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The world is really round? Is the Virtual Assistant Dead?

So we have all read books on the topic of outsourcing your life (4HWW, TWIF), and they recommend outsourcing tasks that are frankly a waste of your time. I remember sitting in a senior management meeting of a mid-sized company in 2002, the CEO stood on stage and encouraged all his managers to stop making copies leave that to the administrative staff. The intent was to focus efforts on strategic and higher skill related tasks utilizing resources at lower bill rates to do more administrative tasks. Great in concept but does it really work? I can understand in a larger company setting when you have staff supporting you who gets to know you and work with you, there is a certain learning where they can take over some specific tasks with high level direction, in the case of a short term resource or where language may be an issue it seems to be proving that its easier to just do some tasks yourself. In the spirit of GTD (David Allen) you can save up those tasks for a specific context where you knock all those lesser tasks in a moment most appropriate. When Lee Iacocca started work in the eBike startup he shared how in a large company you have many people surrounding you and in a startup you are the resource and you answer your own phone and make your own copies. 

In today’s advanced world, we find ourselves constantly pursuing efficiency. We seek to outperform our contemporaries and we seek to expand our business and personal lives. With Tim Ferris covering Brickwork India and Your Man In India (YMII) / GetFriday.com) their business has expanded greatly. But as you see in the past 5 years the quality of these concepts has not increased. Increased demand has actually resulted in poor quality. New competition has entered the market (GetSunday.com) and often the skill set has decreased to many smaller tasks. In the time you explain what kind of flowers you wanted and where to send them when you could have done it yourself. Perhaps someone could have helped in finding all the options of where to send flowers from (ftd, 1-800-flowers.com, pro flowers, etc) and you could have had them review all your discounts available and search for coupons online.. but in the end the cost is not commiserate with the value. 

So where does that leave us? The world is flat yet round? Is it cheaper to find someone locally for $15/hr part-time through Craigslist? Or someone half way around the world where you may have cultural, cognitive, language, and time zone differences? Is there an opportunity for north and south outsourcing yet un-tapped? Where you can take the time-zone factor out? Or is it better to look for resources in areas where wages might be lower but still be domestic and reduce many of those other issues. 

The reason why America had a competitive advantage was the fact that our innovation improved our quality of life at a lower cost, our labor was cheaper, and our ability to do more work for less money increased. Today as India and China have growing educated workforces they have had a cheaper workforce especially in the manufacturing center. Today they also seek to expand that into knowledge work and in many cases this proves to but more cost effective. 

In my experience working on a variety of large and small projects with a variety of regions from the baltics and asia. I have found that most require excessive documentation, hand holding, and extra support. In some cases it takes more resources to get less work. 

In some cases this is the result of using under qualified resources that were over  sold. In other cases its a context issue where you inability to directly manage the resources results in time sharing on the backend where a resource may be working multiple projects and yours may not get the appropriate attention it deserves. In the case of larger companies they may be able to bankroll these resources for staff augmentation and keeping them on longer engagements. This enables a greater focus on the work and organizational knowledge over time. 

As an independent practitioner looking for a part time resource this still leaves a gap. While some have had very good experiences with virtual assistants, many do not and abandon the concept or change companies within a few months. 

So how do you find quality part time resources that are cost effective, reliable, trustable, and well useful? I think the jury is still out, but its definitely an area for someone to emerge to fix that problem. 

Netflix Increases Prices 76% in past year!!

It was back in January that my Netflix prices increased 18% from the increase a year earlier. An email earlier this week (July 12, 2011) from Netflix indicated that September 1, 2011 prices were increasing again, this time an additional 50%.  The real news is that Netflix is basically doubling their prices from January 2011. Currently I pay a standard rate for 4 DVD out-at-a-time plus streaming, starting on September 1, 2011 Netflix will increase and standardize their prices to split them into the Mailer services and the Streaming service. No discounts if you combine the two they just add both services together. This to me feels like a great deal of arrogance on the part of Netflix and frankly I assume this is more a move to encourage people to cancel the Mailer service and replace it with the streaming service. A little bothered by this email I called the phone number provided in the email, only to get a recorded messsage, “We are experiencing high call volume, please try your call again later <CLICK>.” A little frustrated, I wrote and email. The auto-response returns “Your email has reached an automated mailbox. Email sent to this address does not reach our Customer Service team and will not receive a personal response.” So I venture onto the “Contact Us” portion of the website where I find a different 800 number and call it with my special “I’m a customer” number and over 10 minutes later on-hold, I get to a speak with a representative. After explaining that I had a been a customer for a while, it takes him a few minutes to determine I have been a customer for over 11 years (Netflix started offering their services in 1999, do the math!). I proceed to say that this increase is outrageous and that I was not feeling appreciated as a long time customer. I admitted that if Netflix could not show me some appreciatation I was not going to cancel one or the other plans that I was intent on cancelling my entire account the rep only replied, “Well that’s your choice.” He later tells me he can cancel my account in only a few seconds. Outraged not, I ask to speak to a manager a few moments later I have a new person on the phone who basically tells me there is nobody else to appeal to, this is the policy, they don’t care if I want to cancel. It would seem that Netflix thinks they have it all figured out and that they have proven to me they have zero loyalty to existing or long standing customers. Their customer service is pretty horrible and this latest move is pretty arrogant. I am sure some product manager thought all of this was really great; and for their corporate goals that might be the case. What they failed to understand is that I I have Cable, a Tivo, and subscribe to Amazon & Hulu and that acrosss the libraries there is much overlap. I have enough devices that have integration with multiple services that at some point price and quality of service will be the differentiation,  NOT size of content library (as is the case right now). Sadly, because of the poor customer service, arrogance, and a 76% price increase in less than a year, I will cancel this service later this year and stop supporting a company I once admired for their technical excellence and innovation.

… and Wegman’s came to town …

The grand opening of the new Wegman’s grocery store near the house opened yesterday. The anticipation had been growing as the store had been under construction for some time… and early November was always far far away. The opening day finally arrived, November 8, 2009. It was mostly a non-event, until I realized Sunday morning that I needed to run out. The normal trek would have led me to a local grocery store if I was in a hurry (Giant or Harris Teeter), but more typically Target or Costco. Then I remembered; Wegman’s opened today, why not go check it out.

I arrived to the surpise of massive traffic jams getting into the parking lot. The first entrance was blocked by police. Routed around the corner I had what appeared to be angry Loudoun County Police officers very authoritatively pointing to move into alternate lanes. This took me around the back of the shopping center to the public parking… (this is where I would park if I was going anywhere but Wegman’s.. still the mini-town center is vacant at the moment). This is where things got interesting… despite the police and traffic routing… I found a parking place fairly quickly… as I walked toward the store I followed the loose line headed for the front. On my way I noticed a courtesey shuttle taking some of the older customers by van.. but it was a beautiful day — I opted to walk.

Approaching the door I passed a builder collecting personal data for a lead list offering up a chance to win a $500 gift card, I almost took my chances till they accosted me with questions like how much does my household make, and what price range of a home do I want to buy… i kept my partially completed entry form and worked my way to the door. At the door I was greeted by a couple of wireless terminals where the store employees happily scanned my Virginia license apparently getting enough information to allow me to "easily" cash checks in their store.. I declined on this feature and instead took my new customer affinity card and headed into the main entrance.

Simply put, it was a zoo. People packed in like sardines. That said this is the biggest store of it’s kind I think I have ever seen. Even more impressive than the Wegman’s on the other end of town. I grabbed the super small cart and found it easy to navigate through traffic, since I had to carry what I bought back to the car… I was on the light load… but I did have my Wegman’s coupon mailer that had free butter and flour… and figured that would be my first items to track down.

So the store was packed, but it was still interesting figuring the layout. This layout was sort of backwards from the other Wegman’s in the area which made it confusing at first to figure out. The people didnt help with the navigation either. Passing through the fresh produce… the auto-watering shelves were cool. The wine and seafood bar was pretty cool… especially as it was packed with people drinking white wine as their seafood was prepared. The indoor and outdoor seating was huge. I found the wine section to be more impressive …

I also noticed the price comparisons. Now there is something to note, I could not go five feet without hearing other customers on the phone saying how great all the prices were. I assume this was promotional and by design to establish a new customer relationship. Regardless, 12-pack soda was $2… they couldnt keep the shelves full. I also started to notice price comparison tags on select products… this product is cheaper than the same product at Costco, Harris Teeter, etc..

The the cheesy jazz band started to play behind the wine bar.. all in all it was an adventure. I spent two hours roaming the store… (and working through the crowds) … check out was seamless other than my new affinity card was not tied to my phone number yet..

All in all it was a great experience, and I will go back. What was most impressive was the attention to every detail and the preparations to drive people into the store and how hard they worked to establish that initial relationship… I applaud Wegman’s for the effort and wish them the best… which from overhearing some employees talking… the numbers for Sunday’s launch were well above projections…

Valentine1 a great example of customer service

About seven years ago after getting yet another speeding ticket, I sat across the table from my attorney at breakfast meeting one morning. I was inquiring to see if he knew anyone in a remote part of the country that could assist me with my legal traffic woes. It was in that moment he said, "you want my advice? get a Valentine1!"

So I did.

Granted, it was expensive compared to the other brands out there. It’s selling points were pretty clear. Well designed, detects pretty much anything they can throw at you, and was fairly invisible to the K40 radar detector detectors.

After some seven plus years, covering hundreds of thousands of miles on the road– The Valentine1 has been flawless.

…until last week, it suddenly started to see ghosts.. signals from everywhere around ever turn. Immediately, I checked for support on the website, which led me to believe I did in fact have a problem. I called the customer support line who reiterated what the website confirmed. Something was amiss.

Some $12 later, I had shipped the unit back to Ohio for repair. Feeling separated from a trusted part of the family. I waited for word…

…a week went by and FedEx arrived.. returned my Valentine1 returned to perfect function. Despite being loved for many years… and well used… the repairs were made at no cost and return shipping paid.

I must say that, I was fully prepared to pay the $45 diagnostic fee and reasonable repair charges, and had all been hopeless I would have found a way to buy a new one. But instead, Valentine1 exceeding all my expectations did the right thing to maintain their position in the marketplace as the high quality radar detector.

Thank you Valentine1 not only for an exceptional product but also for providing exceptional customer service!

Signal to Noise in the Social Web and the viability of the river of news with advertising

I came to a small realization this weekend; this is big, traditional media is dead!

Gone the way of the dinosaurs. Twitter is breaking more news these days than CNN or the Wall Street Journal. The news papers or bleeding life. Subscriptions are down. Pew Internet studies state that younger generations are going online to get their news and dont read traditional publications. Here’s the rub, social web and social media still lack a proven business model.

The real question is business model; Web 2.0 witnessed a resurgence of advertising. In the late 90s we used to laugh at new web portals coming to market with the idea that they will just sell some ads on the site to sustain their business. Interestingly, networks like Google and others brought ads to the little people. Or more appropriately it is the ad networks that became outsourced ad sales forces that could be easily consumed to enable even poor monetization on a web property. It has amazed me at how many new ideas are not betting the farm on Google’s ability to sell ads into their channel. Let’s not forget the death of Google AdSense when Google enabled the advertiser to opt-out of the Google publisher network. This killed the revenue for many publishers (side note: the quality of these publishers is in question but that’s another topic).

If we look at ad effectiveness; why is it that we always see mortgage ads, even after I just refinanced my house. It’s because the ad networks have access to their traffic data which by itself suggests that certain ads performe and monetize better than others. We say profile based ads in the 90s become contextual of the early 2000s. And now we have behavioral being all the rave. Behavioral is really just taking the profile and applying as context over time. If I read the front page of ESPN a lot, perhaps I like sports related stuff. So even as I am reading an editoral page on a remote site or a blog, I still might be intereted in sports. We have found time and again that behavior and profile dont always work. Advertisers are still struggling with how to get their signal through, when they are surrounded with all of this noise. It is this ratio of signal to noise that determines relevance. With the flood of information; relevance is dying. It is becoming harder and harder to find what you want on Google through all the cruft. Does Google search have a similar fate to that of AltaVista? Excite? Inktomi?

Enter’s the world of social media and the socail web. MySpace (the trailer park), Facebook (hey look at me), YouTube (check this out) and the many others all embrace our primal needs to network and congregate especially in a virtual world. We still have yet to see advertising in these new mediums find true success. Frankly, most of the ads on Facebook are terrible.

It is my feeling that advertising is not going to be as effectiven the social web or social media as it has been in pure search. There I said it. Traditional online advertising in social media does not work. Many may ask why, its mainly because there is too much noise and the message gets lost. Long gone is the billboard, radio ad, or TV ad that big brands have been built on over the past 30+ years. 

Once again that turtlehead called relevance is poking its head out again. With so many social updates, in a modern world with a river of news; you can either

a) only see what flows by you when you decided to engage or
b) find new ways to parse, sort, and consume the massive amounts of information being fed through a fire hose.

The river of news which was once a babbling brook is now nearing a class 4 rapids. Strap into your wooden barren and hope for the best as the information sweeps you away. Niagara Falls here we come! 

Returning to the arguement of business model. If users do not want to be engaged in a traditional commerical mechanisms; how do you get the message out? Do I want to friend a brand? Should I be a fan of a brand? More practically will injecting ads within the stream work? Along side of the stream? or will ads even work in this space.

Why do most ads in search either find labels of “Sponsored” or “Advertisement” or “Paid Listing” – Let’s not forget that women still buy beauty magazines for the ads. This is a perfect example of how relevant advertising when wanted; is considered content. What a novel idea? How do we make advertising more useful and content-like?

The answer lies somewhere in the idea of joining the conversation. What are the many conversations relevant to a brand? a consumer? a product? a company? and other interested parties?

Its funny the resurgence of advertising on the web, build it and they will come… great traffic strategy, bad business model. We are on the eve of needing something new. We need new leaders to usher in new innovation in business models to support this new method of information dissemination.

We are all witnessing the precursor to this business revolution… What’s next?

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