Monday 26 July 2010

10,000 to one - how smart design boosts customer support performance

When you're managing (or planning) a high-growth online service, one of the key considerations is customer support.  While you can increase the capacity of your servers and boost the bandwidth to meet demand, your reputation could fall apart if you're not able to support growing numbers of visitors.

While banks and retailers often plan on a visitor to customer support ratio of 500:1 and a typical ISP may achieve 1500:1, many online services aim much higher.  Here are two essential features of customer support:
  • it can help delight customers and win loyalty - especially among those who initially have a problem
  • but it contributes the highest share of variable cost to many online businesses
So, customer support is important, but expensive.  And it can be very hard to scale up.  If you want to scale fast you may have to accept that your service level will drop, and that your bond with some of your visitors may begin to fray.  Some organisations with millions of users respond by making it difficult to reach their customer support (when did you last talk to someone at Skype or Google?), while others swallow the costs of 24 hour call-centres and watch margins shrivel.

But with careful management it is possible to give your visitors accessible customer support without impairing growth.  The key is to provide the support, but minimise the chances that each visitor will want to use it!

This is a risky process - get it wrong and your customer support team will be under pressure - but the secret is to use poka-yoke design principles to ensure that visitors don't need any additional help.

Poka-yoke (roughly translated as "mistake avoidance" or "idiot-proofing") involves designing processes that reduce the chances of problems arising during a process - in this case the experience a visitor has of the service they are visiting.  Here are some design considerations that can help reduce the chances that visitors will need human customer support:
  1. keep site layouts simple
  2. minimise the number of options and decisions in the process
  3. use logical steps to break down the process into intuitive components
  4. use automated verification and form checking wherever possible and give real-time feedback
With careful design it is possible to manage and predict the load on your customer support resources by applying these principles in a continuous process.  As certain visitor patterns emerge, design can be modified to anticipate and address common concerns or complaints.  And it's worth remembering that visitors prefer not to have to contact support since it costs them time and effort too!

To serve the needs of 10,000 visitors with a single customer support team member, each visitor can occupy only 2.9 seconds of an 8 hour working day assuming that their support requests are evenly spread!  Since they never are evenly spread, and since the typical support request takes longer than 2.9 seconds to deal with, it's worth applying a queueing model to assist with analysis and preparation.

So, even assuming even distribution, if your customer support requests typically take 5 minutes (300 seconds) to deal with, you need to ensure that fewer than 1% of your visitors need help.

When we first launched Bmycharity we had a tiny fraction of the visitors that the service now enjoys, but we were very cautious about offering any real-time phone or online support, relying on webforms and email instead.  But over the years we systematically redesigned the site.  We made real-time phone support prominently available, and we addressed the design of every process element that feedback indicated caused visitors trouble.  We never perfected the process, but we were able to sustain dramatic growth in visitor numbers without increasing our customer support resources - and we regularly received recommendations for our prompt response to support requests.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast - lessons from Commando training

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

On Friday 16th I visited the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (CTCRM) just south of Exeter to Meet the Marines.  I was one of 30 guests of the C Group, an organisation that is building bridges between the business commmunity and the Royal Marines.  During the course of the day I was introduced to the latest developments and techniques used in Commando training.  It was 12 years since my last visit to CTCRM and in that time the trainers have developed many new capabilities that are valuable to both Royal Marine and civilian alike.

The day started with an introductory run around the assault course and a competitive shoot on the live firing range, followed by an unarmed combat demonstration.  Since I left the Royal Marines in 2000 attitudes to unarmed combat have evolved to cover the range of arrest and restraint techniques that are required in Afghanistan, and to reflect the fact that the traditional punch and kick moves are hard to carry out when carrying as much as 120lbs of equipment.  Several of the ladies in our group in particular were very pleased to discover some of the techniques they could use to restrain or discourage an assailant.  The key theme highlighted by our instructor was "simplicity".

Next we moved to the Coaching Advisory Team, who introduced us to the visualisation and memory techniques they use for training elite and special forces.  Alexei, a very impressive coach explained the effectiveness of linking and visualising (as soon as I have further reading on this subject to recommend I'll reference it here), and confirmed that this new element of the Commando training system has helped turn around 85% of borderline students by unlocking their mental capabilities.  That delivers savings of millions of pounds per annum.  After the presentation many of us queued to ask further questions!

After briefings on the unfolding situation in Afghanistan (where 75% of all Royal Marines will be deployed over the next year), and demonstrations of mine clearance and building entry, we were introduced to Modified Urban Combat - the process that the Commando units now use for attacking and clearing buildings.

Urban combat has always been considered among the most challenging phases of war - communications, resupply and command are all exceptionally difficult, and the close-quarters nature of the fighting requires aggression and control in equal measure.  We watched a demonstration of building clearance in which a team of Marines cleared a weapon factory using the dictum "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast".  The team worked steadily through a complex checking each room systematically, marking cleared areas, casualties and arrested suspects while minimising the dangers of friendly fire with methodical and simple procedures like waggling the muzzle of their weapons around the corners of walls.

True to the guiding principle, each Marine moved slowly, but the overall effect was a smooth progression as the whole compound was cleared as if a liquid was flowing through it (I was watching from a gantry above).  To ensure that the process was robust, the communications between the individual Marines was very simple and based on practiced routines, so problems and setbacks (one Marine's weapon jammed as he cleared a room) were easily overcome.  In this simple yet effective assault there were many lessons - simple procedures, interoperability, measured investment, delegated leadership and of course, the quality and courage of the team members.

Since I completed my Commando training in 1996, the intellectual and technical framework for training has expanded dramatically to include the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I was truly impressed by the rigour and adaptability of the Royal Marines.  Enthusiastic knowledge sharing was very evident - during the course of the day I met Americans, Australians and Saudis comparing experience and testing assumptions.  By combining the expertise of educational psychologists, elite sports trainers and anthropologists among many other disciplines, the Royal Marines are staying at the forefront of their profession.  I was one of several guests who determined to borrow from their hard-won lessons.

As we left CTCRM we passed the memorial wall where the 100 Royal Marines who have been killed since 2000 are remembered.  Many more have been greviously injured.  Our host, Colonel Jim Hutton, invited us all to join the Corps family and get involved with the support of those who are unable to continue to serve - giving mentoring, career advice and introductions where appropriate.  Count me in!

If you would like to find out more about the Royal Marines and experience some of the challenges of Royal Marines training, check out the Commando Spirit challenges. The Commando Spirit Appeal is part of the Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund.

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

Monday 12 July 2010

Thin client lunch! A lesson in robust infrastructure

I met a friend for lunch today at a Thai restaurant in Isabella Street near Southwark Tube station.  The chicken satay was delicious and so was the green curry, but as I relished the flavour I noticed an unfamiliar spicy smell.  It became quite strong and eventually a waiter asked us to evacuate the restaurant since the building next door was on fire.

We took our plates with us and enjoyed the remainder of our meals in the street outside while the fire brigade took control of the situation and a crowd gathered to spectate.  As we forked down coconut and chili infused chicken and rice standing on a street corner, a distressed man rushed up and asked if we worked for BT - begging some big questions about BT's public image...

Once we'd finished our meals we tried to return the plates to the restaurant and settle the bill.  The staff waiting outside the building accepted the plates but wouldn't allow us to pay - they were unable to get into the building to process the payment.  We left them smoking disconsolately.

The friend I was meeting is responsible for some of the critical systems of RBS, ensuring that traders have reliable access to information and analytical tools under all circumstances including fire, terrorist attack and flooding.  As we walked along the south bank of the Thames past Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge we discussed the effects that cloud computing are having in reducing the risk of single-site failure, reducing cost and increasing processing power.

It's not yet clear that cloud computing will help us determine genetic therapies to cure cancer and other illnesses (though there are reasons for optimism) - but if your infrastructure is vulnerable to single points of failure then you're accepting a huge risk which you can almost certainly eliminate - and save money.

Here are some simple questions about infrastructure which every business should consider - unless it wants to provide competitors, customers or criminals a free lunch:
  • Is there any single server cabinet, room or building the loss of which would put us out of business?
  • If workmen dig up our main internet connection are we unable to recover?
The answer to these questions does not need to be "yes" - even small and medium sized businesses can now enjoy the security and robust infrastructure traditionally associated with major banks like RBS.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Beyond trade sale - and seeking CEO/COO opportunities with Private Equity or Venture Capital backed businesses

Now that we have sold Bmycharity, a business we developed from concept through profitability to trade sale and which I led as CEO, I'm seeking opportunities to put the many lessons learned to good use.  I'm advising a small number of companies on an interim basis, and looking for deals in which my management skills can make a key difference both to sales growth and to cost management.

Much of my research focus is on healthcare and renewable energy, but with 10 years of experience in developing online challenger marketing propositions and using new media and new technology to drive down operating costs, I'm seeing potential in a wide range of sectors where organisations are attempting to come to terms with the threats and opportunities of the new economic environment, and the accelerating pace of technology and new media innovation.

My co-founder and CTO at Bmycharity, Matt Cooper, is also hunting for new projects that will benefit from his technical leadership.  He's exceptionally good at delivering high-performance technology-based services at ruthlessly low costs, and we're collaborating on analysis of several potential value propositions.

This site will chart my search for leads and deals - though I'm always careful to protect confidentiality.  Please comment, challenge and join in!  I believe in "playing it forward", so if you want to get in touch to share ideas please do.  If I can't help directly I may be able to put you in touch with someone who can.