Saturday, January 29, 2011

Data blindness: Just 'cause it's in a spreadsheet doesn't mean it adds up

Pop quiz. You are a CEO needing to decide between two projects. The first is presented to you with an evocative and imaginative plan. Your ears prick up at what they are saying. The second impresses you with  detailed financial and market analyses. You can just see that hours have gone into the numbers. Which do you go for?   Before we get to your decision, let's take a quick trip to the cockpit.

I'm sure you've heard the expression "Garbage In, Garbage Out", meaning that no matter how good your processing system, if you key dud data, you'll have dud data returned.  Annoying when you are managing the family budget, life threatening when you are a pilot.  Last week it was reported that "...lives and aircraft have been imperilled due to incorrect, outdated, missing or wrongly entered flight data" (The Age, 25.1.2011). One example included a pilot mis-keying the weight of his load by 100,000 kilograms, leading to the plane's tail hitting the tarmac at Melbourne Airport in 2009.

What this illustrates is that pilots, like all of us, are prone to simple keystroke error. So why are we so swayed by system produced data even though there is a fair probability that it contains some degree of garbage?  Why do we take-off even though we actually need more speed?  Why do we invest in projects even though the Excel data is never validated?  And as a CEO, do you choose numbers over narrative?

Data - and more particularly, spreadsheet data - gives an undeniable sense of authority.  Take a 'back of the envelope' calculation, key it into Excel and suddenly there is an authority to the numbers that belies its origin. Why?  What is it in our nature that makes us defer to software packages rather than the 'unsupported' affirmations of a colleague?  What makes us suffer from Data Blindness - being blinded by the form rather than the substance?

Perhaps it's because it would be personally and professionally risky otherwise.  When relying on a data model we are relying on something other than ourselves.  It's the magic grassy knoll.  The stooge. If it all goes wrong we can defer to the numbers, the assumptions, the calculations.  And moreover, everyone you know relies on the same system - it is a business convention.

But what we don't acknowledge is the human behind the data. The human that is making subjective determinations about what numbers go where, how they should be treated, what should be included...We spend time in business forcing data-driven decisions so we can validate a view we have already formed. It is a justification process - by the time we reach for the spreadsheet we know what we are looking for the answer to be.  Confirmation bias is what's at play here - the vulnerability to the corroboration error as discussed in Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

So data gives the appearance of objectivity when it is, in fact, largely subjective.  It gives the appearance of precision when it is subject to inaccuracy and misinterpretation. 

And this is convention.

Cut to Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, a refreshing (and somewhat controversial) exploration of  rapid cognition, those moments where your subconscious streaks ahead of your rational brain to make a decision.  The moments where experts can spot a fake sculpture despite the initial data analysis telling them differently. Gladwell builds the case for the "thin slicing" - trusting your experience, your sense, your reaction to something as a valid form of decision making.   In the case of the pilot, the sense that the plane didn't feel right on take-off.

So you are the CEO. Which project do you go for?  Thin slice or data?  For me, over reliance on error prone and unquestioned data that we hide behind is a big concern.  The pendulum needs to swing in favour of the ideas, the narrative and the thinking.  As marketers, that means spending our time on the two-second thin slice - making sure our product appeals in moments of rapid cognition.  It also means questioning the data that comes your way for decision making, including who put it together and why.  Look forward to your thoughts.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Normalising ethical shopping with elephants and underpants

I have only recently become aware of Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), an organisation charged with encouraging production and consumption of ethical clothing and footwear in Australia.  This new information raised a number of things in my mind about shopping, and how ECA can go about building on the great work they already do to gain broader traction in the consumer market through behavioural change. 

1. Close the gap between Behaviour and Intent
Yes of course I want to shop ethically, don't we all? In fact colleagues laugh at my rationalised outrage about the proliferation of pirated DVDs.  But take me into a shop, fit me in a dress that is perfection (refer last blog!) and my unconscious sees me reaching for the Visa.  You may have seen this play out after BP's oil spill - a conscious decision to boycott BP was undone by sheer convenience of their bowsers.

As I've mentioned in other articles, Dan and Chip Heath call this the "Elephant and Rider" problem. The unconscious - the elephant - is so large and mindful that the conscious - the Rider sitting a top the beast - struggles to get behaviour to be consistent with intent.  A familiar example is the desire to get healthy - we may consciously decide to go to the gym and eat more vegetables, but gee the couch feels good right now so let me start tomorrow!

So what can ECA do about the divide between intent and behaviour?
  • Find the Bright spots - identify and promote influential people who are shopping ethically
  • Point to the Destination - paint the picture of what an Australia with ethical consumption looks like
  • Script the Critical Moves - tell me what I need to do as a shopper. The calling card ECA make available are a great idea to influence retailers.
  • Find the Feeling - capitalise on the positive feeling that comes from shopping ethically, make me feel miserable about imagining one of my loved ones being treated unethically in an Australian sweat shop
  • Tweak the environment - bring the ECA brand forward - stitch it into the garment as a point of pride. Which brings me to...
2. Use the peacock principle - Personal identity on display
Clothing is one of the most important signals we give about ourselves, and ECA has an opportunity to use its logo as a way for people to identify themselves as ethical (and who doesn't want that?).  Would people really want to carry the logo on their clothing?  Well...
  • Calvin Klein smashed a previously entrenched behaviour - underwear is for under-wear - by tapping into the low slung jeans/boxer above the rim trend and branding the banding. From that point on, large sections of the population adopted branded undies as a form of personal status.
  • Louis Vuitton bags market their craftsmanship as justification for premium pricing, but what people really buy into is the opportunity to display the branded fabric and logo - otherwise any other bag would do.
  • Powerbands became a common wrist accessory across professional and amateur sporting fields. A weird plastic bracelet - who would go for that? People who wanted to be, and be seen to be, high performance. 
  • University t-shirts are a classic example which project the message that, whilst I may not have gone to Harvard, I am smart enough to know it's full of smart people with whom I want to associate my brand. 
3. Focus on small behaviours not big behaviours
By this I mean that ECA can't change the big behaviour of going to the shops, but can change the small behaviour of what goods are consumed. This is where their educational and labelling efforts can really make a difference. Reusable enviro bags you see in supermarkets are an example of this strategy. My big behaviour - shopping for groceries - was not interrupted but the small behaviour, how to carry them, was.  And when you think of it, remembering your bags, carrying them empty and storing them is a much more burdensome task than selecting from an ethically produced range of clothes and footwear.

4. Strip the issue of anonymity
The principle here is that responding to an abstract concept like 'ethical treatment of people involved in the manufacture of goods' can be hard for people to grasp let alone act upon.  Likewise the scale of the problem can be overwhelming.  In Mother Teresa's case, she tackled poverty by acting for one. If you can help one person, you can help many. World Vision accomplish this by sponsorship of individual and identifiable people - they give a face to the people that need help.  ECA could follow suit by bringing forward the faces of those involved in the ethical manufacture of clothing and footwear, making shoppers feel personally engaged in resolving the issue.

 Many more strategies can be employed by Ethical Clothing Australia in tackling exploitation in the Australian textile clothing and footwear industry. One thing is clear, this will be a battle for the heart of Australian consumers not the mind.  For more information I encourage you to visit the ECA site  to find out how you can take action.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Moving a customer's mind from buying to owning

Imagine you are a boutique fashion retailer. Time and again people come in to your store, start their walk (usually clockwise) around the perimeter, acknowledge your greeting with a strained smile and maybe a "just having a browse" mumble, and then exit without trying any of the clothes.  That's me - I'm your nightmare. Money to spend, interest in buying, but inert when it comes to engaging with the purchase process.

How is it then that I happily and impulsively spent a few hundred dollars on a dress that I hadn't imagined owning before I stepped into the store?

Great salespeople are a great experience. 

What got me into the store?
I'm pretty basic - it was a sale sign.  But I wouldn't have bothered chasing a sale unless the window display was evocative.  Subtle lighting, natural tones, textured faux-stone display materials - the store fit out made me feel like a was entering a place of nature.  And what's more pleasant than strolling around a place of natural beauty?  It felt special, the clothes were obviously cared for, and the warmth generated by the store rippled through me as I started my perimeter stroll. 

How did the sales assistant engage me? 
Catherine (yes I learnt her name through the exercise) greeted me from a non-encroaching distance. "Anything I was looking for?" "No just browsing."  But then her genius move - "Can I try this jacket on you?". And she did.  She effectively was asking a favour of me - and through so doing she won my trust because the jacket was great.  But then, "There's a dress that would really suit you" - and off she skipped to the other side of the store, presenting the dress for my reaction.  She'd already managed to engage me through the jacket and I knew through this exercise she had expertly appraised my figure and gained my trust.  Most of all, it felt like she was truly interested in me not in making a sale. She had invested herself in the experience.

How did she make the sale?
The dress went on and was great. But then the show began. The other sales assistant tagged teamed as they demonstrated all the features - yes features - of this wonder dress. Tie it this way, tie it that way - multiple looks as a result of this beautifully, cleverly and practically designed dress.  Add a cummerbund and add another layer of versatility. 

Was I thinking price at this point...kind of. But by that stage it was a question of how much I would pay, not whether I would.  By that point I could have justified almost any price because I had moved way beyond 'buying' and was already in 'owning' land. And did I feel I was being sold to? No. I felt like they were helping me.

So what are the lessons for we marketers?
Make the experience concrete not abstract - asking me if I was looking for something in particular would have been less effective than asking me to try on a jacket.  For online sites, telling me to click for the product catalogue is less effective than telling me to click to view details, availability and pricing for 23 skirts.

Create a consistent experience throughout the process - in this case, the store fit-out was consistent with both the clothes and the warm attitude of the staff.  Don't set up a consumer campaign that celebrates fun, connection and happiness if you grind your customers down with a bureaucratic, boring and cumbersome purchase experience - you'll confuse people about your Brand integrity and savage your conversion rate.

Consider reciprocation - asking me for a favour was a way of making the relationship two way.  I was then prone to ask the sales assistant a "favour" ie I was more prone to ask for what I wanted - the 'power balance' was equalised.  Seems strange given I was the buyer with the purchasing power, but when dealing with an inert shopper like me, it was a great strategy to get me to act.  How can you create a two way relationship with your customers with the aim of making them more comfortable to do business with you?

Have you had a great sales experience and if so, what were some of the lessons you took with you?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How Melbourne Airport could get a flying start

Melbourne, like most major cities, spends a fortune trying to attract international visitors to its myriad attractions.  Disappointing then, to experience the inadequate and dehumanising process of arrival through the International terminal of Melbourne Airport. Yes, I am recently returned from a wonderful jaunt to New Zealand and feel that my airport experience can serve as a salient tale for marketers - it's no good getting people to your door if the customer experience is rotten.  Sound familiar?  Marketing dollars spent to get your audience to take action but the product/customer service/website... let's them and you down. 

So where did Melbourne go wrong?  Certainly the building is long overdue for a refurb, but more importantly the absence of helpful, multi-sensory cues turned what should have been a straight-forward exercise (leaving plane, forming queue, screen passport, collect bag, screen declaration) into a navigational nightmare.  So here are some thoughts about how Melbourne Airport could get a flying start on creating a wonderful tourist experience.

1. Treat passengers as customers, not problems
Every effort in the Customs and Immigration process seems to be around obscuring which city you are in and how long it is taking.  This not only points to an implicit acknowledgment that the process is undermining the city's marketing effort (ie we are not proud of our Airport process and don't want to remind people they are in Melbourne as they are enduring the exercise) but signals a clear disrespect for these paying customers.  Your time isn't as important as our systems.  How about a "time taken" clock so that I can  make a choice about spending more time in Duty Free whilst the queue frees up?  Why not have entertainers or tourist info officers parading the queues to keep people pleasantly distracted?  Disneyland, the mecca of queues (with the added challenge of small children), uses this time to delight their customers, keeping them happy and ensuring the whole experience is magical.  If Melbourne is serious about being a tourist destination, surely this is a big opportunity to exceed expectations?

In your business, do you appreciate the effort that it has taken your customer to get to you, and made every part of the exercise a positive?  And if you are not proud to present your Brand at every step it's a clear sign that your customer experience is not up to scratch.

2. Manipulate the mood
It beggars belief that the Customs process seems to want to put people in a defensive and bad mood.  Surely relaxing people will mean they are more open to scrutiny and willing to tow the line?  Just because Customs is a serious thing doesn't mean it should be a bleak experience.  Air NZ and Virgin have proven this with their in-flight safety briefings that convey serious material in an engaging, positive and memorable way. 

When your customers call you, walk in your door, are visiting your website, what's their mood likely to be and how can you ensure you are doing all you can to make their mood a positive one?  If they are tired, how can you alleviate decisions or the need to concentrate?  If they are panicked, how can you calm and assure them? If they are angry, how can you pacify and move them to resolution? 

3. Appeal to as many senses as possible
There is no universal language - but we all possess a range of senses that Airports and businesses like yours can play to.

Sound - power of music is well known.  Why not pipe calming music through the Airport building, changing the type and tone of the music as passengers pass through different stages?  Build the excitement as people exit the formal areas and move towards their "release" to the great city and great experiences they are hoping to have. Evoke an essence of the city so they find themselves humming a happy tune as they jump in their taxi, meet their loved ones, hop the bus.

Smell - mine was just about the shortest international trip we Aussies can take, but many who are visiting have travelled 8, 10, 14, 22 hours just to be here.  Do they smell and feel scungy? You betcha.  How about some pleasant smells wafting through the building, calming the mind and helping people feel energised and humanised?

Sight - scary signs are the preserve of Customs authorities.  But why not some positive language and imagery rather than the terrifying?  For example, tell me about what success the screening process has had in preventing drug importation so that I can feel better about participating. "Through drug screening last year we saved 189,000 lives, so we need your help..." would be pretty powerful.

Touch - people who are travelling are usually laden with bags and clothing, but have to complete paperwork, pull out important documents, store them, pull them out again.  How about supplying passengers with a disposable neck pouch into which they can carry their passport and paperwork as they travel through the processing sections? 

For your business, try experiencing your customer process without the usual emphasis on language.  How about getting someone from overseas to try using your website?  If they can intuit their way around, you're probably on a good thing. 

I would love to hear from people's experiences of other International Airports - who is getting it right and who can do better - so please drop a comment.