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The Agile Pilgrim

Agile continues to be a buzzword. This durable adjective shows up in my inbox applied to strategy, marketing, finance, entrepreneurship, and cooking, in addition to its more established focus on software and systems development.

This would seem to have nothing to do with the Camino de Santiago, a venerable pilgrimage walk, but read on. The Camino refers loosely to a family of treks ending in the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Historically, it was a pilgrimage. For some it still is. Others do it for sightseeing, exercise, adventure, curiosity, and as other motives as there are walkers.

A Camino can range from 100 km (the minimum required to get a Compostela – an official certificate of completion) to 800 km (from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France). For those with more time and tougher feet, even longer Caminos are possible.

The route takes one on trails, paths, and roads through forests, meadows, cities, and towns. Some of the way is hilly, some flat. The path can be rough or easy under foot. You may encounter rain, wind, heat, cold, and fog. The scenery and townscapes can be beautiful, monotonous, ugly or intriguing. There is no Yellow Brick Road, but stylized blue and yellow route markers abound.  You don’t know who or what is around the bend. It may be a fountain with refreshing water, nonpotable water, no water at all, or in at least one case, wine. Delightful days can be punctuated by long slogs.

Eating and sleeping are part of the adventure, especially on days where you’re not sure where you’ll end or get to the village you planned, but find no available rooms. They can be at cafes and restaurants, pilgrim hostels, or hotels. These are incredibly varied. Some are outstanding, some poor, a few you just don’t want to stay at. Most are inexpensive to moderately priced, some simply accept donations. Rarely, I have found myself in some village after dark with no place open or available.

In these and many other dimensions, the trip itself is amorphous and ambiguous. Some parts of the trail invite one to linger, others to keep on without pausing. Walking hundreds of kilometers, the mind as well as the body wanders. Among these wanderings is the notion that pilgrimage and product development are more similar than you might think.

A project such as a trek or a new product can seem, ex ante, simple or at least straight forward. Functional specifications for a defined market or starting point and final destination. In the case of a trek, get to the starting point, walk until you arrive to the defined finish point, declare the goal attained, and you’re finished. Yet the number of tasks, decisions, and risks multiply quickly.

Hmmmmmm, starts to sound like we’re still in the office.

These include:

  • How far to go and when
  • Team members or solo
  • What to carry
  • What to wear
  • Budget of money and time
  • What range of conditions to prepare for
  • Where to stay
  • What to do about injuries
  • Budget – implicit or formal and explicit
  • Most importantly, what do you derive from weeks of putting one foot behind the other
  • Go as part of a group/team or solo
  • Whether to go at all
  • My feet hurt, it’s been cold raining for three days, what am I doing here?

As in many version 0 products, simplicity is a good, though not the only, choice. A meme along the Camino is a depiction of a medieval pilgrim. He wears a cloak and sandals, carries a walking staff, drinking gourd, and small money pouch. Without backpack, change of close, or extras of anything, our prototypical pilgrim traveled light and relied on the hospitality of monasteries or churches for food and shelter.

For the contemporary trekker, options range from planning down to the kilometer and hour to just showing up improvising a response to whatever you encounter. If the goal is to check this trip (or product feature) off your list, the first option may be the most efficient. If the goal is to maximize the experience and serendipity of trip, plan less.

An agile approach is more volatile. You will end up staying at both unexpectedly funky yet satisfying places, meet a wider cast of characters, have a broader variety of meals and encounter more not in the guidebook. In effect, you respond to the feedback and demands of the environment.

There are down sides. The resources for your project may be yanked just as on your trek, It could get dark, cold, and rainy with neither food nor shelter in sight. In the case of the Camino, the risks have been worth it.

Agility is recommended to optimize the experience, if the risk of failure is acceptable (to whomever stakeholders have the most votes.)

There is certainly a place for unagile in both product development and adventure. One doesn’t do agile development on, for example, a power plant.

Unagile travel is vividly chronicled by the recent film, Free Solo
The “pilgrim,” in this case climber Alex Honnold, chooses to climb the more than a thousand meter vertical rock face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without the support of ropes or other safety equipment. Physically, Alex is supremely agile, yet he accomplishes his climb, by meticulously planning and rehearsing, until he has virtually memorized every step of the mountain.

Whatever you do, enjoy the walk. As they say in Spain, and perhaps should at product meetings – ¡buen camino!

It’s seldom mainstream news, when a retailer changes its return policy. When venerable LL Bean did just that, it was. National media as well as the trade press noticed.

Bean, the direct marketer of camping and sporting apparel and its signature rubber-bottomed boot, had long defined a position of treating customers very well. This included a very liberal return/exchange policy of anytime for any reason with or without receipt. Founder Leon Leonwood (aka LL) Bean (1872 – 1967) was reputed to have said “no one ever won an argument with a customer.”

Back in the day, service at Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine or from one of its mellow phone reps for catalog shoppers, was deservedly legendary. Case in point: I once ordered a set of bike panniers from Bean on sale. They were fine, but eventually one of the brackets, which attached them to rear rack, fell off. Some months later while vacationing in Maine, I stopped at the store to ask whether I could buy a replacement bracket.

The salesman looked at one of the panniers and left to do a few minutes of research. He returned, apologized that that product was discontinued, and without my asking (or expecting), offered me the full cash price and an apology.

That was then. A recent visit to a Bean store, is a different experience. The number of sales associates seems reduced and those remaining are seen neither as eager or knowledgeable as in days past. Gone is the free shipping on all items. Returns will be allowed only within one year of purchase, and only if the customer has a receipt.

Bean is privately held and does not release detailed financial statements. Estimates from Privco show less than 1% annual growth over the last five years despite increasing the number of domestic retail locations by a third (from 31 to 42). For Bean, sales growth has no longer been a walk in the woods.

Bean came to believe, not implausibly, that a number of customers were exploiting their return policy. For example, by returning merchandise bought from third party discounters for full price from Bean. In the face of no growth, they assume the tired strategy of squeezing expenses including returns.  But at the expense of diluting their primary value proposition of exceptional customer engagement and service.

“Fraudulent” returns – return of merchandise not bought from the retailer or used for more than a trial period – can be a real problem.

The Wall Street Journal reports that some sellers, such as Best Buy, tightly monitor returns. They refuse to grant returns to customers, whom their system flags as being “excessive returners.” This can happen even if the return conforms to Best Buy’s stated return policy – with receipt, within 15 days of purchase, and unopened. Of course, Best Buy unlike Bean, was never known for customer service or customer loyalty.

What else could Bean do?

Rather than jeopardize its brand image and position and surprise customers by declining their returns, it could institute better sales tracking. Thus, if Jane Q. Customer chooses to return a pair of boots, its purchase would be available at any of their sales terminals. This is already common practice. Bean could brag about the new full year to return policy with no receipt required.

The news has event has by now been largely forgotten, but the underlying problem remains. Beans still needs to grow sales. This might start with revamping their rather tired and tiring ecommerce site. But that’s material for another post.

Thanks For Not Asking

In the unending quest to “provide better service” or “get to know the customer,” a similarly unending army of organizations is asking us (visitors, prospects, customers, former customers, and innocent bystanders) about our experiences, desires, preferences, and opinions.

In the good old days, surveys were limited by the expense of field interviewers, printing and postage, and most effectively by limits in processing and analytical capacity. That was in the age of Little Data.

Now, thanks to the likes of SurveyMonkey, Zoomerang, ForeSee, Qualtrics, and so many more, anyone with a mouse and keyboard has a license to impose and irritate by survey. Without warning, they can and do open fire by text, email, robocall, and pop-up.

This ability to inquire is not inherently bad. In practice it is often the lazy marketer’s way to bother and alienate, while learning nothing useful in the bargain. Aside the common errors of badly worded questions in a badly designed format. The offenses of the survey happy fall into familiar categories.

They ask:

Too early – The prospects or new customers are asked about experiences they haven’t yet had. Visit the site of some organizations and after a few clicks a pop-up window will offer to survey you about your “experience” on site. This before you’ve found what you came for or bought what you came to buy, and were satisfied or frustrated.

Too often – Asking more frequently doesn’t yield better data. It may however be a measure of a flaying marketer’s attempt to address customer irritation and brand erosion.

Too much – As long as they’re at it, why not ask another question or two or twelve? Wouldn’t it be nice to know… I’m reminded of a nonprofit, on whose website I was making a donation. Their pop-up survey had 37 questions across multiple pages and all had to be answered before betting to the next page. The only alternative was to abandon their survey and their site.

Too vague Diffuse or inappropriate questions, which could not be reasonably understood, let alone answered .

All of these violations come before analysis and action on the data. When the response rates are low for all of the above reasons there is a tendency to abandon the study and compound the problem by trying yet again and perpetuate the whole silly cycle.

Marketers, unfortunately, lack the equivalent of a Hippocratic oath, viz., “first do no harm.”

A number of organizations do get this right. Consider a recent message to clients of the Vanguard Group. Rather than barging ahead, it included a button asking if they would answer two questions. Those who clicked, were presented with two and only two multiple choice questions.

Thanks for Not Asking

Foot in the door can lead to foot in the mouth

Organizations should often get relevant feedback from customers, clients, or audiences. Increasingly though, it seems every time I transact with a firm, I get a follow-up message asking me to evaluate the experience. This could provide useful information to the offering organization, improve its service, and even strengthen the provider client relationship.

In practice, it usually does none of these. All too frequently, the survey, questionnaire, or interview becomes a license to pile on reams of tangential or irrelevant questions. They seem to figure as long as you’ve clicked a respond button, they have a license to ask all sorts of questions in lengthy detail. In this age of Big Data and machine learning they seem to think, why not bulk up a data store? Some time, they may even try to analyze it and discover amazing insights.

Case in point – calls to technical support. Take, Adobe (please). After receiving what passes for “support,” you get a message asking you to “take a moment to let us know how we’re performing.” After the fourth or fifth screen of increasingly detailed yet irrelevant questions, you may feel taken advantage of. As, I suspect, many other customers did; I closed the window and abandoned the survey.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are, firms such as Blue Host. As you are being queued to speak with a support specialist, a recording tells you that if you wish, you may stay on after the call and answer a single question. The one question rates the service, similar to a Net Promoter Score.

It should be obvious to organizations, which abuse the privilege of asking customers for feedback, that they compromise both their customer relationships and the quality of their data. Apparently the part of the organization doing or commissioning the research is not the part, which lives with the consequences of irritating customers.

Some firms are not content to let the memory of bad service badly engineered fade but send “Friendly reminders” to customers who don’t want to waste yet more time by responding to surveys.

This should not be a difficult problem. It does require the organization to think about what information it should collect. Would it be able to act on such information to produce some improvement noticeable to clients? If not, think again before clicking that send button.

Escaping the Commodity Trap

Pricing is an important part of any product strategy. As such it should include not just the price of a unit of whatever you’re providing but the total cost of acquisition. That is, price includes costs of searching, acquisition, waiting time, and whatever else comes between desire and fulfillment.

The assumption in rationalist economics is that lower prices ceteris paribus (to borrow another fiction from economics) will increase demand. Perhaps – if your product were a pure commodity. If you’re providing, services, software, sugar cookies, or almost anything else; neither low nor high pricing is obviously correct. Pricing implies attributes of your product, which you do not explicitly state.

I had time to ponder this recently while waiting in line at a bagel shop. Bagels are hardly exotic. Their very fbagelamiliarity, like pizza, ice cream, and smart phones, allows for endless debate. Needing a couple of bagels and already being in lower New York City of a Sunday morning, why not stroll an extra half mile to semi-famous Black Seed Bagel shop.

The unassuming space was perhaps 20 feet wide, but easy to find by the queue outside. Behind the counter was a table strewn with bagels and behind that two large ovens. Diners hunched over the few high tables in the dim dining area. Most just stood where they could squeeze in waiting for their numbers to be called, so they could pick up their sandwiches and leave.

Having to wait in line does afford chance for stray conversation. The two twenty-something women in front of us assured us that these bagels were worth the effort. After getting to the head of the line, I asked for “multi-everything bagel,” only to be told they were out of them. I settled for a sesame and a multigrain.

The clientele were not here for a bargain. My survey of a dozen providers around Boston and New York found a median price of one dollar. At Black Seed, they cost $1.50. At the current New York city minimum wage of $8.75/hr one could add $3 to the total tab for waiting time or perhaps $3.00 per bagel. That afternoon, we stopped at the venerable Zabars on the upper West Side. The wait was minimal and the bagels $ .95 each.

Were Black Seed’s “better?” Back home over a late supper of smoked salmon and bagels, we did a taste test. Zabars beat Black Seed and local standard Rosenfeld’s. Black Seed’s multigrain bagel, in the picture, was airy in the sense that it had extra empty space. This “benefit” both reduces calories, provides transparency, and allows you to see what’s in your sandwich.

De gustibus non est disputandum, but the Black Seed experience was distinct. In contrast, the nearly frictionless transaction of buying bagels at countless other places seems immediately forgotten.

Whether Black Seed’s physical product is superior or its cafe’s inviting is, of course, irrelevant. Through social media, a superior online presence, and inspired marketing It has escaped the commodity trap.

As an anonymous bard might have phrased it:

As you wander through life
Whatever be your goal
Keep your eye on the bagel
And not upon the hole