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Aug 2010

Are online-only companies even more faceless?

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I feel frustrated with Amazon sometimes. I’m sold on their new Kindle for the UK, and I’ll order products from them over anyone else. However, recently, I ordered a DVD box set which arrived, as have many Amazon-bought products as of late, not in the best condition, and certainly not what most people would classify as “new”.

Now, what to do about this? I complained, of course, but nothing’s happened. I’ve received no voucher, no apology whatsoever. Nothing. Silence. What makes it even more insulting is there wasn’t even an automatic response, no “Dear Customer, we’re sorry to hear”, just a complete lack of care.

Currently, Amazon are beginning to sell more best-sellers in their Kindle e-book format than in physical form, as I mentioned last week. However, they seem to have forgotten that those ordering physical products aren’t going to be pleased if they’re arriving in poor condition. You can’t dog-ear or scuff a Kindle download, but you can break the hearts of literature lovers with a book in shoddy condition.

It would seem, with the arrival of the Kindle, and now especially BankSimple, the world’s first “online-only bank”, that those willing to go all-digital get a better deal when it comes to quality of service. With BankSimple, this means low-to-zero fees, great rates and less paying out for the offices and branches that need to be paid for, rented, furnished and staffed as a result. But what about the downsides?

One of them would definitely be the lack of actual human interaction. I’m as loathe to sit on the phone talking to a bored twenty-something in a call centre as the next person, but I like the fact that I can walk into Abbey, Lloyds TSB or Citibank and actually speak to someone. I can’t do that with Amazon, or Paypal, and that’s a major source of worry. Being able to know that there are people who have to deal with their customers face-to-face, on the other hand, is comforting.

Of course, it’s not the CEO behind the glass wall stamping your cheque, but it’s someone, at least. BankSimple reminds me a bit of the Mac OS X. It’s simple, easy, visually friendly and quick. But it’s so simple that if something goes wrong, figuring out how to fix it can be an exercise in sheer frustration.

So how to promote a brand as human and friendly when you’ve got absolutely no humans on show? Put humans at the forefront of your business strategy. BankSimple’s plan to integrate itself with Facebook Connect and @Anywhere is a vital part of bringing banking to the next level of “online” compatibility. I don’t know about you, but given the choice between the traditional awkward exchange of bank details anywhere but online (our main source of communication now, don’t you know?) or being able to click someone’s name on a network page and transfer funds, I’d take the latter.

So, given the advantages, what about the disadvantages? Everyone’s forgotten, seemingly, about Amazon’s rather awkward George Orwell scandal, but I sure haven’t. What if BankSimple were to make a mistake? You can’t give someone a voucher to replace the money they spent on, well, their money, can you? Social media is a popular but casual affair, and I’m not sure how seriously the bank will attempt to get everyone to update their status while paying off a debt to a friend in the same five minutes on the same site.

People are cagey about money and their purchases, but they’ll talk at length when in the local branch or on the phone with customer service (unless they’re on pay-as-you-go). But if BankSimple reneged on its pledge of loyalty to customers, and became another bail-out bank like the ones it so wishes to put out of business, then what happens?

A word of advice: whenever wondering whether to invest in anything digital where your rights seem blurry, think of  Space Odyssey: 2001. Now imagine the bank telling you they “can’t do that, Michael”, when you’re trying to pay your mortgage. Makes Wall Street look like Sesame Street, doesn’t it? If It’s a Wonderful Life taught me anything, it was that warmth and love for your customers make your bank a good ‘un.

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Jul 2010

Do businesses need paper?

Posted in Business tactics | 1 Comment »

I’m going to introduce you to a theory I’ve been formulating today that many old-school businessmen and women would reject instinctively – the paper business document is effectively dead in the water.

My father, a respected and well-known IFA in the UK, often has to refer to legal texts and various volumes in order to make sure he’s doing things “by the book”. A lot of people have this problem – piles or shelves full of books – hardbacks, softbacks, A5, A4, cracked spines, pages falling out, overuse, damage, spilt coffee. It’s a nightmare. But what’s the biggest problem?

Dad seems to feel it’s the weight. If you, like him, are slogging it through Moorgate and Bank with a laptop bag that holds not just a netbook, but a 400 page, hard-bound, A4 legal text, it’s going to hurt after a while. That’s a big thing, for a man who could walk from here to Manhattan without stopping for breath. “One block further,” he used to tell us, and we’d mentally prepare ourselves for the inevitable marathon to the finish.

Now he uses an Amazon Kindle. I met him for breakfast in Farringdon soon after he’d bought it, and I will admit: I was excited. I adore paper – the feel of the pages, sticking a paperback in my back pocket, reading on the train. But I picked up the Kindle and wanted it more than I’ve wanted most material objects I’ve seen, as appetising as the scrambled eggs on toast I had that morning. It also contained PDF files, many of them, and some of them hundreds of pages long. Was his back as sore? Not any more.

Currently, Amazon’s sales of hardback books have been overtaken by its ebook sales, and by 2011, the company predicts ebooks will outsell its physical form. Admittedly that’s just one company, but let’s not mess around, here – it’s Amazon. The online store sells everything bar the kitchen sink, although they do outsource a fair few items (DVDs from IndigoStarfish in the UK, for example). The fact they’re seeing the light when it comes to a digital page isn’t just because the Kindle is their platform.

Let me put you in a situation, and picture it for me if you will. You’re in a conference, and you need to read a speech, and refer to several documents. Either you somehow organise several pages of A4 onto a small lectern, or you whip out a Kindle. Ooh, everyone will say, this person’s done this before.

Yeah, it’s an image thing – so what? Why have you all bought the iPhone 4 even though it’s broken? Image. Why do we still buy most things in life? Image. Image is important, and it goes beyond your company logo. Someone with a portable database of files, speeches and charts on what is no larger than a thin paperback is going to feel a lot more organised and less chaotic. I can’t stand ploughing through reams of paper, but I could read PDFs for hours.

Many businesses would argue that the 50 cent price per PDF converted (read: downloaded) by Amazon for your Kindle would amount to thousands within the month. Allow me to debunk this one as well. Buy a USB cable, and do it yourself. It’s no more difficult than using a USB dongle, and it saves you a good tenner a week if you’re getting a lot of client portfolios or sales reports.

The new 3G functionality seals the deal – have a document on your Blackberry, but not the Kindle, and need to transfer on the move? Your Kindle has its own PDF-receptive email address and free wi-fi everywhere it goes in the UK. Add Wikipedia and Google searches, and you’re golden.

Paper is quaint, but we all work on laptops, not typewriters. Let’s move forward, and move on.

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