EU In or Out – I’m not making the decision for me, but for the generations that follow.

 
Since Cameron negotiated the new arrangements with the EU there has been a constant stream of arguments for and against staying in the EU and as on 23rd of June I have to play my small part in whether we stay or go I decided I should at least try and understand the arguments on both sides.

This is not a short term decision. When my parents voted in 1974 their decision set the direction for the next 40 years. We can probably divide the key areas into  the economy, immigration and self determination which seem to be covered so much by the media, but we should add defence, security an aging population and the environment to the list – and I am sure there are others. 

Many of the arguments are applicable only to the moment we are in and I think to make the right decision we need to look at the arguments with greater long term implications – those that will affect Britain over the next 50 years, not the next 5.

The evidence on the economy, immigration and self-determination seem to have no conclusive evidence one way or the other – indeed even the facts seems to be unclear. For example, some camps say that being in the EU costs Britain £8bn per annum in contributions whilst others say it is only £5.7bn when you net off money we get back in terms of regional development or direct grants. This is large number, but Britain spends $250bn on welfare alone so whether it is £5bn or £8bn is largely irrelevant. The majority of this, around 35% of UK government spending pays for our pensions. A small fraction goes to unemployment benefit.

No one is suggesting we can exist as an isolated Island, so the question is really will we have more effective, profitable relationships with EU and the rest of the world inside or outside the EU. Any argument about the economy will fundamentally depend on where were are in the cycle – there will be good times to be in the EU and good times not to be, however as India and China come to dominate the world economy, I’d rather be part of a larger negotiating block than going it alone against economies with 2bn people – we’d just be too small to matter.

With immigration any point of view based on “we have, you don’t therefore you can’t come in” over the long term will only  build elitism, isolation and resentment and I can’t see how it could be sustained. I hear a Muslim on radio 4 say – “When God made man, he didn’t say you live there and you live there”. The arguments for protecting borders can be applied at any level and seem to feed into a human selfishness to keep what we have. As a southerner who emigrated to Yorkshire I am grateful there were no border controls – although I did experience southern xenephobia in my teenage years. Most people would think this point of view as ridiculous – so why then does it suddenly become acceptable when we consider the arbitrary national borders. Furthermore, it seems to me we are an Island that has always benefited from our willingness to adopt a multi-cultural approach, integrate it into our society and grow as a result – yes this is never without pain – no change is but resisting such a change is far more damaging.

 The real long term arguments are then our aging population and the environment. As part of the EU at least part of our silver surfing generation can go and spend their years waiting for God on the Costa Del Sol – reducing the burden on the UK. Immigration, used effectively can help rebalance the population. Rather than focusing on how we keep people out we should be looking at how those that come add value to the economy. 

In many key areas we are simply not independent – we import around 32% of our food and 60% of the fuel we need to generate electicity and I would attest strength in numbers and purchasing power are key here. 

Finally, the environment is undoubtedly the biggest long term factor affecting humanity. This is a global problem not a Bristish one and will require global solutions. 

We might be able to withdraw from he EU, but, despite being an island we cannot withdraw from the world. It seems to me that we are wasting valuable resources discussing points that are largely irrelevant in the longer term. We should be working on the solution, not isolating ourselves from short term problems. 

So, having started this article not really sure which way to go I have ended it on the “in” side. Not because I  believe it is economically better, but because there are issues that matter far more to our children’s future we should be spending our time on.

    

Finovate day 2 – Rise of the machines 

 

As I glanced round the auditorium on day 2 of Finovate, one thing struck me. White, male 40 something. This wasn’t me getting hit because I’d made a bad joke it was the make up of the audience. Women were low in number and a represenative sample of the diverse cultures that make up this fair isle even more scarcely represented. Similarly, the presenters largely fell into the 20-50, white male category. 

I fear that if the people making the tech don’t represent society, the results won’t represent their needs any better. There may be no evidence to support this one way or another, but it’s certainly a stark point to consider. 

Artificial Intelligence, machine learning call it what you will but intelligent algorithms cropped up in many of the presentations. Predictive analytics to help the end consumer manage their money, investment management strategies, fraud prevention and virtual assistants to name a few. 

If any of us are under the delusion that machines cannot replace humans in jobs we once thought reserved for us – complex decision making, cusotmer service, for example – think again. We are arguably facing a new industrial revolution that could have the same impact as the introduction of steam power two hundred years ago. 

When  Turing defined a test for intelligence in 1950 he framed it in terms of being able to create a computer that was indistinguishable from a person. Many of todays technologies perform tasks way beyond any human, not just in computational scale as they have always done,  but also in terms of analytical complexity. 

I can say to my phone “Please transfer some money to my son” and it will ask me “how much”, or tell it I have had my wallet  stolen in Rome (in fact their should be a speed dial for this) and in a few minutes, the system will have asked me if I’m ok, told me it’s sorry for what happened, understand where I am, have cancelled my cards and shippped new ones. 

These technologies are starting to fulfil my wish for tools that make my life better, not just my banks cheaper and there were some nice examples of technologies looking forward at predicted financial activity and warning me if I didn’t have enough money and suggesting how I can better organise my limited resources. 

Marketing has traditionally been the least automated of business functions – maybe not for much longer. I have wondered for a couple of years how it will evolve as communications become more personalised, more data is available to drive individualisation, but we are still limited to POH’s (plain old humans) writing marketing material. I saw a demo of technology generating copy – specifically subject lines for emails, automatically, based on limited inforation about the topic. It generated multiple variants, from which it’s only a small step to deploy these and begin to learn what works best and refine it in real-time.

Conversely, another area of technology that saw a of outings on the stage was virtual meetings – connecting customers to real humans by video along with on-screen documentation to help applying for a mortgage or finalising a loan. A few years ago this just wouldn’t have been practical. High speed internet and developing web browser capabilites make feature rich interactive experiences easy to create and deploy.
I could purchase a few tools from Finovate and I’d have  an advanced, mobile enabled bank, with voice driven interaction, intelligent personal finance and investment management with a robot marketing department. None of the legacy technology, scalability or people issues faced by high street brands. Only one problem, there is probably a swathe of paper forms to fill in to get a banking license… where’s my pen. 

For me as a customer, there are just too many decisions, I could spend my entire day, every day, optimising my pension, investments, utilities, car insurace, credit cards. What I really need is a virtual assistant that will deal with all the bots, IVRs and web forms from the companies I deal with and just sort it.  

Maybe in 5 years time we won’t care how many women, men, ethnic minorties or any other division of society  there will be at Finovate – my AI will be watching your AI present and making decisions whether to invest, purchase or pass onto the next one whilst I sip my  mojito from the balcony of the hotel . 

Thanks to all the presenters last week for making it a great couple of days and insipiring me to think harder about how we use all the great technology that is being invented. 

Finovate Day 1

I’ve managed to grab a couple of days out of the office to go to Finnovate in London. Great venue at the old billingsgate fish market, but that aside I thought I’d use the break to jot down some of the main things it’s sparked. The sessions today have highlighted four themes for me 

Create frictionless experiences 

Many engagements with financial services organisations are fraught with friction. Logging into Internet banking, calling the customer services department, re-entering data that’s already available,  having to sign physical paper or waiting for back office processes to catch-up. A selection of the technologies today dealt with these issues. We saw solutions that delivered eye-print and voice-print for authentication and application navigation. 

A number of apps for application processing used photographs of driving licenses and debit cards to capture key data – meaning I don’t have to type my name, address and other information on that pesky little keyboard on the phone. One application also integrated Skype video to live-sign loan applications. 

Make yourself relevant to your customers everyday

Speaking to many of our financial services customers in recent years customer engagement and advocacy have been key topics and the sceptical part of me says – you are a bank, just look after my money and make sure the ATMs work and apart from that don’t speak to me. Furthermore, I’m frustrated that most of the communciations I receive only tell me what I already know – my bank statement is little more than a backward looking MI report . Most of the organisations have so much more data that would be genuinely useful to help me make day to day decisions but it just isn’t leveraged. 

Three cool apps demonstrated features in this regard – I’ll pick on one. Imagine I’m doing a holiday tour of Europe, multiple destinations and currencies and I want to set a budget for each leg of the trip and load up the right amount of currency to a card. Based on my itinerary the App suggested budget options for each country and then tracked my spend against this – suddenly my bank is useful and relevant to what I’m doing right now.  The other apps looked at different ways to make themselves relevant – rewarding kids for chores, planning investments based on intuitve goals and personal choices of investment themes in a pintrest like user interface. 

Connected to everything 

The internet of things applies to computer systems as well as the link between digital and physical devices, one nice integration technology showed the idea of taking triggers from your transactions to feed other activity through a set of “connections” – for example, to an external spreadsheet where I track my budget, or enabling my son to click a link when he does jobs in the house and automatically have money transferred into a sepearte account where he’s saving for the next best computer game – oh and he can see how he’s doing in another Google Sheet. This concept of triggers generated by physical devices or computer systems fed back to physical deivces or other apps has limitless possibilities – in the demo the presenters showed a lightbulb changing from red to green as a result of the API trigger when a savings goal was hit…. In this day of cheap connected devices this type of integration is trivial and can create valuable as well as fun experiences

Service commoditisation through middelware was another interesting theme – a bit like an app-store for key services. Instead of choosing which credit checker you’ll use, have them all, integrate go via the  platform and set which provider is used based on transaction levle rules – shifting the focus from system integration to supplier optimisation.

More than just a card
A multi-card card was demonstrated with integrated electronics that enables you to switch between cards at the press of a button on the plastic. Integrated into it was a battery with a 5 year life span and chips that change the coding on the magnetic strip as you switch cards. I’ve been watching the developing of printed electronics and low powered devices and we are seeing a revolution in the creation of devices that are small, secure, have (comparatively) high processing power – imagine this combined with the previous concept of cloud based triggers – so my card can automactically choose the best way to pay for something, it can alert me if I try and pay for something when i’m close to my limit. Even better, if I lose it, I can immediately deactivate it myself (and not yet, but maybe soon, if its down the back of the sofa I can locate it remotely. ). Battery life and security are still barriers to cards being internet connected, but we’ve moved on from dumb plastic in a big way. 

Roll on day 2 

We are only just scratching the surface of the possible revolution in customer experience made possible by the internet, mobile, big data and evolutions in Human-Computer interation, day 1 has inspired a load of ideas. Roll on day 2

Think big, start small and make the your part of the world a little better everday. 

Device wars

I went to an interesting Google presentation yesterday. It covered their new Drive for work, amongst other things. So, on the way go my next meeting (and hours train ride away) I thought I’d try it out.

I Fired up google drive on my work mobile phone, it worked great edited a PowerPoint I’d dropped in there a while back and thought the whole thing was very cool.

Then decided I’d try and do some real work on it, so got out the iPad, fired up drive, then couldn’t log in… I’d forgotten my password (I hadn’t had to enter it on the work phone as the app had remembered it). It directed me to the web page to recover my password, this needed to send a text to my personal phone , so I got that out but the battery was dead .

No problem, I got out my Mac Book Air, plugged in the phone to give it some juice. It was at this point I realised that on the table in front of me I had ridiculous array of technology .. iPad, work phone ( HTC one) personal phone (S3) and Mac Book.

Having got my password reset , I needed to update Drive on the iPad , at this point, probably 30 miles outside London, we’d clearly left civilisation as there was no mobile signal and the whole experiment fell apart.

There is some really cool technology today, but we are far from the point where I can work seamlessly wherever I am and somehow it’s still disjointed .. Why do I carry 4 devices around with me.

I think there is another trend that will potentially make things even more complicated. The concept of files themselves comes from a time when I had a PC with applications on, today I have data in a variety of places.. My timeline in Facebook, ideas in mind42, projects in base camp or jira, email in google, yahoo and work, all with different logins.

The problem is becoming not how to I keep track of my files and collaborate on them , but how do I work in a highly distributed environment where my data is spread across the internet , without having to have 50 different logins and in a way that will still work when I can’t get a mobile signal.

Regulation & Communication

I read a really interesting book recently – “the undercover economist” by Tim Harford. In one chapter it discussed the concept of free markets and explained why regulation was generally a bad thing in any market. Seeing OffGen’s recent announcement to include QR codes on energy bills I can’t help but feel they’ve got into the detail and this level of control will ultimately stiffle innovation and competition.

The regulator (IMHO) should be protecting consumers requirements and the energy companies should be coming up with innovative, differentiated ways to meet these requirements in addition to adding their own unique value.

So, I thought I’d try and step up from the functional definition (put a QR code on a bill) and try and undertsand the real requirements.

There are three sets of stakeholders – The utility company, the regulator and the consumer.

The regulators requirements can broadly be stated as “treat the consumer fairly” – i.e. don’t do anything you wouldn’t like done to yourself and communicate effectively to ensure the consumer undertsands the service you are providing.

The companies requirements are equally straightforward, maximise my cost/income ratio, have a long term relationship where we can sell you other products and services and we want you to advocate our business to your friends.

So what are the consumers’ reuqirements?

First I want to understand what I’ve used and how much its costing  I want to do this whenever I like not just when you send me a bill.

Second I want to know if I could get more for my money

Third if you change something, I want to understand that change only to the point that I can say “I don’t need to worry about it”.

I received my gas an electric bill recently and my direct debit on gas was increasing from £76 to £96 per month and on electric  from £46 per month to £70. Those are big increases by anyones standards. My energy bill has just gone up by over £400 a year. The particular provider I use has won awards for the clarity of my bill, so I thought I’d find the “why” on subsequent pages.

The price changes were stated in BIG BOLD FONT along with the statement that said your energy usage has changed to the payment needs to go up.

Now, there are at least fourvariables here:

1. How much energy I use

2. The price of that energy

3. External factors, such as the weather

4. Whether previous readings were estimated or actual.

In order to meet my second requirement (if you change something, explain it so I don’t need to worry about it) is not met by the information on the bill – nor is it met by putting a QR code onto the bill that takes me to a comparison site.

What I need to see is my usage in the context of price changes and the environment, so look at changing both the way i use energy (maybe) and the provider if appropriate.

That segways nicely into another of my favorite topics, multi-channel engagement. I tend to avoid the word “Omni-channel” as I think it implies that you do the same thing across every channel, whereas, for me , multi-channel customer experience tells me that I can expect an engagement that uses lots of channels that complement each other.

Print is a useful medium. It has reflective properties that make it easier to read than a transmissive tablet screen. I can make notes on the piece on it that will persist regardless of how many years in the future i choose to retrieve them.

Web & Tablets are good at interactivity and exploration allowing me to look at things from different points of view.

Mobile is great for checking something quickly or carrying out a simple transaction.

.. Connecting these envrionments toegther creates a genuine multi-channel experience, so I can point my phone at my bill to pay it. Jump from the bill to the web to explore my usage and compare it with similar households and from my mobile I should be able to view and regulate my daily usage.. and Ideally tag all my devices so I can control them from same said mobile.

Some of this is being done today, but we are still away off from a truly connected experience across the full range of channels.

In summary, my opinion is that regulators should stick firmly to broad directional themes, otherwise it risks destroying the market – you only have to look at the impact of the target culture on the NHS to see how this can go wrong. Now we’ve all moved on a bit and talk about patient outcomes, leaving hospitals free to make sensible decisions on how care is best delivered.

This leaves providers free to innovate and differentiate themselves. Providers should then focus on how they can create the best customer experience using each channel for what it does best and using technohology to connect them together.

Kill Bill Volume 1

One of my colleagues, Amanda, produced a blog last week about the governments plans to ask utility providers to include QR codes on bills, so we can all jump to a price comparison site and see if we are being ripped off. I promised I’d read through it and provide a technology perspective on what organisations should do to deal with the ever increasing complexity of information and channels that content has to be delivered through.

However I got sidetracked into thinking “why”.

My first thought, on reading Amanda’s blog was “wow, the worlds complicated today”. I grew up in the 1970’s  and there was the Gas Board that pumped gas into your home for X pence and the Electric Board who provided, yep you guessed it electricity for Y pence per kw/hour. I don’t think there were different residential tarrifs, I vaguely remember something called Economy 7, which encouraged you to use electricity at night but apart from that life was simple.

Then in the late ’80s we told Sid that our lives were far to simple and could he come along and complicate them for us.

Now, there is an array of energy providers, different tarrifs, incentives to sign-up because I can earn reward points of one type or another… that’s better isn’t it, consumer choice, all hail the free market.

Hmm, lets look at that for a second. These providers aren’t making their own Gas, it’s not like I’m buying a different product where one can claim to produce Gas that heats quicker and cooks better than the competition, they are all buying from the same wholesale market.

It’s not that one is more reliable in term of product delivery, said product comes into my home through the same infrastructure regardless of whose providing it.

So why have more than one company, to provide competition, for what, I only need you to do a four things… make sure I’ve got gas and electricity , make it as cheap as possible and if there is a problem with the infrastructure, get it fixed.

Maybe I’m missing the point, the energy companies want to sell us more stuff, so they value us as customers and presumably either subsidise their customer service from other operations to compete on price or cut the customer service to the bone and compete that way…

I just realised I had never even been on a comparison web site for energy, so just went through the process and found I can save £250 a year by switching to some company I’ve never heard of.. but where does that saving come from. Switching has to cost my current provider money, they need to get a final reading, send me a bill work out any money I owe them or they owe me, then hand the meter over to the new provider. It must cost the new provider money, they have to set me up as a customer setup a direct debit, send me a welcome pack. How is me switching creating any additional wealth for the UK economy?

Having gone through the switch site, there were a lot of choices of company and tarrif, some fixed for a period, some with exit fees, but how am I supposed to make a choice. At the end of the day, my only requirement is that it costs me as little money as possible – how am i supposed to know what energy prices are going to do over the next 12 months and therefore is a fixed rate or variable rate better – if i knew that I would be an energy speculator and rich enough not to care about my gas bill.

I would therefore argue that actually there is NO choice in the energy market, because if I can’t link the options presented to me to which best fits my one and only requirement then it is no better than having only one option.

Now, what I really want you to do, is tell me how to use energy better, automatically sense when I’ve left the house, because you know where I am via geo-location, you know when I’m coming home, detect when a tile has come off my roof and is blowing a draft in because you can see the change in energy usage that doesn’t fit into the overall pattern.

I’ll switch to the company that can offer me useful advice to help improve the way I use energy, regardless of whether there are QR codes on the bill

… Now I’ll go and write the blog I was supposed to write in the first place.

 

 

 

Dear Bank, I only want two things, look after my money and treat me as a customer

It’s been some time since I got around to writing anything, mainly because I seem to have spent the last four months getting on and off aeroplanes. All very exciting, Singapore, Chicago and most recently San Franciso. I’m currently sat in the station in Manchester Airport, reflecting that it will take me nearly as long to get from Heathrow to home in Yorkshire as it did to get from San Francisco to London.

A lot of the time has been spent looking into Financial Services and customer communications, particularly the relationship between switching to digital channels, dealing with legacy systems and the need organisations have to create a more compelling proposition, given the bad taste left after the series of recent financial crises and self inflicted humiliations.

Watching TV before I left for the US last week I decided that a lot of companies had given up and gone for the easy route of ignoring the problem and creating simple price based offers to woo customers back.

This created two issues for me. Firstly there were three adverts in quick succession for various current account cash back offers from different banks, each offering different percentages , the best around 5%. It left me thinking of the supermarket price wars you often see with Tesco and ASDA racing to the bottom now offering to be 10% cheaper than the competition. This sort of approach is fine for a commodity where you don’t care about customer service.

Indeed, if you are going to pursue a strategy of operational excellence, as the text books call it, aiming to be the lowest cost provider in your chosen market, implicitly you have to care about cost above everything else, even the customer.

I don’t mind this from my supermarket, I walk around it once a week, pick up my brand matched groceries, I don’t need customer service, I don’t even have to speak to someone I can happily pick my goods from the shelves, use the self service checkout and walk out not caring if the place was staffed by little green men (sorry and women). More importantly I can choose any time I like to shop somewhere else, I have no ties or loyalty to the company.

My bank, on the other hand, is not a supermarket and choosing to compete on price, rather than customer service and value seems short sighted.. or maybe it’s considered just to hard.

Secondly, once I had signed up for said cash back offer I was disappointed and confused. The advert said 1% cash back on my current account. Naively, I assumed this meant I got 1% cash for everything I spent on my debit card, not an unreasonable conclusion given the strap line of the advert. However there is a catch. The cash back offer only applies to selected retailers – of which there was a very limited selection, none of which I shop at. Furthermore there was bizarre part of the offer for cash back on spend at Tesco but it said this offer was not in conjunction with Tesco leading me to conclude the bank would have to analyse my transactions to provide the cash back.

Way to go bank on building trust, give me an offer that’s far less than in first appeared and then present part of it in a way that seems underhand.

That’s not the end of it, I also have a credit card with said bank, for which I get reward points every time I spend money so I now have a choice, spend on my credit card or my debit card and I’ve no idea which one will be better for any particular transaction.

This is where my frustration really lies. I think its pretty common knowledge that we only want two things from our banks:

  • Look after our money, don’t loose it, give it to yourselves in excessive bonuses as a pat on the back for rigging the interest rates, or squander it in some drug fuelled orgy – if there’s anyone i’ve not insulted in that list, please email me and I’ll add you
  • Treat me as a customer, not a series of products and give me meaningful relevant information, not another balance transfer offer when you know I have no other credit cards

So, my suggestion to the nations bankers is stop making more complex products, that’s what got you into trouble last time, focus on the two basics I really care about and maybe British Banking will again become an Industry we can be proud of.

I think my next blog will look at the subject of having a therapeutic rant on WordPress as I now feel completely refreshed and not jet lagged in the slightest – although I’m sure I’ll feel different at 5am when I get up to go to London again tomorrow.