April 15, 2015
I was once hired by a company that develops software for collection agencies. They wanted a partial re-design of the screen that shows on the collector’s computer after an automatic dialer generates a call to somebody with one or more unpaid debts.
It quickly became clear that what they wanted was not really a redesign – They just wanted me to stuff a few more fields onto an already very crowded space. I knew this was not a good idea, but how to proceed?
The screen in question was a very detailed review of unpaid debts, promises made for payments, or for a payment schedule, and actual payments received.
My first request to this client was standard: “Can I spend some time observing some real users working with this system?” Indeed, that was possible – although I believe they expected that I’d spend an hour or two in this phase. To their surprise, I spent a few days, sitting next to several collectors, and always wearing a “training harness” that let me listen to both sides of the call in progress. I offered no advice, and no comments. My purpose was not to educate or engage, but just to observe. A few times, after a call was completed, I’d ask a question about what they were trying to do with the computer screens – but my questions were never pointed.
And then, after many hours of patient observation, I blurted out this comment: “So, have I got it right, you’re in the business of getting your clients [those who owe money] to make promises that they keep?” The collector I was with practically jumped up and down for joy, exclaiming that nobody has put it so clearly. It hardly felt like a creative breakthrough to me, but this formulation did help me see more clearly what was going on.
Then I asked, “So, what are you doing with all this data on the screen? Are you, I wonder, computing a kind of index of promise keeping?” This was exactly what was going on, I was told, and when I asked what computations would go into that promise keeping index, the collector knew exactly.
Finally, I asked if instead of displaying so much detailed data, I showed only the promise keeping indices, and a few key data points. “That would be wonderful”, the collector explained. This would give him a quick picture of who he was dealing with, and would free him up to be more creative in the debt collection dialog.
Right away, we had a whole new paradigm for designing the key screens in this system. Instead of just showing lots of raw data, we could show some trends, that would really guide the collectors. It would still be necessary to have a way to drop down to the detail data, but that data would not be in the way when it was not needed.
The big picture here was quite typical: At one time all this data was probably written manually on paper files. The collector could open those files while talking to that particular “customer”. Later the collection agencies were able to use software that mimicked that paper files – although with easier access, updating, and reporting. And there were probably several upgrades to that software that were faster, had prettier displays, and perhaps added some other bells and whistles.
What’s wrong with this picture? The software had been designed, right from the beginning, to “computerize” the data, rather than to creatively help the debt collector manage the collection dialog. The notion of promise keeping indices was a radical transformation, that offered a paradigm for a new generation of debt collection software.
At best, user interface design or redesign doesn’t just result in more attractive displays of data. It helps users do their job better, faster, with less hesitation, fewer mistakes, and more satisfaction. A really good user interface elicits a positive emotional response. This is where the phrase “user friendly” really comes alive.
I called this short essay “Usability from the inside out” because the starting point is not the data or the screens, but the user goals and user tasks – which usually correlate closely the the overall business goals. By paying attention first to the big problem or goal, we can design software and systems that enhance productivity, improve user morale, provide more accountability, and are often simpler to use and to maintain.
October 7, 2014
What relevance do such corporate terms as “customer acquisition cost”, “customer retention metrics”, or “prospect target profile” have for the non-profit world? Too often the answer that my nonprofit clients or prospects give me is “none”, as they want to believe that morality and social vision reside on their side, while corporate values are uniformly lacking To them, the vocabulary of corporate marketing is either irrelevant or inappropriate. They make a sad mistake.
Wikopedia offers us this definition of “marketing”:
“Marketing is the process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers, for the purpose of selling that product or service. . . . a set of processes for creating, delivering and communicating value to customers. . .
From a societal point of view, marketing is the link between a society’s material requirements and its economic patterns of response. Marketing satisfies these needs and wants through exchange processes and building long term relationships.”
Of course the social service agency, theatre company, or environmental organization are not offering us gift wrapped products. They may provide food and social support to the needy, artistic performance that nourish our soul, protection of our land and water – services that do add value to our lives as individuals and as a society. Their products are services such as this; their “customers” are those of us who might support the endeavor beyond the level of our immediate individual need.
“Communicating the value” for a non-profit takes place as they explain how their service benefits a segment of society – which may or may not be the segment that is being asked to contribute funds that support it.
“Creating, delivering, and communicating value to customers” is the direct work that they do.
And the “market analysis and segmentation” that non-profits may or may not do is the analysis of who might support the program, how it needs to be packaged and described so that its value is most clearly broadcast, and which sub-communities might best be approached to take on each piece of work.
Marketing has always been a mixture of art and science, but the analytic tools to identify interested communities, and to explore how they respond to different approaches have been steadily growing in power and precision. It’s high time for a new community of non-profit leaders to begin using these technologies, and the related social understanding, to develop a stronger network of support.
But the gap between for-profit and non-profit sectors is about more than different notions of whether both really do “marketing”. There’s too often a cultural divide, based on an implied criticism of corporate organizations as being immoral and out of touch with human values. That’s certainly true of some, but there’s a significant community of for-profit groups that are wholesome in every way. There are also plenty of people within the corporate world who are not comfortable with all aspects of their employer’s behavior, but are challenged how best to confront it with a modicum of safety.
We need more programs like United Way’s “shared corporate executive” program that brings skilled executives into their non-profit to share specific organizational and technical skills. These executives can then return to their employer with a new confidence about how any corporate organization can adopt strong values, and can become an affirming community in which differences are an opportunity.
Once the stereotypes have begun to fade, we may all be better able to look at the tools of marketing as tools of helpful social intervention, via which useful products and services get defined, designed, and funded . . . and the world becomes a better place.
When asked what should be included in an Executive Director’s report to the board, I responded with this model of “OARS” to help the board be aware of the steering environment:
- O = Opportunities . . . that the organization can (and perhaps should) pursue
- A = Accomplishments . . . both little and big successes
- R = Risk factors . . . things that look like they might go wrong, including action taken to mitigate these.
- S = Surprises . . . that the ED encountered. Yes — even in a well run organization, with very professional staff, there are surprises
This model was inspired by the “Significant events” report I had file each week when I was a mid-level manager at General Electric. Each of my staff had to write such a report to me, and I distilled and condensed these, along with my own list, in my report to senior management. Our “significant events” were named differently, but functioned in the same way to alert our managers about situations that would likely develop — either into more mature problems, or into inspiring successes.
The underlying value here is truth telling. I knew it was easy for my staff to report great successes, or opportunities that seemed to be developing. It was much harder to report those out of control situations that could get worse, those stakeholders whose dismay was escalating, those situations that seemed only to work against us. But my job was to know of such situations, and to organize appropriate responses. Were I kept in the dark, I couldn’t really do my job.
October 27, 2013
I’d offer these thoughts:
1. Few nonprofits engage in a real conversation with the donor. Ask me to support your group, when my funds feel slim, and I might resist. But ask me which of your programs excites me most, I’d be inclined to think some, perhaps review your web site or reports to see what your group is doing, and give something.
2. Donors need permission to give less. This may seem counter-intuitive, when your group needs more rather than less. But the message is that giving less still makes a difference. Many donors will postpone any donation, rather than give less than they gave last year. Getting them to give something brings in some funds, and keeps donors active.
3. You can present your appeal as a request for funds . . . or as an opportunity to make a difference (by supporting your group). That positive slant may be more effective.
4. Tell it like it is. I’ve NEVER gotten an appeal that said, “We spend $34.25 to get you included in our donor community . . . hope that money will not be spent in vain”. (I’m not sure what the cost per donor is, and the figure you use may reflect cost of getting donors in a particular giving bracket.)
5. You may just not be telling your story in ways that are vivid, compelling, and encouraging. I’ve been running workshops helping nonprofits find and tell their story. If you’re not sharing great stories with your donors, they may not feel motivated to give (even though they may have been loyal supporters for years).
September 11, 2013
Recently I was asked to comment about how best to engage donors to a nonprofit.
My answer — Ask the right questions. Decide what conversation you’d like to have, and figure out what QUESTIONS will start that off. Donors like to be listened to, like to be heard, and like to be treated as important. Asking the right questions, and then listening carefully will make a huge difference.
April 24, 2013
I wrote this in response to a query about a board that was not fulfilling its mission — at least according to the groups Executive Director. After reading a detailed analysis of ways in which the board appeared to be failing, I added these thoughts . . .
I believe the solution must involve both left and right brain thinking — both an analysis of what’s being missed, and some candid sharing about the context of board work in support of the organization’s mission.
I can imagine leading a workshop in which board members list
- Expectations about their roles
- Personal evaluation about their performance in each role
- What energizes each board member to do this work
- What de-energizes each board member, or puts limits on the energy they can expend
- What makes board meetings fun, exciting, vital, and worth attending
- What makes board meetings dull, frustrating, obligations that one might rather skip.
Then have the Executive Director (and perhaps other members of the executive team) list his or her expectations of the board, which of these are met and to what extent, and which are left unfulfilled in a way that really hurts the organization, or at least the work of the Executive Director.
I expect that mixing structural and personal will help everybody find more trust and develop a more collaborative spirit, and that this sharing process will expose some of the real issues.
One final note — Don’t assume that the problem lies totally with the board. It may be that unclear expectations or communications, confused agenda, vague decision making processes, or other such external problems are part of what holds the board back. For this reason, it’s extremely helpful to have the session facilitated by somebody from outside — somebody who is not identifed with any part of the organization or its governance.
December 12, 2012
I’d read about Three Buoys — the new fish restaurant that recently opened up a few blocks from my office. It sounded like a wonderful place for simple fish sandwiches, and for more sophisticated seafood preparations as well. So, I thought this morning, why not try it for lunch today.
I was warmly welcomed, but then presented with a dense page of typewritten text, that must have contained at least 100 different menu items. All were priced well above what I wanted to spend for lunch, and most were not seafood.
Yes — I could have scanned the menu, checking out the seafood items. There probably were some that would have interested me, and at a price not too much above what I expected to spend on lunch. But the very fact that there were so many items on the menu was proof positive to me that this place couldn’t be doing anything very well.
My “proof positive” may have been completely wrong. I might have missed a taste thrill for lunch today. But that’s not the point. What’s interesting is that I entered the restaurant wanting to buy something, and I left feeling upset that this mission was so hard. They might have lost not just my one purchase today, but a loyal customers for years to come.
What might have helped turn me into a real customer?
- A menu sorted by kind of item — Perhaps fried seafood, broiled seafood, soups, salads, meat, poultry, etc.
- A menu that was just shorter.
- A server who has offered to help me pick out something on the long menu for this new place.
- A page of lunch specials — perhaps only slightly cheaper than the full menu, but much more approachable.
Also, as I left, somebody might have asked, “We’re sorry you’re leaving . . . What were you looking for that you didn’t see on the menu?”
I want this little place to succeed, and may go back to offer my feedback — for what it’s worth. But if they are not querying their customers (or would-be customers), there’s not a lot of hope that they will get it right.