computers, we didn't have much change unless you scaled up. It's still the same value creation process whether supplemented by technology or not.

We use technology to process information both for customer facing applications and as an internal set of applications. The public facing internet has different goals than the privately controlled enterprise networks and that has been the source of contention in the adoption of social media marketing in business I believe. The operational tension of trying to adapt a technology for the customer while maintaining control and stability of an internal system has caused some traditional IT system thinking people to ban social network access entirely. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Certainly, what I am breaking out here is not going to be a Web 3.0 design because there are people who talk about all these pieces already, but the structure that I'm putting it into is unique I think. I'd like to have any comments where you think I just reinvented the wheel of course. For me, it's a new set of ideas that came out of grasping SOA concepts and seeing ITIL deal with our social channels from a high enough level that it didn't matter whose definition of any 1.0, 2.0, or 3.0 term was right. The progression of technology assisted asset complexity is as follows:
  • local information only
  • local information and applications
  • shared info
  • shared applications
  • shared info and applications
Information and applications

Web sites were originally created to distribute files of data. The idea of the web was that of a giant file server that everyone could access. This took the place of the employee who wrote down or handed a pre-printed piece of information for every customer who walked in the business. Now it was publicly available and employees could direct a customer there.

The employee generally wanted to capture and record some customer information to process a transaction so they asked questions, made phone calls, and consulted managers to take care of the sales process. The employee also might want to automate how they did surveys and updated information to display. These types of automated processes were placed on a web site also.

The two types of assets, information and applications, have been at the core of the value transfer system of business before it was automated when it known more as knowledge and process. Now our automation of the two is maturing at a level on a large customer scale. And startups are first out of the gate to take advantage of lowered costs of entry for these assets. Other asset types in ITIL terms such as capital, infrastructure, organization, management and people have stayed more stable but have had to adapt as the needs to integrate with information and applications have changed. Entrepreneurs who understand customer development and lean startup ideas from Steve Blank and Eric Ries have the upper hand here. Their management concepts are based around information flow on the customer side and a more efficient process.

Local info only

The first telephone call was a shared piece of data. The first web site was a shared piece of data.. But we changed our common communications model from a one-to-one to a one-to-many through the use of technology. That made the barrier to entry financially lower for distributing information. Inside the enterprise, the same shift happened when a corporate database was built allowing any employee access to company information.

If you as a customer wanted to know something about the company that was stored in the database, you had to use an employee to allow you access. In a small business, they might look up the information in a Word or Excel file. The web site became a substitute for that employee as distributor of that information and that customer inquiry process became automated

Local info and applications

Programmers very quickly began exploring how they could add process or logic into the data that was on the web. SSI, SHTML, CGI and other basic ways to augment the display of data were developed. People today, still create these basic types of sites first full of data, and then progressively adding e-mail and lead acquisition functions. But the quantity of web sites now available have made the usefulness of these walled gardens less interesting unless they develop a massive amount of data and make it available through a great interface.

The corporate DBAs found that by adding stored procedures, it allowed them to better manage their data. COBOL and other languages were designed with database access in mind and database management systems developed GUIs and created languages to allow better access and management of their data. Now in the enterprise, the systems have grown into data directly accessible to the employee called content management systems (CMSs) and the data systems that manage more structured data requiring applications to make sense out it all.

Shared info

Networks allow for communication and the idea that data didn't have to be all in one place created some advantages but created severe problems as well. For the corporate data schema, it was generally better to keep data in one place under a central control but the distributed database system evolved as businesses found efficiencies to take advantage of.

It was much easier for the web site to link to another piece of data on another web site creating the distributed database called the world-wide web. But without a central control, it lacked usefulness as information increased. Google provided a simple interface to the web but without meaning. People are still trying to turn the web into a giant library complete with a Dewey hexadecimal Semantic Web indexing system or something.

Shared applications
Distributed applications started to appear as the efficiencies emerged for managing logic in different places around the corporate network. One file might have been partially processed on one server and then passed off to another to complete the processing in a batch job. Now packets of information are being passed as messages around the corporate network for processing. These packets can be managed my smaller applications known as services and on the web these services become accessible as web services. Managing the data being handled by these services and the architecture orchestrating it became known as Service Oriented Architecture (SOA).

On the web, programmers started accessing other web sites applications and combining the outputs of them to create a web site that had no data of its own but provided value in seeing property values or crime statistics
on a Google map. These kinds of distributed applications were called mashups. Even without several web servers contributing their applications to one web site, a web site could enhance the logic on the web server with logic on the browser using JavaScript's AJAX and formidable language powers rediscovered after its shameful use by direct marketers in the past.

The shared information or shared applications models by themselves were the beginning of a social transformation of the web from single managed to multi-managed. The first social users of the web were programmers who collaborated on how systems should work together on the internet. But the ability of common folk to participate in this sharing wasn't available until the administrative structures were programmed by someone who wanted to automate the sharing.

Shared info and applications

The web initially started with basic interactive applications such as MUDs and bulletin boards which became forums but the techies were satisfied with just having fun. Later the push for business use of those same functions created more socially useful applications. Now the business use of social networks is what people are talking about mostly because there's money involved.  These sites provide customer access, shared data, and shared services across multiple sites bringing together Twitter data, Facebook profiles, publicly accessible blogs, forums, news sources, and whatever else sites can get their paws on.

But the enterprise has trouble dealing with this level of interaction while maintaining control. The large scale enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications are large and complex beasts. When many people are adapting and self-managing on the web to market interests, the change is rapid and without disaster as long as you don't look at fail whales and massive hacks. When the corporation manages an ERP adoption as a single project, the results often are poor. Other corporate systems are striving to grab public data and integrate it with internal information in new types of applications such as the social customer relationship management (SCRM) systems.

I'm thinking that the corporation needs a new standard for this social and enterprise level architecture. I'd call it Socially Enabled Architecture (SEA) and it would answer the strategic questions of
  • how does a business monitor social media?
  • how does a business engage with customers through social media?
  • how does a business record that social data?
  • how does a business share that data?
  • what social media makes sense to capture?
  • what relationships are useful to capture?
  • what application types manage social data the best?
  • what processes best manage social data interactions?
  • what metrics should be used to determine social task successes?

Social assets

Value comes by assets and finding better ways to share those assets. We now are sharing more of our assets than ever before in business both of information and applications. Consumers now find that the barrier to entry is so low on business assets that they easily become a service of value when they start blogging or tweeting. Upgrading that to a web site with more data and applications to take the weekend socialite to a business venture takes more understanding of customers and business in general. But the home-style web business is growing because of that and the future looks to continue the trend. Myself, I'm looking forward to more mature SEA web sites in the future.

Image by JW_00000 via Flickr
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Friday, February 26, 2010

More action, less talk.

Step 1 - angry typingImage by doryexmachina via Flickr
I've been disengaged from socialized networks somewhat and deep diving into some new developments in .NET code recently like WebFormsMVP, IoC, and an OODB(db4o). So much to keep up on. Also I'm applying the ITIL strategy info from my recent blogs to a real case study of service management. It's important to me to do first, and talk later. But being a teacher, I'm paid to talk and it's a luxury to be able to work out the theory into reality. More soon.
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Monday, February 15, 2010

Focus on the customer to optimize sales. Learn their value.

Horserace 2
The way to see value is in the customers’ eyes. Value is not the sum total of the technology parts you assemble with the profit you need. If the customer demands it, the price can rise as long as the supply stays constant. This is a basic economic fact. The customer demands better social networks because they see value in it. When you start using the customer as the vantage point you start understanding value. The objective is to increase value in the customers’ minds. Then your sales increase.

This is the last in a series of five posts which has covered value through the help and guidance of Information Technology Infrastructure Library. Past posts included:
Listening to customers

It takes effort to keep listening to the customer and not just be the prisoner of your own process. Shift happens. Businesses have to stay nimble and look for the next big thing and be prepared to drop the thing that isn’t doing the least good to retask those assets. The business, which could be you if you have a blog, tweet, or keep up a web site, must know when things like the floppy drive have run their course and people need something new. Steve Jobs was listening as he transformed the interface of the desktop computer.

People will lie to you about what they want as the last post talked about. We lie to ourselves just as easily when we’re the customer. Customers talk up the features that they want and then realize that it was a benefit they really needed after they have it put in front of them. It’s because we think in concrete units easier than in abstract needs. Perhaps the most famous quote on this subject was Henry Ford who supposedly said:
If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.

Lazy manufacturers

Let’s update a saying that Peter Drucker, one of my favorite business writers, has used. He said that there are no irrational customers, only lazy manufacturers. Drucker was the force that helped turn the focus on the customer wherein the power of success laid. That customer now has recently been empowered with the internet and took over the wheel causing the shift from sales as we knew it to Sales 2.0, or sales that doesn’t work the old way. The customer has to be assumed to be rational but as Drucker knows, the perceived reality is usually quite different from that of the manufacturer’s reality.

The new saying should be that there are no stupid customers, only lazy service providers. That goes for Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Apple, Twitter, Facebook, and anyone else who lets the customer slide enough to where they have to find another product or service that really meets their need.  The laziness is in not keeping an open ear to the customers’ needs.

Growth can slow efficiency

You may be listening to the customer and then charging off into the distance where the customer may follow or may not. They are the leader here and not you. If you start ramping up a bigger and better product, you may be in for some rough times ahead. The not so stunning introduction of the iPad is one of those make-it-bigger thoughts that equates to making it better in executives’ minds. A bigger iPhone is just a more unusable iPhone. The iPad is just a newer type of computing device that lies somewhere between the smartphone and the netbook. Most likely, there won’t be a separate market develop for it but it may cause the netbook market to go towards touchpads faster. Prove me wrong, Apple.

Size increases can provide the brakes on the efficiency of a firm as well as a product/service. Ben W. Heineman, Jr., former general counsel of General Electric, complained that being big is not the solution to superior legal service, quality or price. In the end, Heineman “came to believe generally that small was beautiful, and big was wasteful.” The problem he was grappling with was one of outsourcing and therefore loss of control for global in-house law departments. He preferred the small specialty group in-house over the global legal powerhouses. The extremely large law services didn’t see the need of the customer to be in control and how much better small groups served the corporation.

So what happened to the economic principle of scalability? It works to a point which is more of an issue of the industry rather than a universal principle of growth. The service manager has to be aware of when size gets in the way and step back into guerrilla tactics instead of keeping up the full assault.

Value comes from turning towards the customer and giving them both what they need and a promise of stability. Value is more than a good product at a low cost. And throughout the quest for more value, you will never achieve the goal because it’s a journey that will keep your ear open to the customer who really makes your business or service work.

Image by Magnus3D via Flickr
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Friday, February 12, 2010

How to not lose value across the great marketing divide. Be the customer.

Even I joined in on the Umbrella Drinks
Marketers, are you writing an informative blog for your social savvy readers? Wrong. Are you gaining followers on Twitter to help your sales efforts? Wrong again. In business, information technology (IT) people and those associated with IT often fall into that same trap of thinking that the application they run turns out value that their customer wants.

Heck, even marketing guys think “I’m using Twitter, and people want me to tweet.” Or I’m running a web site and people want me to put more stuff on my web site. Start running your business and stop micro-managing the processes. I was raised on a Kansas farm and we don't make friends with the cows. We have to get them to market and make a living.

This management malfeasance can scale up to the position of CIO of a large corporation where the thinking goes that because they provide an infrastructure for cloud computing, that they are doing a great job keeping up with technology. What if the CEO thinks you are off your rocker because you spent your entire budget wiring up boxes with flashing lights that don’t get him any more sales? He’s your customer and he’s right. When you start thinking or being the customer, you'll get it right.

This is the fourth of five posts covering economic value through the help and guidance of Information Technology Infrastructure Library. Past posts included:
The last post in this value series to be published will be
  • The view from your customers optimizes sales. Learn the value.
The divide

There’s a great divide between what a customer says that want and what will make them happy. No person really knows what will make them happy until they experience it. A web site designer who listens to their client when they say that they want a site just like Google will go through months of development trying to capture and index millions of pieces of data in order to please the client. But the client isn’t happy because the user interface isn’t as simple as the Google interface and they don’t care about the entire world of web data. The client described a feature but they really wanted the benefit of a simple to use web page helping them leave work earlier.

One way to get around the client’s spoken request for a feature and get to the real benefit they seek is to do some sort of root cause analysis. One of the best ways to do that is something that is ironically amusing due to recent news reports of Toyota’s devastating recalls on faulty systems including brakes or accelerators on almost all their cars. Toyota introduced the Five Whys to get to a more basic understanding of optimization on the manufacturing floor. If you keep asking why long enough, you get down to a very basic cause and five whys seemed like a good number. I suppose the failure in the massive Toyota recalls this last week is either in the failure to do the questioning or in the follow-through to learn and apply a remedy. Someone was hiding their head in the sand. Time for some retroactive whys.

Features vs. benefits

You’ve heard that people buy the sizzle and not the steak. They want a ¼” hole and not a fancy power drill. They want the benefits and not the features. But our computer infested world has nothing but features written all over it. It’s no wonder that when we try to sum up what a web site is about we start listing the JavaScript features and the impressive graphics used in the background. Go figure out why Craigslist is as popular as eBay and you’ll see where benefits trump features. Automobile buyers think about extra options. But the best sales people push benefits.

Making people happy is all about economics and the academic definition of value. It’s not the product, it’s what the product does for them. And for many business students who leave their economics behind, that’s as far as we get before they start to tally up the dollar signs and head down the ROI road into the mean profit-hungry corporate monster that met with major resistance as those fellows started suffering financial heart attacks. Just like a diet rich in fatty foods, it tastes just as good when you start as it does right before that heart attack, so you generally don’t notice if you don’t want to guarantee a healthy life beyond the next few minutes. Corporations stuck on profit put blinders on that caused them to miss industry shifts and either have to play catch up or fail entirely. Those students should have paid more attention to their dismal professors of economics.

More than price

Are you still telling people about the great quality, service and reliability that your product or service has? Stop. These are just the attributes of your service. Customers want to know how it plays out in the end for them. You don’t make a sale on the bullet points of the box. You make the sale on an emotional tie to a future benefit.

Does the guy get the girl and I become a millionaire? Or do they just "need" a 2.5TB Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000 RAID 5 drive?  There’s a good reason simple marketers show geeks using HappyBits software with girls hanging off their arms. Does the product/service manage your customer base so well that people are delighted with your customer service? Or it is just a piece of .NET software using the latest REST web architecture? Show those happy smiling customers flocking around a new data server and you got a sale.

Tell the customer what the benefits are and make it real to them. Their reality isn’t based on a list of summarized facts. Customers have to understand it in their terms which is the way they see it in their future. “Picture yourself on a white sand beach, exotic cold drink with an umbrella in it beside you because you chose our network storage solution...”

If you asked an average customer about how they’ve been talked to about quality they’d say that everyone talks up quality. But see what they buy and it’s rarely based on the sales trinity of price, quality, and delivery speed. It’s based on the value that they perceive through their expectations of what it can do for them.

Economists, real economists who look past the price, call this level of expected happiness their reference value and it can be vague or not. It can be based on the first contact where you tell them about the product, the continued dialog with the customer, or prior experience with other providers of the same service. Prospect theory in economics covers this in more abstruse detail but it’s based more on common sense than charts and graphs.

The marketing mindset

Increasing value begins with the questions from the customers’ perspectives. ITIL talks about a marketing mindset which means to just be sympathetic to your customer. It starts by asking the following questions:
  • What is our business?
  • Who is our customer?
  • What does the customer value?
  • Who depends on our services?
  • How do they use our services?
  • Why are they valuable to them?
I’d rather frame that in the customers’ minds and ask the questions as if you were the customer.
  • What kind of products do they carry now and might carry later?
  • Do I feel comfortable buying from them?
  • Do I think I could use their product?
  • Could I do without their product?
  • Where can I use these products?
  • What do I say to my wife that makes sense about why I bought this?
Let’s put these questions in a different light. Say you are a social blogger. Now how do you find out if you have value? Try these questions about your blog service:
  • What is my area of expertise?
  • What area of knowledge should I be learning?
  • What person would I want to read this stuff?
  • Why would the reader finish reading my blog?
  • Why would the reader come back to read my next blog?
  • In what kinds of activities would my reader remember my blog?
  • What parts would they comment on, retweet, or tell someone else about?
You aren't really writing a blog, you're providing solutions to readers' problems. You aren't really gaining Twitter followers, you're building trust for your brand. As soon as you become a fixture in the mind of your customer, you will start to get results from those customers. The value that you find there will eventually be built into your product if you are paying attention. That value will then translate to a better service, a better mousetrap, or a better blog.

Image by Matt & Becky via Flickr
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Promise me value or your sale is toast. Warranty in value.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 09:  Actress Angie H...
Don’t interrupt me. I’m having fun on Facebook. I’m getting value. You take that away from me and I lose the value. Don’t you hate for the lights to go out, the timer to expire, or Twitter to fail? You want your pizza delivered hot and fast. You want your television program not to lose the sound halfway through and the color to be stable. If you opened a business account with a credit card, you don’t want someone else buying stuff with it. This necessary component of value to a customer is the believable promise of a good time.

As a business manager of your services, your goal is to take what you got and make money with it. If you are a non-profit, you want to provide value to a member or citizen. Maybe it’s a writing talent that you want to be paid for, maybe it’s a glow in the dark t-shirt that you found a market for, or it’s the next viral YouTube video. But it’s up to you to decide the right mix of quality, cost and risk to pass on to the customer. They of course, want it all. A thicker fabric, lower cost, and no shrinkage at all is what they ask for. You manage your business the best way you can to own that market.

This is the third in a series of posts covering what goes in to making value through the help and guidance of Information Technology Infrastructure Library. In the next posts you’ll see:
Past posts include:
Economics doesn’t avoid promises

Economics has a bad reputation because of that thing called price. We take ownership for handing over a check for the price and the service provider thinks that they’ve sealed the relationship. That’s the way economics is to most people.

But economics has never been about money. It’s always been about value and scarcity. The value of a transaction is more than a decision to buy a service concluding with monetary exchange. People don’t make bottom line decisions or else no one would ever visit a Saks, Barney’s or a Holt Refrew.

We’re looking for those things that help make a decision when other things like functions are about the same. Sure, the product costs a discrete amount. But how much is the service provider going to talk to me after I walk away? How long will the product last before it starts to crack, run out of ink, slow down, or become unusable?

The promise of Zappos for returning shoes without questioning where the customer has worn them or for how long has propelled that web store past any other commerce commodity store. These are shoes just like any other ones you get in a store. But they promise so much and make you happy at the same time, all of which adds up to profit and loyal customers.

Promise dissonance

Customers get skittish when they don’t know that their service will be consistent. They become skeptical about the uncertain value they are getting. They start wondering about outages or worse, you going out of business. It has to be backed up by a promise that the food will be delivered on time or that phone service will be restored in the hour. They will illogically switch to a competitor even after you increased the perceived value by giving them extra time, extra goods, or extra quality. That’s because customers worry more about losses than getting stuff that they didn’t initially sign up for.

The expectations of a customer can be kept from fading away by having some documentation about what the customer is getting. A food label that says what is in the box is better than a brown box. A picture is even better. But start showing your hamburger as juicy with a thick tomato and fluffy lettuce leaves and then serve up a flat burger with a flimsy couple of unappetizing vegetables and see how many customers come back.

What if you want to add utility like I mentioned in a previous post by adding resources to provide a wide menu and don’t have the assets? Then you take away that uncertainty of variation in the services. You make your promise better. Just one soup delivered consistently hot and yummy will turn a business into a magnet like Andersen’s pea soup restaurant along that vast stretch of agrarian flatness between LA and San Francisco. Nobody remembers exactly what town they are in but they remember to stop for the pea soup when they see the sign as they have for the past 75 years.

Just breaking the uncertainty of delivering your product can make a customer engage in your service. They will of course, make a mental note of everything you do from the first meeting to the box you deliver your product in. Your telephone etiquette and return policies have to be in line as well as being up front with any charges that they might incur along the way. Without a strong corporate wide policy that spells out the utility and warranty of the service you provide, you are setting yourself up for a portion of customer dissatisfaction.

If you blog you might think of these things to help you break that uncertainty:

  • keep a regular schedule
  • keep to a consistent set of topics
  • use graphics that match up with your posts
  • use backgrounds that don’t hinder first impressions
  • make all the widgets useful for your topic

Put the promise of how you deliver the product up there with the product that you have figured out suits your customer. Don’t let the sale of one or two of your products soothe you into believing that it’s all going to sell well. It’s more than money when it comes to value for the customer. Promise them a good time and follow through on it to keep that sale or keep them reading.

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Maximize value for your customers or they’ll leave. How to sell more.

The Empire State Building.
If you write a blog, the reader expects your social information service to be something they want to read. Many readers will pick up anything and discard it with the same randomness of inattentiveness as a channel surfer.

But there are those people who do have more of a need for related knowledge and are Googling about a certain topic like sales or marketing. They will distinguish the value of one post over another based on the relevance to them.

If you are reading this blog, then you are a customer of this information service. If you still watch television, you are a customer of the entertainment industry. And for many, the entertainment value of just having the television on to anything is sufficient. It could have been According to Jim, Knight Rider, or Cavemen and it would hold your attention for as long as Billy Mays could.

This is the second in a series of posts covering what goes in to making value through the help and guidance of Information Technology Infrastructure Library. In the future posts you’ll see:
The last post was :
Utility sufficiency

A television program only has to fill up the air waves to become sufficient to cover the functional part of the service definition. We’re not talking about how good the utility is of the service. It’s just gets us in the ballpark. The more functional and useful it becomes to us with a narrower and narrower expected flow of topical information or entertainment level, the better the utility.

A station that broadcasts about “The Life of a Plant” and then does nothing except show you a plant growing 24 hours a day is constraining its content to the bare minimum. You can’t argue that it’s not a television program. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol pushed the boundaries of sufficient utility in some of his reality films like “Empire” where he filmed the slow-motion shadows of the Empire State Building for over eight hours. Another incredibly boring and innovative film event was “Sleep” which showed a friend doing for eight hours what most of the viewers wished they could do and some probably did.

Other people in the minimalist movement of art pushed boundaries whenever they could to see where it broke. You saw white canvases, black squares, and even raw materials. Music gave us anti-art pieces from the 1950s on like John Cage’s 4’33” which consisted of absolutely no notes played on a piano. Remember that people still paid to go watch the event which shows that there is some value to it.

Utility constraints

As an information service or product becomes more focused on the customer, the more the customer is going to increase their perception of value. Just having lots of tweets to sort through doesn’t really help a person that wants to know what’s going on around them. To that person, seeing a huge pile of unorganized tweets constrains them because they now have to spend more time finding what they want.

Twitter was not providing enough value and other GUIs like TweetDeck and Seesmic came to rescue the overload of conversations. One of the best ideas they had which Twitter now uses is the tweet list, a device that helped provide more value to each customer by collecting folks to follow, without officially following them, in groups.

And now you can localize tweets by your IP and in mobile phones. As you start to eliminate constraints to your geo-sensitive customer, they find what matters close to them and your value increases. That’s why we will be seeing more and more geo-tagging of tweets on cell phones. Business services want to know where you are so they can talk to you at the right moment.

In television, value is added by increasing the viewing angles so everyone can see the LCD set with the same brightness removing a constraint. Radio plays to a constraint of enjoyment of music because advertisements annoy their customers. By packing songs in a long set, the total enjoyment is more than if they were broken up by ads every couple of minutes.

By decreasing the constraints, you achieve a quality product in the eyes of your customer. Darren Rowse often talks about blogging on his ProBlogger site. He recently enjoyed a great meal from which he found value and learned some blogging lessons. He found that his experience was in no way constrained to the dining room and extended to his house that night and the next day. The menu didn’t overwhelm the diners and interrupt the meal’s conversation. The restaurant walls didn’t stop outdoor aromas from being enjoyed inside.

Even Andy was probably interested in communicating that a film experience is more than what is constrained on the screen in the transition of light over the Empire State Building rather than showing a minimalist film because by the time you are cooped up with about 20 other people who paid good money to be bored to tears, you start yelling at the screen. That’s when the fun begins. The entertainment then leaves the screen and you and your fellow na├»ve underground film aesthetes start entertaining each other. John Cage’s 4’33” also attributed value to what was happening in a performance other than the piano sounds.

Utility consistency

I don’t like to take guests to a meal that I have bragged about having the best soup choices in the city and then go to find out that they only having variations on chicken noodle today. The chicken vegetable noodle may be the best in the city but you’ve declined in service performance from the expectations of the customer and thus, you’re not the soup king in the customer’s mind anymore. That variation is what causes customers to lose value and to seek another restaurant. They want a certainty that each time they get a meal, it will be delivered with as much satisfaction as the one before.

It’s important that if you tweet or blog, that the missives whether long or short are consistent. The subjects should be related. The numbers should be constant over a period of time. And the type of tweet should be the same. I like to create lists of people who are consistent and call them no-noise lists on Twitter. That means the tweets are on topic and few personal tweets confuse the flow. Here are some of my pet peeves for what gets a person knocked off of one of my no-noise lists:
  • topical tweets and then talk about where I’m flying next
  • good retweets and then some out in left field comment
  • no tweets for days and then 10 tweets in a row
  • tweeting a contest entry more than three times
  • news reporting on topic and then telling me about sleeping and waking up
Utility assets

The customer gains value when you add extra assets to a service. This increases the utility or functionality of the service and it shows up in the varied choices on your menu of products or services (the service catalog in ITIL). Performance increases by adding technology choices or assets to the product but customers don’t like it when the next product off the line has fewer assets even if they didn’t use them in the last product. Microsoft Excel doesn’t remove the macro even though the majority of the users don’t use it. They will detect a loss of value if it disappears. Remember to be consistent.

Increasing the number of choices in the soup line will increase the utility of the restaurant but will it make the customer happier? Actually yes, in general, because it raises the performance average. If one soup displeases you like the orange yucca delight, there are several other ones to keep up the perception of value. There’s a better probability that the variations on your services will please more customers. If you have the resources, you can offer soup to nuts and get more people’s expectations satisfied.

Expand your menu based on the assets you currently have. If you sell a basic product or service, you can make allegiances with other vendors to get access to other assets. You’ve seen the Ford/Eddie Bauer collaborations and foods co-branded between two manufacturers. Your expansion could be based on an addition of a web site that you’ve had all along that sells small applications that propels your little cell phone and your company into staggering profits like Apple’s iPhone.

So, you want to maximize your value before your customers leave to find it elsewhere. To do that, here are the four parts of utility that help you increase your total value again:
  • make sure you have the right stuff
  • eliminate what customers see as a restriction
  • keep your product/service constant
  • mix up as many variations as you can to sell
Get all those parts working for you and your product will be targeted right down Value Lane towards Customer Satisfaction Court.

Image via Wikipedia

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Sell me quick with your value. Wait, what’s value?

Maybe you don’t think you make a sales pitch. But if you are a blogger, your post's title is a sales pitch. If you tweet, your Twitter page is a sales pitch to follow you. Your Facebook or LinkedIn page sells to your friends and followers. If you merely work for a business and mention their name, you are a part of an image that you become a part of when the customer is ready to buy.

Can you sum up what you do in a few words?  Do you know what you offer that is of value to your customers/readers? Do you know what your value is and how your customer/reader sees it? Do you understand what kind of sales pitch you are making to your customer/reader?

You need a pithy summary more than your customer needs it. That’s because the customer will buy your sales pitch only once and then see the reality of it. If you’ve made the wrong summary, the customer won’t trust you anymore. You want them to need it more than once and to do that you need a clear and accurate focus for your service or product.

This series of posts will cover what goes in to making value through the help and guidance of Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL). In the future posts you’ll see:
Service composition

The type of product or service that you are selling, writing, promoting, or creating can be words, music, speech, action, or manufactured. It’s all in how the customer perceives what you have. Your service (my favorite word for any of the fruits of your labor) is a combination of many things that the customer wants and sees.

I typically riff off the Information Technology Infrastructure Library definitions of a service during my certification classes where the formal ITIL definition of a service is split into utility and warranty. Most people haven’t a clue what that is and dutifully memorize the definitions for the test.

Utility is the British word for what we would prefer to call the functionality of the service. Warranty is the word for what we might propose the non-functional parts of the requirements to cover but doesn’t include everything there. Because people listen to these kinds of definitions and then go right back to charging what they think they are worth is why I wanted to write about value.

I don’t know how many times I’ve had discussions with artists who talk about their skills and talents but turn out ghastly art. They put themselves in the position of the customer who conveniently loves their artwork. They then feel that it’s worth thousands of dollars or at least an hourly wage because they should get paid for their time on the canvas. Most of the time it’s worth fifty bucks at the most which would cover their meals while painting that mess. And studying utility and warranty definitions wouldn’t help. But understanding value would.

Customers choose positives

The customer is the final word in what makes up the value that you cobble together. If you are writing about the endangered life of a Physiculus, you’d better make sure that the customers you have or can get really care about that. The more they care about the product or service you have, the more they put a positive difference on the value of your goods or services and choose them over another competitor.
To make the most out of your positives, are you paying attention to what you can improve? If you are writing the best blog possible, are you
  • on a dependable schedule, say once or twice a week?
  • using the best SEO techniques for title and content?
  • crafting the sharpest titles?
  • working the StumbleUpon angle the best you can? etc.
That’s being efficient. You are effectively taking care of the outcome that that customer wants. But the real question is whether you are fulfilling their needs. Being efficient doesn’t equate to customer satisfaction. You have to have a match with the customer between your service utility and their perceived value. I enjoy reading serial entrepreneur and teacher Steve Blank’s blog that talks about Customer Development which is really matching up your product with the customer instead of matching up a customer with your product. He knows why the customer chooses value and has implemented a huge portion of the value formula in the right way.

Value is not just you producing a product at a low cost or best quality. You could have the most cost-efficient, most functional, best looking ice cream glove in the whole world and still not raise an eyebrow. I like Eric Ries’ comments last year on the difference between Ali G’s ice cream glove hoax and a Snuggie where he concludes that
the biggest source of waste in product development is building something that nobody wants.
IT people and organizations think they provide a great product but many times, business can’t figure out what to do with it to support the business. Maybe you’ve tried to introduce social media into your business. If you didn’t find out what the business goals were before and came on with a sales pitch based on the coolness factor of Sales 2.0 and cutting edge acronyms, you might have ended up not satisfying the needs of your customers.

Profits come not having negatives

What we’re dealing with here is basic economics. That’s the stuff that rarely gets out of the classroom and discussed in the board room. Sometimes governments hire an economist so they can take the flak for the economy. But one of the fathers of economics, David Ricardo (he was English, born in 1772 and never on I Love Lucy) is believed to have said that
profits are not made by differential cleverness, but by differential stupidity.
So if you blow it and turn out poor quality or include hidden costs, then you will start seeing the flip side of the value coin which takes away value from the customer’s eyes and becomes a negative difference between you and your competitor. The end result is that your Physiculus piece is ignored for some other fascinating treatise on a fish endemic to Saint Helena.

The negative value difference causes managers to be very averse to negative press reports and recalls like Toyota has had recently. In a competitive environment, the slightest edge of benefit through slinging mud at a industry peer is worth it. Politicians manage to get equal footing in a race on the issues because they listen to the voters. But even though they talk about how sad it is to have to degrade the reputation of another fellow candidate, they will still throw some mudballs because it’s a strategy that works.

So like Bing Crosby sings in the song:
You've got to accentuate the positive
 Eliminate the negative
 Latch on to the affirmative
 Don't mess with Mister In-Between

 You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
 Bring gloom down to the minimum
 Have faith or pandemonium
 Liable to walk upon the scene
Bing Crosby via

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Ignoring the big picture leads to bad weather and social media problems

Could you be a good marketing manager if you were told that you have to use outdated Instant Messaging applications (IM, remember?) instead of Twitter? Oh, and people don't really read them much anymore and there might be instructions but no one can find them.

How about if you were told that you have to manage a backwards division of several hundred people that all do the opposite of what you say and you have to learn to tell them exactly the wrong thing in order for them to do the right thing? That sounds like the world turned upside down.

People are using outdated processes that don’t work well. And we’re not talking just about social media. The way that people use social media today is outdated, ineffective, and sometimes completely backwards. The focus should be on a system approach rather than the piecemeal bulleted task approach of the “10 Things My Mother Told Me” style.

Ignoring systems causes problems

John Sterman, author of Business Dynamics, the jewel of system dynamics writing, thinks that leadership without a systems approach causes more problems than it solves. He notes that hard data backs up the idea that people don’t understand systems and people don’t naturally think about systems. People have to be taught how to think systems with models and how to ease in to doing it at first. And it also takes a person willing to be a disciplined thinker using data driven inquiries with a lot of human understanding and respect.
Perhaps, the most unnerving ideas Sterman pushes forth from the citadel of the MIT Sloan Business School are that
  • all decisions are based on models
  • all models are wrong and
  • we can’t ever figure things out completely
That forces us to be a humble participant in the marketplace rather than the gladiator of social media marketing. When we realize our inability to control everything, we become more effective in the business world.

Could it really be true that Cisco’s meltdown in 2001 which allowed them to write off $2.2 billion in inventory was caused by reduced capital spending and the global macroeconomic environment, as noted in their Annual Report? Or is it more likely that their policies were just a macro version of the Beer Distribution Game like the evidence shows?

Systems thinking doesn’t recognize side effects

Side effects are just things we didn’t think of that we should have and aren’t going to be responsible for. It’s easier to assign the blame to the drug, the employees, or the military action.
It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.
as a Viet Nam era major allegedly said but never took responsibility for. His policy was directing behavior that had mismatched values with the general public

Systems thinking requires us to be accountable and responsible for our policies that we set and not continue in the child’s ploy of shifting the blame to escape parental wrath. The side effects that we caused are really just feedback from our decision inputs into the system. You have to honestly and humbly ask yourself if you have the ability to control the environment in which you work. You usually do.

Human influence on natural systems

Then you should ask yourself how you can control the parts you think you can’t manage. Are you thinking you can’t get more than 100 Twitter followers or that no one wants to retweet you? How can you influence people when they don’t want to be influenced? You think about the system that they are a part of and in many people’s corporate vernacular the solution becomes “think outside of the box” because the box are the hard walls of details that we continually focus on.

Maybe in Mark Twain’s day when he said
Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.
there weren’t meteorological scientists who could shape weather but today we are talking about global warming and our coal burning policies are a main talking point in the debate. We recognize systems at work that we control and their effects on our world.

Certainly Mark Twain’s cousins couldn’t set off a display of the Northern Lights like the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) can and upset every conspiracy theorist in the world at the same time. Even I’m concerned about the inadvertent feedback from an unknown device that can spew 3.6 megawatts of energy above my head into the environmental system that I’m living in. Hoover Dam produces about 5.6 megawatts per day which is almost what an average New Yorker uses in an entire year in case you need to talk apples and oranges.

More research into systems points to a seven day cycle of both pollutants on the East Coast and tropical cyclones. The supporting data comes from the number of cars on the road during the week which declines on the weekend and the higher chance of rain on the weekend with the least on Monday. You do the math and remember to work the weekend and take off Monday and Tuesday.

Getting others to change

Policy resistance to change is a major problem no matter where you encounter it. Maybe you're frustrated because your call to action fell flat. If it was a tweet that went unnoticed, then it’s because of the previous tweets that you look like. People say it’s just another marketing ploy, another quality program or another 10 ways that I can forget, and then ignore you.

People react to events and not to systems. The unscientific masses assign cause and effect to a volcano, a science experiment, or an alien intervention. My tweet was ignored because of the Haiti earthquake, people aren’t buying because the stock market went down, or the iPhone already has flooded the market. They react with a short-term conservative marketing program which doesn’t have real passion behind it and barely convinces anyone that they have something worth paying attention to. The market reacts with complacency which turns into no long-term effect. The short term goals produce low sales results (the feedback in the system) which causes cynicism about real change or better marketing programs. To get people out of the rut, the individual has to be taught to be a part of the larger social system.

Social networks can be seen in a good light (ignoring the electricity consumption for the computer hardware) for increasing the social interaction of individuals while decreasing the television viewing of the general public. Many studies have correlated television viewing with lower social interactions and all sorts of civic woes. If these are to be believed we can take solace that internet browsing is increasing at the expense of of television viewing and people are spending more time with their extended friends online instead of watching Friends reruns.

The more you spend time in social networks building up your extended friendships or trust agents, the more you come to value the ability to create change. People react to other people over the social networks. Television sets don’t react.

The Fifth Discipline

Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline about 15 years ago on the need for a systems approach to business. Are you able to understand a watch by disassembling it into thousands of pieces and then, even harder, reassemble it to understand it as a whole? Are you able to assemble a broken mirror’s pieces and know what a real reflection looks like? Senge promoted the learning organization, a responsive business organization that can learn faster than its competitors. Instead of the top dog strategist learning for the rest of the blue collar workers, it’s got to be the entire organization learning at all levels.

Managing a better pizza

Nick’s Pizza and Pub (see “Lessons From a Blue Collar Millionaire”, Inc., February 2010), near Chicago, is a place where people are being educated by a different culture at all levels. They tell people what the situation (not the Jersey Shore type) is and let them choose how to handle it giving them control over their outputs. This increases the responsibility of the employees. I think Edward W. Deming would have found most of his 14 Points for Management in this business.

Managers at Nick’s are motivated to ask, learn, and dig down to the fifth why on their own to solve problems and not feel that sense of futility in a corporation that isn’t a learning organization. One young woman manager from the employee veteran ranks who started at 16 controlled costs better than three outside experienced professional general managers who talked the talk but couldn’t walk the walk. If you like Zappos, this is another great place to learn success from.

System theory

The previous posts in this series on systems theory as seen by the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) explored the following topics:
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Structure dresses your social media for success. Better than experience.

12 story structure at the height= 315 m (1,033 ft)
Do you have structure? According to the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL),
Without structure, our service management knowledge is merely a collection of observations, practices and conflicting goals. (ITIL Service Strategy)
Structure keeps us from doing the same mistakes over and over if we learn to improve by incorporating feedback (previous post). ITIL describes a framework for managing business services which can be as personal as a blog or as large as an international corporation.

Structure determines behavior

I’m sure you act differently when you wear a suit instead of a t-shirt and jeans. In your sales or marketing position, you create an operating structure with a phone, a computer, and a contact list. Your behavior would be different if your structure was a car, a map, and a thousand samples of a product to sell. When we change the structure, we change the behavior and the resulting events that come from that.

Your experience you receive during those events is useless if you don’t have a structure to change because that experiential feedback can’t be incorporated into your learning to improve your job. So structure trumps experience as well. Who would you rather hire in a sales representative job
  •  a green sales rep that mentored with a sales master for one year and understands the buying cycle completely but hasn’t struck out on his own
  • a 20 year rainmaker veteran who has been with the best companies in the city, has a good network of contacts, and says that he’s a natural and doesn’t need a new fangled way to do better-I’m-just-fine-the-way-I-am-thank-you
Your instincts should say that the sales veteran probably hasn’t learned much of what is right and hasn’t improved over his career. It’s likely that he’s a primadonna and will add conflict to your team. Natural talent can take you part of the way but the combination of natural talent and a structured approach to improvement will take you much further. It’s the structure of your day, your processes, and your job that makes you successful.

Structure is how you connect

Until you confront the way that you are really connected to your world, you won’t be able to make a significant change to how you perform. It’s the connections between all the pieces of the puzzle that make a difference and not the components themselves that matter. A systems approach in IT as well as business will look at all of the constituent parts of the organization in order to make an organizational transformation.

Marketing structure

Tom Webster of BrandSavant recently posted about Processing Qualitative Research Data With Tinderbox. The great thing about that Mac product is that it allows you to start with unstructured focus group data and develop a structure for interpreting it as you work with it. It's a solution for two hard problems at once - how to create a structure and how to work with qualitative data effectively.

The last post in this series on systems theory in business will look at the consequences of ignoring a systems approach.

Image by nima; via Flickr

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Feedback is critical to an improving sales or marketing process. Ask questions.

Disc brake on a motorcycle.
There are two basic ways to manage a sales process. One is to take the results from the output and change the process based on that. The other is to ignore the results and do the same process the same way. The feedback loop from using your own output as input for modifying your next process is a closed-loop control process. The other style is an open-loop control process where you don't let the results affect your next steps.

Open-loop vs. closed loop feedback

Open-loop processes change only when the inputs change. Maybe a customer has more money or less money. You still try to sell them the same product with the same approach. When things change too much, you don’t cope well. Maybe you know that smart guy, Al Einstein who said:
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results
An open-loop process is more like a car braking system. The user has an intention whether good or bad to slow down the “driving system.” A foot steps on the brake, the car slows down, and the car doesn’t bother to do any feedback unless there is a closed-loop anti-lock braking system installed.

Closed-loop processes have a continual monitor like a thermostat that controls the heat in your house. It is based on a goal set by the user and then the process works without intervention. If you walk in the door after work every day in an open-loop system and turn up the heat, eventually it will be summer and your system isn’t working well.

Feedback questions for sales and marketing

The faster the feedback in your system the less performance swings there will be as your goal is kept in sight. You can use this concept by checking in with your clients at every stage you can where it seems appropriate. And having a set of expectations to guide your future tasks is even better. Each question that you ask has to be listened to and absorbed so you can use it in your future meetings.

Ask feedback questions like:
  • What has been the best benefit you have gotten so far?
  • How can I improve my service to you?
  • Is there anything I shouldn’t be doing?
  • Did I miss giving you something you wanted recently?
  • Did my company do something that I should be aware of?
  • Should I have spent more or less time for a particular task with you?
  • Am I doing the right thing for you right now?
  • What other ways would provide value for you that I can offer?
  • What would you like me to do more for you?
The list is not a complete list of questions but a start for keeping the conversation open and honest. It’s the trust that the client has with you that will provide them with an opportunity for you to improve your experience with them. The more you listen, the more you’ll get honest responses.

Feedback is not linear. It takes a good manager to recognize patterns in the feedback to initiate changes that keep the process on target. When you start receiving the feedback, it will be good to keep a log. That way you can search for patterns, keywords that keep popping up, or themes that should be addressed. Then you can plan an improvement plan to get those processes back on track.

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) talks quite a bit about how to manage your business by a systems approach using a closed-loop feedback system. It also talks quite a bit about how a sales or marketing professional can improve their performance even though those specific functions are not addressed.

Follow-up posts on the topic of system theory will look at structure and the consequences of not understanding systems.

Image via Wikipedia
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