September 23, 2011

Speak as you would be spoken unto

Filed under: Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 7:57 pm

 I am not sure which is more irritating: having to repeat the words ‘home insurance’ four times over or pressing ‘option one’, then ‘option three’, then ‘option two’, and finally waiting a long time to talk to someone.

Moving home means giving notice of change of address and hence the need to contact organisations. I ended up doing this over 35 times, which was, on the one hand, tortuous, but, on the other, surprisingly interesting for the variation in experiences I had. As one might expect, there were a lot of touchtone menu systems and long waits, but I also spoke to real people in the same time zone. With wage inflation in places like India, and wage stagnation in certain depressed parts of the UK, the cost advantage in outsourcing call centres is now no longer so clear cut.

There were also a high proportion of speech recognition systems. It seems that such systems, more expensive than automated menus, were put on hold during the recession but have resurfaced now that IT budgets have been loosened. They have, however, been around for a long time. National Rail claims to be the first organisation to use complex speech recognition for their TrainTracker service launched in 2004. As with all developments in technology, there are positives and negatives. Whilst I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying aloud sensitive information such as my bank card number, speech recognition does make sense for some, in particular mobile phone users operating hands-free. Whilst the experience isn’t always satisfying, some are making life easier for themselves by speaking ‘speech recognition’ as this quote from an interview with a major provider of services makes clear.

Finally, with proliferation of speech applications – especially among major consumer services firms such as banking and telecom, whose product offerings necessitate regular customer contact with IVR systems – callers have become more adept at using speech recognition. That is, speakers have leveraged their prior experience to change their interaction styles and keyword vocabulary to what works, thereby improving call completion rates.

Just as text messaging has changed the way we write, will this new technology turn us all into robots uttering halting sentences? I –hope –not.

September 15, 2011

Being a consumer – leisure or hard work?

Filed under: Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 11:36 am
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The opening of Westfield Stratford City, the largest shopping centre in Europe, reminded me of the time when glitzy malls first began to capture our imagination. The example of Bluewater comes to mind – at the time it opened (Spring 1999), I was working at The Futures Company and a team went on a ‘retail fieldtrip’ to get firsthand experience.

What made Bluewater so striking was that it tapped into a growing trend: the idea of shopping as a leisure activity. Indeed, on its site, Bluewater proudly states how it has successfully combined retail and leisure to offer a destination day out and that people spend on average three hours there.

Fine – ambling around a huge, sparkling state-of-the-art shopping centre can count as ‘fun’. However, I am also struck by an opposing trend: how being a consumer is increasingly hard work. Maybe what I am thinking of is the dark side to ‘collaborative’/ ‘co-creational’ consumerism. It’s about the fact that we are being encouraged to work the tills ourselves (think of all those stores now that have hand-held barcode scanners for you to pick up when you come in and self-service checkouts at the end); we are our own delivery service (the ‘Click and Collect’ option is being promoted more and more, whilst Amazon have recently started offering lockers for order pick-up); and then we need to review our purchases (I have been asked to do this for a number of recent purchases, ranging from curtain hooks to getting a plumber).

Of course, there is also a bright side to all of this (greater convenience, lower costs, better information etc). Perhaps it’s just that I am a lazy consumer who grumbles about doing ‘their bit’ for ‘consumer society’!

September 6, 2011

Moving from one end of the retail experience spectrum to another

Filed under: Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 10:23 pm
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“Do you know what voltage your lights are? 12v, or perhaps 6v or 24v? Are you sure it’s the transformer you need? Not the connector? Or the wire? We can help you with all of those.”

I was standing in a very small shop local to me, trying to find the magic missing bit which would make the lights work in the kitchen. Though the hardware store was barely the size of my living room, it was truly an Aladdin’s cave of endless very useful items, carefully stacked in boxes on the racks of shelves and hooks that covered all the available wall and ceiling space. Albeit not large, this retail establishment offered a deceptively large selection of goods, which the expert shopkeeper helped me negotiate.

Most of the shops I have been to round here are like this: small but perfectly formed. The large, rather souless shops of greater London had been my usual fare but no longer. Carrying out a very superficial ‘compare and contrast’ exercise, it strikes me that these smaller shops rarely offer a smaller range of stock but just less space. Take the petshop for example: our old store had big glass enclosures for chickens, rabbits and other ‘eye-candy’ pets; our new pet shop has nothing like this but it does stock a very good selection of animals including beared dragons, geckos, as well as the obligatory rabbits, hamsters etc.

Or what about the bike shop? The old place, a Halfords, turned out to sell more car accessories than two-wheeler equipment. Our new bike shop is another treasure trove.


However, in all of these shops, the killer feature isn’t the good stock range, but the staff – properly knowledgeable and passionate about what they were selling, even it is transformers for halogen lights.

September 1, 2011

The world is more complex than it used to be…?

Filed under: Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:44 pm
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Pretty eye-catching tweet, don’t you think? I went for it and clicked through to the associated post on the HBR blog. Now I don’t want to get into the mind-boggling nitty-gritty of complexity theory, partly because it is very well covered by real experts elsewhere; and partly because the more one finds out about it, the more depressing and terrifying it all seems – to me at least.

However, I do want to pick up on the first paragraph of the post:

It’s not you — the world has become more complex.

Consider 1980. There was no such thing as a personal computer. The Internet and broadband connections to it were more than a decade away. You used film to take pictures, got them developed in a photo shop, and mailed copies to relatives if you wanted to share them. Roughly half of the 4.4 billion people on Earth were either so poor that they were cut off from the rest of humanity, or lived in regimes so repressive that no outside communication was possible. AT&T was the only telephone operator in the United States; telephony was just one of many high-impact industries that were highly regulated and protected from competition.

What struck me from reading this was that it is possible to reframe that interpretation of the world three decades ago. With limited digitisation of content, getting and sharing stuff was far more expensive and laborious. Take the example given of photos: you need film, to get them developed and then to send them in the post to others to share your happy memories. In some senses, life has got less complicated, whilst increased communications has meant greater transparency and often openess.

Though it is very true the increased interdependence of systems and things, and lack of control this causes, does bring major challenges, the coach in me wanted to quickly take the opportunity to propose another way of looking at a state of affairs.

What else can we re-view?

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