In Praise of the Pursuit of Perfection

A university professor is responsible for implanting a key phrase in my mind; “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.”  However, too many products and services are shipped “as is” because they are “good enough” or that “no one will know the difference.” In an age of too much choice, that line of reasoning just won’t pass muster.

Image courtesy of Flickr. By GryNoKa.

I have a bone to pick with Financial Times writer Lucy Kellaway.  In an article titled “Good Enough is Always Better than Perfection”, Kellaway argues in some tasks the pursuit of perfection isn’t warranted.

For example, Kellaway takes issue with 85 year old sushi chef  Sukiyabashi Jiro who painstakingly labors over his creations. In his Tokyo subway sushi bar, Jiro serves only ten at a time and is noted to have some of the finest sushi on the planet according to Michelin guide.

Kellaway claims that Jiro should not be celebrated. In fact, she says; “Jiro, or anyone else batty enough to aim for perfection in their work isn’t a force for good.”  Instead, Kellaway claims we should not aim to master a skill, especially those of low value such as sushi production. She instead argues; “There are too many other interesting or pleasurable or worthwhile things to be doing instead.”

On the whole, I understand Kellaway’s point. Sometimes the pursuit of perfection is maddening for those striving for it, much less those on the receiving end patiently waiting for such products or services. And certainly, such processes don’t usually scale, meaning that supply is usually very limited of such fine wares.

However,  is there no place for extreme quality and/or beauty in a world of mass produced sameness? That each timepiece produced by Patek Philippe should not be handled by President Thierry Stern before it’s shipped? That there should be no pride in quality ingredients or production for Ali Yeganeh’s soups? That Steve Jobs should not have obsessed with those things unseen?

No, in fact, the opposite is true. In a world where consumers often get substandard and/or complicated products foisted upon them because they arguably don’t any better, such an extreme focus on quality is more than welcome.  Consumers are hungry (literally) for the best product or service, and as I have stated elsewhere, most people are searching for the authentic and are willing to pay any price to get it.

This weekend, I visited a sandwich shop in my hometown of San Diego, California. In front of my own eyes, my sandwich was so shoddily assembled that I had almost wished they prepared it behind the scenes. The lack of attention to detail, much less sloppy processes left me pining for employees who would add some quality and artistry to preparing my meal.

One could easily argue that low-value goods (such as a sandwich) shouldn’t be subjected to rigorous quality standards or even a pursuit of perfection in its making. However, I disagree. The pursuit of the authentic means that it matters not whether it’s a sandwich, tea kettle, automobile, or software product that’s created. Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

Good enough often times is. However there will always be a place (and market) for those products and services that are scarce, special, valuable and purposeful in their design and production. And if the out-the-door lines for the latest iPhone release are any indication, consumers will stand for hours, waiting to get their hands on the pursuit of perfection.

Want Magic? Spill the Secrets of Your Black Box

With the rise of cloud computing, it’s easy to get the impression customers don’t care how a particular process or product works—that they only care about results. And the process of hiding—black boxing—the inner components of a product or service, definitely makes sense when competitors are snooping for clues. However, in the name of transparency, giving customers a “window view” of your daily processes might just be the key differentiator you’ve been seeking.

Watch Apple CEO Steve Jobs give a keynote presentation and you’ll probably come away with the belief there’s more power in “magic” and “mystique” than exposing the inner workings of a particular product or service. However, in some instances you can also create “magic” by showing customers the value creation process.

Take BMW for example. An article in the Financial Times titled; “Benefits of a Showroom Bypass” cites how BMW is now offering buyers a way to circumvent the dealer showroom and custom build a car of their very own.

Customers can customize their own automobile from paint and interior colors to installation of custom features such as grills and moon-roofs. But the real magic begins when BMW films the entire production process of a customer’s specific car – all the way down to showing the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) – and then ships the DVD to the buyer.  Imagine receiving a DVD in the mail showing how your specific car was built –now that’s magic!

If customers are not appreciative of the value your company delivers, perhaps a new strategy of additional transparency can win them over.  Some examples to increase transparency include:

  • Show customers your ingredients, components, processes, configurations etc. “Behind the scenes” tours anyone?
  • Help customers analyze trade-offs similar to what Progressive Insurance does by showing competitor rates
  • Give them more references – i.e. 90% of your customer base, not just the 2-3 customers who love your product/service

To be sure, too much transparency may disclosure your “secret sauce” to competitors. But where possible, “throw back the hood” of how your product or service is created or delivered. It may just end up telling a more magical and differentiated story than your competitors!

Question:

  • What’s the right level of transparency to engage customers, while still maintaining a bit of mystique in how your product/service is built and/or delivered?

How BMW is Designing a Better Customer Experience

Design isn’t just for products—it should be a careful consideration in the overall customer experience. Case in point, with its “Dream it. Build it. Drive it” program, BMW is taking the concept of a personalized customer experience to a whole new level.

It’s common knowledge that when it comes to shopping for an automobile, most people dread setting foot on a car lot. That’s because the customer experience often includes pushy salespeople and plenty of exasperating negotiation with the dealer on a final price.

That’s why a Financial Times article titled “Benefits of a Showroom Bypass” is so interesting. It mentions that BMW is offering buyers a way to circumvent the dealer showroom and custom build a car of their very own.

According to the article, BMW has long offered buyers in Germany the ability to customize their own automobile, from paint and interior colors to installation of custom features, such as grills and moonroofs. However, as the company has shifted production of some models to the United States, this option is also now available for U.S. buyers.

In designing the customer experience, BMW had to revisit many of its processes in order to offer customers a personalized encounter. First, there was website design on the front end and database design on the back end. (There are more than 70 million possible combinations of models, interiors, exteriors, and accessories.) Second, engagement with buyers throughout the process was a consideration. The company ships each customer a video of their particular car as it’s built—it’s the actual car in the video—so the process needed redesign consideration when “custom built” became an option offered to consumers.

Why would BMW go through all this trouble—especially when it doesn’t charge extra for a custom-built car? A few things come to mind, including better customer engagement and the creation of a unique and special “one of a kind” automobile that arguably enhances an image of status in the mind of the buyer. In addition, it doesn’t hurt that most buyers of a custom BMW end up spending more money to accessorize a car of their own.

There has been plenty of research in the field of customer choice—and how too much “choice” can ultimately lead to customer confusion. However, this appears to be one instance where a highly customized and personalized customer experience is leading to extremely satisfied customers and ultimately higher profits.

Questions:
• Does the concept of a customized automobile purchase appeal to you?
• Is “build to order” a concept applicable to premium products only?

The Next Wave in Recommendation Systems?

While some internet privacy experts fret over use of cookies and web profiles for targeted advertising, the quest for personalization is about to go much deeper as web companies create new profiling techniques based on the science of influence.

Behavioral targeting on the web using cookies, http referrer data, registered user accounts and more is about to be significantly enhanced says columnist Eli Pariser.  In the May 2011 issue of Wired Magazine, in an article titled “Mind Reading”, Pariser discusses how website recommendation and targeting algorithms; “analyze our consumption patterns and use that information to figure out (what to pitch us next).”   However, Parser notes that the next chapter for recommendation systems is to discern the best approach in influencing online shoppers to buy.

In the article, Pariser cites an experiment by a doctoral student at Stanford where online shopping sites attempted to not only track clicks and items of interest, but also determine the best way to pitch a product. For example, pitches would alternate between an “Appeals to Authority”; as in someone you respect says you’ll like this product to “Social Proof”—everyone’s buying this product, so should you!

Taking a cue from the work completed by Dr. Robert Cialdini it appears that the next wave in recommendation algorithms is to learn our “decision triggers”, or the best way to persuade us to act. In his book “Influence: Science and Practice”, Cialdini documented six decision triggers of consistency, reciprocation, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity as mental shortcuts that help humans deal with the “richness and intricacy of the outside environment.”

Getting back to the Wired Magazine article, Eli Pariser says this means that websites will hone in on the best pitch for a particular online consumer and –if effective—continue to use it.  To illustrate this concept, Pariser says; “If you respond a few times to a 50% off in the next ten minutes deal, you could find yourself surfing a web filled with blaring red headlines and countdown clocks.”

Of course, shoppers buy in various ways and not always in the same manner. However, the work of Robert Cialdini shows that in the messy and complicated lives of most consumers that mental shortcuts help with the daily deluge of information. Therefore, this new approach of recommendation systems using principles of psychology in tailoring the right way to “pitch” online shoppers, might just work.

There’s no doubt that recommendation systems already take into account principles of social proof and liking, but there’s a lot more room for improvement, especially other areas that Cialdini has researched. The answer to ‘why we buy’ is about to be taken to a whole new level.

Questions:

  • What’s your take on this next development in recommendation systems? Benefit or too much “Big Brother”?
  • Are you moved by “act now” exhortations? What persuasion technique/s work best on you?

Sourcing from China? Marketers Need to Think Twice, Maybe Thrice

On a cold, blustery day at 1 p.m., your supply chain and operations managers call a meeting to discuss outsourcing the manufacturing of a best-selling item to China. While facts and figures for cost savings and lead-time reductions are bandied about the room, you notice something crucial missing from the conversation: customer expectations and satisfaction. In fact, sourcing from China deserves very careful consideration and isn’t even close to a slam-dunk decision.

If everyone is sourcing from China, it must be a worthwhile endeavor right? Author Paul Midler might disagree. In his tome, Poorly Made in China, Midler discusses Chinese business culture, manufacturer/importer relationships, counterfeiting, and more. Of particular interest, Midler provides a behind-the-scenes look at quality control in a typical factory, where he spots workers sticking their hands in product, problems with substandard and “wobbly” packaging, and the routine shipping of defective products. “Consumer and product safety (are) not large concerns,” he says.

And that’s why, despite initial cost advantages, some companies are finding that it is ultimately a better choice to bring production back home.

A March 2011, Wired Magazine article titled, “Made in the USA,” mentions a case study for Sleek Audio, a high-end maker of ear phones. Every few months, Mark Krywko, CEO of Sleek Audio, would make a trip to China’s factories to discuss quality challenges. And when Krywko visited his outsourced factories “his Chinese partners would assure him that everything was under control. These promises always proved empty.”

According to the article, in one instance, Sleek Audio had to discard an entire shipment of earphones (10,000 in quantity) because they were improperly welded—a mistake that cost the company millions of dollars. Another issue was continually missed production deadlines, which caused Sleek Audio lost profit opportunities.

Fed up with quality issues, Sleek Audio decided to bring production back to the United States. After exhaustive research, Sleek Audio contracted with a Florida company to produce the company’s earphones. Granted, the product cost 50% more to produce in the United States vs. China, but the benefits of increased product quality and faster time-to-market far outweighed an initial up-tick in costs.

And while this is just one case study, the Wired Magazine article notes that many companies are finding that once design considerations are taken into account—to remove as much manual labor as possible—manufacturing in the United States can actually be quite competitive.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s be sure to recognize that there are many advantages to sourcing from China. China is still the manufacturer to the world—from shampoos and lotions to high-end technology. And without a doubt, according to a recent World Bank Report, there are few “low-cost” countries that have China’s infrastructure (transportation, electricity, telecommunications, water supply etc.) for making and transporting goods in an efficient manner.

However, as sources from this article recognize, an initial low cost is only part of the overall value equation. The entire supply chain must be considered in addition to the demand chain. It is for this reason then, marketing executives—with a pulse on customer needs and expectations—should be a crucial component of any product or service outsourcing discussion.

Questions:
• Paul Midler writes, “American consumers had once preferred to see the Made in USA tag, but somewhere along the line, made in China began to sound like a bargain.” Do you see a sea change in consumer expectations, or does the mantra “as cheap as possible” still reign?
• Is “paying a little extra” a wise trade-off—not only for companies but customers too?

Understanding Influence: Studying the Wall Street Effect

Film specialist Ellen Summerfield says that movies can challenge our values and even raise awareness of other cultures. And in terms of exposing finance’s “survival of the fittest” culture, there are few films better than Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Interestingly, while Oliver Stone had meant to preach a message on the ill effects of avarice and hubris, the movie actually had a counter effect of inspiring thousands to emulate the bad behavior of Gordon Gekko. Undoubtedly then, sometimes the best intentions to influence thoughts and actions may not have the desired effect.

For those unfamiliar with Wall Street’s story, stockbroker Bud Fox (played by Charlie Sheen) finally gets his big break working for ethically challenged M&A maven Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas). In a rag to riches story, Bud is asked to discover then trade on insider information—which makes him wealthy and Gordon Gekko even richer. Things come crashing down as Bud Fox is cornered by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) into providing state’s evidence on his former boss.

More interesting than the narrative is the impact of Stone’s Wall Street on popular culture and B-schools across the globe. In the Sept. 24, 2010, issue of the Financial Times, an article titled, “How ‘Wall Street’ Changed Main Street,” quotes several executives on how the movie unwittingly glamorized banking culture.

For example, Frank Partnoy, now a professor at University of San Diego remembers how, as a math student at the University of Kansas, he was mesmerized by the movie. “I was naïve,” he says, “but it actually inspired me. It made Wall Street seem exotic and alluring.” And former UBS banker, Ken Moelis says, “(Wall Street) became a cult phenomenon on business school campuses,” where students could often be heard reciting line and verse of key movie quotes, such as “greed is good” or “lunch is for wimps.”

In Wall Street, Olive Stone attempted to bring a harsh spotlight to an otherwise opaque industry. Jean Yves Fillion, a banker at BNP Paribas in New York, says:,“The movie was a reflection of the industry as it was at the time, but it also captured a turning point. Finance used to be about stability, values and relationships. The movie was at the opposite end of the spectrum. It showed a different side of finance that was taking hold.”

And in fact, this “different side” of finance ruled the roost for 30 years (with some minor blips) until the grand daddy of market crashes, the global meltdown of 2008, brought both markets and investors to their knees.

With Wall Street, Oliver Stone had attempted to weave a moralistic tale of the dangers of greed and change people’s behavior. However, his movie  had the opposite effect of inspiring hundreds of thousands into the industry. And considering markets around the world are still digging out of the mess created by the last global meltdown (see Greece, Portugal, Iceland, Ireland and more), it begs the question of whether society as a whole is ready to re-review Stone’s original intentions.

For example, San Diego University professor Partnoy says that for future quants and math majors, the allure of Wall Street is still there, but is now moderated. “When I show the original (Wall Street) movie in class, the ethics of students have changed 180 degrees,” he says. “In the 1990s, (the movie) was seen as inspiring; today’s students get the morality tale right away.”

And in a recent letter to editor of the Financial Times, 17  prominent City of London bankers attest that, “it is essential to restate and affirm the social purpose of financial institutions. Through work we all seek to realize ourselves as people, provide for our dependents and make a contribution to the social good.”

Ultimately, big Wall Street paychecks aren’t going away. And the industry will likely continue with its dog-eat-dog mentality. However, perhaps there’s also room in the industry for a return to customers instead of counterparts, relationships instead of transactions, and advising in place of selling.

Economies of the world, companies and individuals rely on the availability of credit, insurance, and other financial services to survive, expand, and thrive. The finance industry is necessary for economic expansion. But maybe a kinder, gentler, more constrained industry focused on its “contribution to the social good” is in order as the London bankers suggest.

In regards to his sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Stone says; “The issues in this film are the same as those in the last one: Is greed good? Does it work? Are human values more important than financial ones? These are all issues we face in our own ways.”

Good questions, all of which are still relevant. Perhaps it’s time for global communities to revisit them.

• In Wall Street, Stone aimed to ask important questions and motivate people to change their conduct. Instead, his movie had the opposite effect of galvanizing thousands to ape the mannerisms and bad behavior of Gordon Gekko. Can you think of instances when you attempted to influence an outcome and your efforts had a completely opposite effect?
• On the topic of “influence”, what did Stone get wrong? What did he get right?

When Is It OK to Sell a Substandard Product?

With very few exceptions, it’s not a good idea for companies to make and sell substandard products and services.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened leading up to the 2008 financial crisis where banks bundled shaky and suspect mortgage loans known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and resold them to pension funds and other investors worldwide. And while some financial services companies have since settled with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission for their role in misleading investors, most have not admitted fault.

Which leads to a larger question—when is it acceptable to knowingly sell a substandard product?

Charles Morris, author of “The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown” aptly describes the period leading up to the financial crisis of 2008 as “sheer idiocy”. To start with, he says, debt to equity—or leverage—by many financial firms was as high as 100:1. In addition, high risk mortgages were more than the flavor of the month, as CDOs in 2006 were created from “more than 40% of all mortgage originations.” And of course, we haven’t even mentioned derivatives such as credit default swaps (CDS) that tied global banks together in an intricate web of interdependency.

What is the end-result of the 2008 financial crisis? The International Money Fund (IMF) estimates losses from the financial crisis at $4.1 trillion, jobless rates still hover at 12.5% or more in some states, and 401K account’s are still recovering from losses of 30-50% and sometimes more! Indeed, if anything has been learned from this global meltdown it’s that —caveat emptor still reigns—otherwise known as “let the buyer beware”.

Let’s get back to CDOs for a minute. A collateralized debt obligation is simply a bundle of 100-200 mortgages that are sliced and diced into “tranches” and then priced and sold to investors based on a risk management formula. Investment banks engaged in buying mortgages from “mortgage mills” and then packaged and resold these CDOs to investors. Not a bad concept, unless you know beforehand that the package consists of fraudulent and dubious loans that will likely never be paid.

In fact, Carl Levin, chairman of the US Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on the Financial Crisis scolded a row of investment bankers on the process of producing CDOs and other financial products saying, “You people think it’s a piece of crap, and go out and sell it!”

But here’s the rub—as the writer of the Financial Times Lex Column describes it; “…selling crap is no crime per se.” In fact, the writer goes on to say, “If the SEC is so against the practice, it should also prevent people from the buying of crap too.”

In fact, there are many businesses that profit greatly from the buying of distressed assets including foreclosed homes, flailing companies, and even tarnished brands. Obviously, these sales should continue. However, the writer of Lex must also remember that some US states do prohibit the “knowing” sale and re-sale of defective products; for a good example see lemon laws for pre-owned cars.

A Financial Times reader responds—tongue in cheek—to the Lex column by saying if it is indeed a legitimate business practice to sell substandard products that the Lex column author, should “bear this principle in mind (the next time he/she) visits a doctor, dentist, pharmacist, lawyer or accountant.”

With the advent of the internet, the Smartphone explosion and now social media, global companies cannot afford to take the risk of knowingly selling sub-standard products. This advice of course, only applies if companies care about brand perception, reputation and integrity.

For many companies—reputation is one of the last bastions of competitive advantage. Millions if not billions of dollars in brand equity and goodwill are at stake. And consumers have long memories. There are no real shortcuts when it comes to quality.

Questions:

• In an age of “asymmetric information”—where the seller often knows more than a buyer—why are brands so important?
• When is it OK to sell a substandard product?