Secrets of Success

I just received an email from a recently-graduated engineer in Germany, looking for advice on how to become a credible resource on BPM projects with only theoretical BPM knowledge and a lack of business knowledge — in other words, how to ramp up from being a newbie with a decent technical degree into an experienced BPM consultant. I didn’t want to send off some flippant answer about long years of hard work, so I spent some time thinking about a few of the key things that I did (and still do) to turn myself from a techie with an engineering degree into a BPM architect who spends as much time thinking about business as I do about technology.

My advice to him:

First, research constantly about BPM, particularly case studies. There are lots of great resources on the web, such as BPMG, that have articles on everything that you would want to know about BPM, including real live case studies. Attend a BPM conference or two, such as ones by BPMG or Gartner, listen to more experienced people talk about what they’ve done, and make some contacts that you might be able to call on when you need some free advice.

Second, do some technical research into a few major BPM products, so that you can become somewhat of an expert on how BPM products work even if you haven’t worked with them. Many BPM vendors are very happy to have you learn more about their products, and if your target customers typically use a specific product (such as FileNet or Tibco), then research the technology behind that product or even attend vendor training so that you can stay one step ahead of your first customer on the technical side.

Third, learn more about your customers’ business. For example, most of my customers are in financial services and insurance, and I have become an expert on the business processes in these organizations through research and observation, even though I have never worked for a financial company (I’ve always worked for — or owned and operated — software or service companies). Even if you don’t have a contract with a potential customer yet, offer to come in and do a brief walk-through and analysis of their operations. Sit down with some of the people while they are working and ask them what they are doing, and why they’re doing it: that’s the best way to learn about the details of a business process. Very often, an outsider can observe something in a business that someone in the company won’t see, so you may be able to tell them something about their business that they don’t know after just a brief walk-through, if you’re observant.

Lastly, focus on the business issues, not the technology. If you are consulting on BPM directly to an IT department rather than a business department, the project has a high probability of failure: remember that the “B” in BPM stands for “Business”, and you have to stay focussed on what value that you are bringing to the business in order to successfully implement BPM.

I finished up my email by telling him that there is no real substitute for experience, but it’s possible to educate yourself about BPM in a way that provides obvious value to prospective customers. Many people in the customer organizations (even in the IT department) don’t have formal systems training, so this is a good opportunity to put to use all those analysis and problem-solving skills that they taught us in engineering, just applied to business instead of technical problems.

Clearly…good customer service

Since I am often involved in helping my customers improve their business processes and their customers’ experience, I’m always on the lookout for examples of good and bad customer service in any industry. I deal with a lot of suppliers for business and personal items, mostly online, and rarely does one jump up and surprise me with their fabulous customer service. Recently, however, ClearlyContacts.ca has done just that.

Buying contact lenses online in Canada is a relatively new phenomenon, unless you order from the US and pay extra for shipping, duties and border clearance. When I lived in California, I ordered from 1800Contacts.com, so I recently decided to take my optometrist’s prescription in hand and order from them again, border crossing be damned. I went to the 1800Contacts site…only to find that they don’t carry my type of lens any more. Damn. I googled around and found another site, CoastalContacts.com, that did carry them; I filled my online shopping cart and was ready to check out when I saw that icon at the top of the screen, filling my heart with joy: the letters “CA” in a circle, right beside other circles: “US”, “UK”, “EUR” and “AU”. I clicked on the CA icon in trepidation, expecting it all to be some sort of dream, and was redirected to ClearlyContacts.ca, which appears to be Coastal Contacts’ Canadian-based shipping point.

I ordered on Thursday, but when I tried to check the order on their website the next day, I got Java/SQL barf all over the screen. To give them credit, the barf screen included a mailto: link to the site administrator, so I clicked and complained. Within a couple of hours, I had a response that explained that they were having trouble with the site, but that my lenses had shipped that day and gave me a Canada Post package tracking number. The email included a great tagline in the signature block:

Passionately committed to making every experience with Coastal Contacts positive and highly satisfying. For everyone. Every time.

The lenses arrived on Monday afternoon, all the way from Vancouver, days before I expected them. The best part? On the side of the ClearlyContacts packing box was printed a motto to live by:

Dance, Sing, Floss and Travel

The fact that they serviced my order correctly and efficiently may be considered a given (although this was a new supplier for me so not pre-supposed), but there’s some great customer service lessons to be learned from this:

  1. If one of your customer interface channels has problems, be able to respond to the issues via another channel. This requires proper integration of information and processes behind the scenes.
  2. In today’s market, it’s not enough to be committed to servicing your customers’ needs, you have to let them know that you’re passionate about it. That requires, of course, that you are passionate about it.
  3. Once you’re absolutely sure that you’ve served your customer well, leave them with a smile on their face.

A lesson in disintermediation

I recall learning the real meaning of the word “disintermediation” in the mid-90’s, when I was helping mutual fund companies build systems to do exactly that: cut out the middle-man (the broker or dealer) in some of the transactions that they have with their end-customers. The primary vehicle for this disintermediation is, of course, the web, where now almost all financial services companies provide some sort of self-service, bypassing a mutual funds dealer, securities trader, bank teller or insurance broker whenever regulations allow. This trend is not restricted to financial services: travel agents, for example, have been practically disintermediated out of existence in some market segments.

The “bad guy” in this has always been the big company: by allowing their customers direct access to their services, they endanger the livelihood of the intermediary. (Having been self-employed for most of 20 years, I don’t believe in the sanctity of any job, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Now it’s the banks’ turn to be disintermediated. The Economist reports in a recent article on the launch of Zopa, a UK-based online lending and borrowing exchange: consider it peer-to-peer lending for the rest of us.

Since borrowers and lenders can get together without a bank in the middle, Zopa effectively disintermediates the bank, while providing bank-like security through credit checks, spreading each loan over multiple parties, and committing to collecting from overdue borrowers. Borrowers are classified by their risk, and lenders choose the level of risk that they want to assume when picking a market within Zopa. Zopa takes 1% of the deal, which means that borrowers get a better rate than a bank could offer them for a consumer loan, and lenders get a better rate than a bank savings account. To quote their site:

Lenders can choose what rate to lend at and, by looking at the markets, decide what sort of people to lend to and when. Borrowers can choose to take a rate offered or to wait and see whether the rates drop. Both avoid paying needless chunks of commission to Financial MegaCorp plc and can get better rates of interest as a result.

I love that dig about “Financial MegaCorp plc”.

You can be sure that the big financial institutions will fight the growth of exchanges like Zopa when it starts to impact their business, but then, all parties being disintermediated fight the trend. This style of borrowing and lending won’t be for everyone, but it will attract those who don’t want to spend the extra money just to have a bank in the middle, any more than I would pay a higher fare to have a travel agent book an airline ticket for me.