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Large companies today spend billions to manage their public image. And in many industries no part of that image is more important than how people think a company's customer service is. Customer Service is becoming a lot more than an ‘industry buzzword' as large companies who treat their customers poorly are starting to lose customers right and left.

Customers want good customer service, but if companies can just hire good PR people to cover problems up, how do we, as customers, ever demand that companies improve. We thought that a good start would be to close the information gap, so that customers know who is good and who isn't. With that in mind, we have sifted through customer surveys and studies as well as some real-life experiences of customers, to pinpoint and ultimately learn from, the 10 worst companies for customer service. 

1. AOL - Playing Dirty, Tricking Customers?
An overwhelming majority of netizens have had bad experiences with AOL - especially while closing their accounts. Listen to Vincent Ferrari's conversation with AOL CSR John here.

About Ferrari's experience, blogger Rich Brooks says: "After 15 minutes he finally got through to a human being. The call resulted in something that's a cross between Dante's 9th ring of hell and Orwell's 1984. The king from Monty Python's Holy Grail had an easier time explaining to the palace guards to keep his son locked in his room than Ferrari had explaining that he just wanted to cancel the account."

Dan Spencer says, "I will never forget when I called to cancel my family's account with AOL after my dad passed away very suddenly. This was about six months after the death. AOL said because the account was in his name they needed to talk to him to cancel it. We explained how difficult that may be considering the circumstance and they then had the nerve to tell my family they will not cancel it with out proper identification of the death such as a death certificate. They then even said that they billed my father for the six months each month. We had moved and never recieved these so we told them if they get the money from him to call us ASAP so we can witness a miracle. Even with all the information concerning the security provided with them they refused to cancel it."

When a company believes it can retain customers by antagonizing them, something is very wrong with their customer service policy. Also, AOL is not above tricking customers into buying stuff online that they were only browsing.

2. BEST BUY - Worst customer service?


Though it faced serious competition from Wal-Mart, Best Buy beat its competitors to bag the position for worst customer service in the retail sector. Bill says, "Best Buy and AOL seem to share that short-term thinking, screw the customer, anti-social mindset."

A whole lot of customers are unhappy with the company, mainly because of the customer service policies. When your insistence for selling protection plans drives away customers, you need to rethink your policies, buddy!

And what's with all the sour faces, guys? Do they treat you so bad at best buy? Read this customer's experience with Sour Face Jim and Handshake John at Best Buy.

3. LASTMINUTE.COM - Customer who?


In the online service provider category, the winner undoubtedly is This company has been featured on watchdog for fraudulent practices, yet continues to survive and harass customers who are not aware of its history. Tom Wright says, "A series of phone calls and broken promises later - lastminute finally agreed that they had made a mistake by not sending through the booking - and offered to refund me……….HALF the purchase price!!"

Dave had a similar experience with the company, that he has described on his blog. Another customer, Claire says, "If you have a problem no one listens, they honestly do not care and have no idea what customer service means. The so called manager of this company laughed at me with my complaint and when I I asked for his company address to write a complaint he answered I don't need to give you that!!? and refused to do so."

4. HOME DEPOT - Who cares about your home? Not us!


Lowes, though having its fair share of disgruntled customers, is not the topper for bad customer service - it is beaten by Home Depot. When this customer wanted to complain to the Home Depot manager about a rude employee, the manager seemed to be worse! "After 10 or so minutes I asked where the manager was, the person behind the desk called again. At that time the so called manager Anthony called back, did not bother to come to the service desk just called and said, "What does the customer want"."

This Business Week article elaborates "The University of Michigan's annual American Customer Satisfaction index shows Home Depot slipped to dead last among major U.S. retailers, 11 points behind Lowe's."

Americans ranked Home Depot's customer service as dead last, according to Steven Silvers. Home depot customers complain about the worst service they received from the company.

5. AT&T - The Next Dinosaur?


In the article entitled ‘Should you remain an AT&T customer?' Liz P Weston states, "It's not as if AT&T horror stories are anything new. Those old enough to remember Lily Tomlin's Ernestine the Operator can recite her mantra: "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company!" With that attitude the company may soon become the "ex" phone company! Weston observes, "Of the six largest cell-phone carriers, AT&T Wireless generated the most complaints overall and the most complaints per subscriber last year, according to FCC records obtained by Consumers Union."

6. SBC - $200 to cancel the service!!!


Cliff Edwards writes about his experience with SBC customer service, "Another eight days later, still no faster speed. In fact, the upstream speed appeared to have slowed down! I called customer service again, but was told the speed had been upgraded. My testing through told me otherwise. The new suggestion: Wait a few days more, then call back."

In "Stay away from SBC DSL !!" A Anand says, "My basic complaint is that AT&T Yahoo charged me 350 dollars unfairly. They also have a very unfriendly attitude, stay away from them!"

7. DAY'S INN- We're racists AND We break promises


While this customer was told to "go back to China," Stan Dulkiewicz of Rochester was denied the one night free stay that he was entitled to.

8. ALBERTSON'S - No value for customer privacy


"Albertsons' pharmacy customers receive direct mail and phone solicitations derived from confidential customer medical information provided to the pharmacy solely to fill prescriptions. The solicitations look like they are from the patient's concerned local pharmacist and remind the customer to renew a prescription or consider an alternative medication. But they are actually generated for pharmaceutical company's sales purposes by a specially-designed marketing database, sold by Albertsons."

9. MCIMETRO ACCESS (Formerly known as MCI Communications) - Billing for eternity …


The company violated state service quality rules 850 times, including failing to:
• Inform customers when the new service will be provided
• Investigate customer complaints promptly
• Repair service interruptions within 48 hours

The most frequent violation by the company involved the continued billing of customers who had cancelled the phone service. Here are some MCI customer complaints.

10. CIRCUIT CITY - We have your money - now get lost!


One example of the many disgruntled Circuit City customers - Though it was acknowledged that the laptop purchased by Matt Southerton was defective and no other pieces were in stock, the customer service rep refusing to refund his money.

And if you're thinking about purchasing their extended warranties, stop for a moment and read about John Alexander's interactions with the company when he tried to (and deserved to) get his TV replaced.

Linda Meister has wasted money on extended warranties that are not worth the paper they are printed on. According to Consumer Affairs, "Circuit City pushes a lot of electronics out the door — and they're also pretty good at loading up the customer with extended warranties and other add-ons, many of which turn out to be a big disappointment if they're ever needed."

* The University of Michigan compiles the ACSI in numerous product categories by randomly calling U.S. residents and surveying their buying habits.


customer experiencecustomer servicerankingsglobal trends
Companies hoping to drive growth through business model innovation face a number of critical questions: How broad should the scope of the effort be? What is the appropriate level of risk to take? Is it a onetime exercise, or does it call for an ongoing capability? How can a company discern which new business model is the most attractive? And what differentiates those companies able to transform their business models from those that might run a pilot but fail to fundamentally change the company’s trajectory?
To answer those questions, it is important to realize that not all efforts toward business model innovation are alike. Understanding four distinct approaches can help executives make effective choices in designing the path to growth.
Four Approaches to Business Model Innovation:
To understand which business model innovation approach fits best for any individual company, it is critical to understand both impetus and focus.
Impetus: Is the company defending against an external threat, such as commoditization, new regulation, or an economic downturn—or is it proactively disrupting the status quo?
Focus: What is the most attractive area of opportunity—does it reside in the core business or in adjacent businesses or markets?
These two factors define a matrix of four approaches to business model innovation. (See the exhibit below.) Within each of the four approaches, companies will employ different tactics to successfully rebuild their models and make different choices.
  • The reinventor approach is deployed in light of a fundamental industry challenge, such as commoditization or new regulation, in which a business model is deteriorating slowly and growth prospects are uncertain. In this situation, the company must reinvent its customer-value proposition and realign its operations to profitably deliver on the new superior offering.
  • The adapter approach is used when the current core business, even if reinvented, is unlikely to combat fundamental disruption. Adapters explore adjacent businesses or markets, in some cases exiting their core business entirely. Adapters must build an innovation engine to persistently drive experimentation to find a successful “new core” space with the right business model.
  • The maverick approach deploys business model innovation to scale up a potentially more successful core business. Mavericks—which can be either startups or insurgent established companies—employ their core advantage to revolutionize their industry and set new standards. This requires an ability to continually evolve the competitive edge or advantage of the business to drive growth.
  • The adventurer approach aggressively expands the footprint of a business by exploring or venturing into new or adjacent territories. This approach requires an understanding of the company’s competitive advantage and placing careful bets on novel applications of that advantage in order to succeed in new markets.

business designtipsstrategyBusiness Model Innovation
It’s worth comparing the innovation models of each to find out. 

1. Samsung
Samsung originates in a highly deferential culture and has built its innovation model around five elements, the first of which allows them to redefine hierarchy way from traditional status:
  • Developing a creative elite within the company based on innovation training
  • Pursuing and circumventing patents of competitors
  • Consistent, replicable company-wide innovation methodology
  • Relying on external expertise for fundamental breakthrough science
  • A conglomerate approach
2. Apple

Apple’s innovation strategy had changed the way we all think about the post-industrial enterprise. Apple’s platform strategy goes back as far as the first iTunes platform, which integrated external content with an Apple product (the Nano).

It evolved into the apps developer community and Apps Store, as Apple miraculously ramped up a developer community of hundreds of thousands in the space of two years.
At the same time, as reader Dave Nelson points out, Apple opted for extensive outsourcing and in so doing showed competitors the way – there was no need to build or invent, just go and buy Apple-like parts.
In the meantime Apple has been castigated for not repeating its disruptive success with the iPhone, when in fact a platform and ecosystem model is both a huge risk and a game changer that can yield cash for a long time. How ironic that Apple is under fire only five years after inventing it.
So what are the components of the Apple innovation model?
  • The platform and the significant investment in seamless integration of developer and content provider contributions, user access and friction-free commerce. That platform strategy and execution still does not get the credit it deserves
  • Design, as we all know. In smartphones the iPhone redefined the UI
  • The competitive internal market as teams compete against each other on select projects
  • Wearables and the disaggregation of the smartphone, presumably looking for new ways to exploit the platform and ecosystem
  • Supply chain management
  • Radical adjacencies such as retailing and indeed mobile and now watches
  • Control of all customer experience
3. Google
Google is usually associated with a fairly loose innovation model -the 20% free time its engineers can claim but in fact its innovations are systematic in the infrastructure. This is a comment left by Goolge here on ReThinking Innovation:
We are constantly innovating, figuring out new more efficient ways to remove heat from machines while reducing pollution. We publish our findings, after they have been vetted. After a few years, our designs start showing up in other companies’ datacenters. We only waste 7-8% of our power on overhead. The norm *used* to be 50-100%.
YouTube was converted to use Google technology. It would not be what it is without Google’s expertise in networking and distributed computing. Android was barely more than an idea when Google merged with it. Google made it what it is.
So there is a strong line of continuous improvement in Google’s infrastructure allied to its larger, better known innovations like driverless cars. Google also works in a lot of adjacencies, going from search and advertising to enterprise apps, to mobile computing, to devices and soon to deliveries.
Advertising appears to give coherence to this but I doubt it does in reality. Google clearly needs to reinvent itself to reduce its advertising dependency. For example it appears unlikely to dominate the domestic TV screen as it has computing, so it will not be as well positioned to offer integrated campaigns. It has through Android and its own apps business, been able to replicate Apple’s platform and ecosystem strategy. Arguably it already had a model of that kind with search and SEO.
So its model?
  • It is platform and ecosystem-based in its customer facing innovations
  • Continuous improvement in infrastructure
  • Radical adjacencies to become more integrated (deliveries) and to look for a new disruption (Glass, driverless cars)
  • Device innovations, which are proving difficult to generate along with supply chains that it lacks experience of
  • Increasingly it is becoming design-centric
  • Bench-time – a factor most companies now deprive their engineers of
These models might be about to change. This is what reader Dave Nelson says of the three companies, looking to the future.
“In the future, I think you will see more unified manufacturing where a company does the hardware and software. Apple thought it could design hardware and software in house and use standard off the shelf parts but that leads to copy cats because parts are parts. Google thought it could outsource nearly the entire product solely for the search revenue but is now at risk. Samsung did a lot of the hardware and received a huge freebie from Google. All three are now looking at doing more of the product in-house.”

rankingsconsumer brandsglobal trendsBusiness Model Innovation

Business strategy may not be a science, but using the right method with the right materials in the right place at the right time can create explosive results. We've gathered some examples of the most successful business models that have gone on to make lasting impacts on industry, consumers and the world at large.

10) Name your price:  

Vendors bid to meet the prices customers set for hotel stays and air tickets.

9) Offer Aggregation:


eBay has made offer aggregation and price comparisons a major part of its online auctions and buy-it-now sales.

 ​8) One day One deal:


Woot/ LivingSocial/ Moolala
Providing discounts on meals, products and services with local merchants.

7) Just in time:

The JIT method combined with Dell's direct-to-consumer process made for a dynamite business model.

6) Growth first: 

Amazon has combined regular and offer-aggregate sales into its pricing for every product.

5) The modern franchise:  

A business model that has inspired enough imitators to launch the fast-food industry.

4)  Software first:  

The company got a head start by developing the operating system for IBM's personal computer in 1981.

3)  Lifestyle takeover: 

& Apple
While Apple and Google may appear at first to work in very different ways they share one pioneering interest: you

2) The everything store: 

Walton saw that general stores were turning a good profit, but he found a way to perfect the business model.

1) The P2P Revolution:  

Kickstarter/ Paypal/ Craigslist,
The newest and most fascinating business model of all is the personal, customizable, one-on-one transactions. 


innovationrankingstipsBusiness Model Innovation

Design is as old as humanity itself. In fact, there’s increasing evidence that it’s even older. Think Australopithecus with an iPhone.

Ok, not an iPhone but a stone purposefully smashed with other stones to create a sharp edge (an iStone, if you will), and maybe not Australopithecus, depending on which school of pre-human taxonomy you prefer. But just this year, scientists working in Kenya announced the 2012 discovery of the oldest known purpose-built stone tools, which date back as many as 3.3 million years, well before Homo Sapiens came into existence. Since then, the notion of design has evolved, even if its most advanced forms have not quite yet surfaced here in Lebanon.

What is design? 

Based on numerous conversations had for this special report, which ranged from the specific to a level of abstraction that still somewhat boggle our minds, the most succinct definition of design seems to be ‘creativity with a purpose’. The purpose can be as mundane as getting food into our mouths or as corporate as creating a sense of brand loyalty among consumers by designing a friendly, hassle-free customer experience. Design was once the sole domain of the person creating an object, be it a blacksmith, cobbler or carpenter. Today, however, it has become a craft unto its own. And it’s just as important for selling things as it is for as it is for creating them.

Giulio Vinaccia, an Italian designer, working with the UN on a new design-oriented program in Lebanon says product designers today are being brought into the process of creating an item at a far earlier stage than before. Previously they were seen as “tailors,” he says, who were there to merely make something look nice. “Twenty years ago I received a brief of 20 pages to make a glass. The company said, ‘It’s a glass for red wine and this kind of glass needs to have the mouth very open to intake oxygen’ and we were only the ‘tailor’ to design the correct shape.” Now the same company will write to my office and say ‘Guilio, we’re not selling glasses, what should we do?’” Product designers are now being brought in earlier in the commodity creation life cycle, not only to make the creation look nice, but also to help give it a sexy story to make sure it sells. Outside the manufacturing plant, companies need slick websites and the bigger ones hire ad agencies and marketing firms, all of which employ legions of designers. There are designers in just about every field, and even those who may not call themselves designers – like educators and magazine writers – could be considered among the ilk.

The ‘Creative Economy’

Because there seems to be a designer lurking in every office closet (or sitting next to you at the coffee shop and working remotely), it is difficult to put a figure on how much the industry as a whole is worth. They’re big players in the so-called “Creative Economy”, a sector which does not yet have a universally accepted definition. The UN Industrial Development Organization cites from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) “Creative Economy Report 2010” that it contributes nearly 5 percent to Lebanon’s economy and accounts for over 4 percent of employment. The UN heaped praise on the state of creativity in this country, commenting on its website that “The strength and dynamism of cultural and creative industries in Lebanon are rooted in multifaceted cultural influences, deep-rooted private initiatives and the country’s privileged geographical location. Beirut, for instance, has been regaining and consolidating its role as a regional hub in design, advertising, architecture, fashion, gastronomy and publishing — even if the related value chains are often not completely covered and if some important linkages (such as collaborative work and initiatives, investments, etc.) are still weak.” Despite Lebanon’s reputation for innovation and creativity, design in its newest incarnation – as an inventive solution provider – has not taken off here. But the evangelists have arrived. 

“New” design 

Since the 1960s, there’s been a developing notion that designers simply think differently than, say, bankers or dockworkers. Around 15 years ago, a new industry was born: designers became problem-solving consultants. They began to think up creative ways to tackle social problems such as homelessness, offer government tips on how to more easily interact with and court the business world with a customer-centric sales pitch. Call it what you will – service design, experience design, strategic design, design thinking – what’s on offer is all pretty much the same. Designers use an innovative method when problem solving which can help a company’s bottom line, an approach which these “new” consultants claim executives, mid-level managers and traditional management gurus lack. 

“Most traditional consultancies will always analyse from within the organization. They will look at your processes, your systems, and understand the people and the policies to see how we can optimize. And it’s great if that optimization, in the end, also benefits [a customer’s] experience. […] But it’s very analytical and it’s very numbers based,” says Anne Meijer, business development manager at Livework Studios, a service design company based in five major world cities, including Beirut, currently working with the local strategic consultancy Brand Cell. “Service design is more and more coming inward. We basically bring the customer into the organization. First we show and make the organization understand what the customer is experiencing. Then we imagine how we can use this experience, and understand what it means for an organization and the business.” 

To understand this better, imagine a bank where customers complain they spend 15 to 20 minutes waiting to see a teller each time they come to a branch. A traditional consultant might suggest adding more tellers or instituting a policy whereby each teller must limit interactions with customers to a maximum of ten minutes. A design consultant, on the other hand, would interview customers to find out why they’re coming to the bank, and interview tellers to find out what their processes are for dealing with customers. This interview technique leads to “visualizing” ways to 1) reduce the need for people to enter a branch – which can involve using new technologies like websites, e-banking or even ATMs – and 2) speed up the process once they’re there. Visualizing means just that. Think post-it notes, storyboards and reducing often complex information into a visual, digestible form the way designers are renown to do. It’s all very right-brain and quite the contrast to the ruthless penny-pinching associated with the “old way” of business optimization. One of the leading firms in this new field, US-based IDEO, says in describing its work: “Nobody wants to run an organization on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky.” IDEO’s use of design as a problem solving tool, the company assures, “provides an integrated third way.”

Meijer also added that, as a consultancy, “we need to give [clients] short term benefits,” that are more tangible than abstract outcomes (like customer loyalty) which are hard to quantify. A prime example would be identifying redundancies and firing them along with other optimizations that more quickly prove a consultant’s bill is worth paying. Joe Ayoub, CEO of Brand Cell, adds that, with only one completed service design solution thus far offered in Lebanon, the company is charging “maybe not as much as we would love,” but is hopeful that “next year, we will command the price on service design.”

The Less profitable model

As noted above, the “design is different” gospel preached by this new wave of consultants has 50-year-old roots and it’s not just business in need of salvation. For an example of evolution in a petri dish, we once again turn to London (See: the Peppered Moth’s reaction to the Industrial Revolution). Seventy years ago, the government formed a council on design to keep the country competitive in industrial design. Today, the Design Council touts itself as “champion[ing] great design that improves lives.” They’re talking new designer meets social challenge, something Doreen Toutikian sees is sorely lacking in Lebanon. “What we don’t need is another chair,” she says. Toutikian directs the non-profit MENA Design Research Center, organizer of the annual Beirut Design Week, a seven-day orgy of all things design launched in 2012. That year, the MENA DRC hosted a program that let designers use their prowess to try tackling real-life problems people in Lebanon face. Ideas which were generated included a new traffic management system for Gemmazyeh; a “sustainable consumerism project” that would have turned plastic bags into other useable and sellable objects in Bourj Hammoud, and a device that lets users monitor how much electricity they use to avoid blowing a fuse when using the generator, and to conserve power. While almost none came to fruition, she argues the process helped change how participating designers think, so she considers it a success story anyway.

She says the MENA DRC trains young designers and will keep on spreading the word about design’s potential to transform the world, working from the bottom up to create an ecosystem focused on solving Lebanon’s myriad problems. 

Tried and true

While the direct economic benefits of this new iteration of design are hard to quantify, there are continued efforts to use the more aesthetic aspects of the discipline to grow business and create employment in Lebanon. UNIDO’s creative and cultural industries cluster project is matching furniture manufactures and jewelry makers with young designers in an attempt to boost these traditional industries now in various states of disrepair (see story on page 36). 

Still missing from the equation, however, is state support for any of these initiatives. While the UNIDO program shows promise, it is unclear whether the cluster will survive once the money from outside dries up. Foreign funding to help local creative industries and designers has come to Lebanon in the past. However, two prominent initiatives, the Lebanon Creative Cluster and the Beirut Creative Cluster, ceased functioning when the money dried up, according to Salim Tannous, former director of the BCC. The LCC launched in 2009 and, based on its time capsule of a website, died by 2010. It did not achieve its stated objectives (“increasing the coordination across the creative industry ecosystem,” “channeling government resources and programs,” and “enabling capital formation,” among others) and Executive was unable to reach someone directly involved in the project for further comment. 

The BCC started work in 2012 and was more focused. Tannous explains that it catered to any company whose products end up on a screen, be it TV, cinema, computer, tablet or smartphone, but failed to become financially self-sufficient as a cluster, which prompted him to leave as manager earlier this year. Building an ecosystem for the creative economy in general or for a design economy specifically, therefore, will likely require government financing.

Source Executive Magazine

innovationbusiness designdesignbrandcell articlesconsumer trendsglobal trends

All businesses, no matter what they make or sell, should recognize the power and financial value of good design.

Obviously, there are many different types of design: graphic, brand, packaging, product, process, interior, interaction/user experience, Web and service design, to name but a few.

We are referring to design as a broad and deliberately applied discipline, with the aim of creating simpler, more meaningful, rewarding experiences for customers.

You see, expecting great design is no longer the preserve of a picky design-obsessed urban elite—that aesthetically sensitive clique who‘d never dare leave the house without their Philippe Starck eyewear and turtleneck sweaters and buy only the right kind of Scandinavian furniture. Instead, there’s a new, mass expectation of good design: that products and services will be better thought through, simplified, made more intuitive, elegant and more enjoyable to use.

Design has finally become democratized, and we marketers find ourselves with new standards to meet in this new “era of design.” To illustrate, Apple, the epitome of a design-led organization, now has a market capitalization of $570 billion, larger than the GDP of Switzerland. Its revenue is double Microsoft’s, a similar type of technology organization but one not truly led by design (just compare Microsoft Windows with Apple’s Lion operating system).

Every day Twitter feeds populate with astounding growth facts about the likes of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Pinterest and the more recent travel site, AirBnB. It is no coincidence that these successful brands seem to really value design and utilize it to secure a competitive advantage.

Even the UK government has issued its “design principles,” naturally on a clean, easy-to-navigate website.

But why have people become so design sensitive? Why does that credit card mailer look so bad and dated now? Why can’t you access our account details? Why does airport signage seem so unhelpful? Why doesn’t that technology plug and play?

Perhaps Apple’s global dominance has elevated our design expectations, or Ikea’s vision to bring great design at affordable prices to everyone on the planet has finally taken effect, or perhaps the Internet has taught us what well-designed user experiences and good design really are. Likely, it is a combination of all.


Think how swiftly and strongly a design experience shapes our opinion of that brand, company or store, for good or bad. For instance, we know quickly when a website is bad. And we associate that feeling of frustration, or worse, disappointment with that brand.

Design-oriented organizations invest in thinking this stuff through. They put design at the heart of their company to guide innovation and to continually improve products, service and marketing. They recognize that a great design leads to differentiation, customer loyalty and higher profits.

First Direct, a UK bank, has designed all its service touchpoints so carefully that it has become the most referred financial brand in the UK, with over 82 percent of customers happy to recommend it to friends. It’s a joy to use via any channel, and despite being a bank, I’d happily recommend it.

When you buy Apple Care, instead of receiving the standard bland letter or email, you receive a nicely designed box containing the paperwork, guidance and all the information you need. You have questions? No problem. There are clear user diagrams and a simple section on the website to help you.

The impact on brand is that customers see these brands as both progressive and customer-centric. Thoughtful and innovative design makes us feel good. It is no surprise that we are happy to advocate them, talk about them in social media and can be fiercely brand loyal.

As Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney, once said, “A brand is a living entity—and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures.” That thinking still holds true, but it all happens a lot faster now. Thanks to the Internet and a hyperconnected, social-media-fueled society, brands can be instantly undermined and that experience shared with millions.

So this is a call to action for executives to recognize this new era and make the effort to transform even a mundane product or service into something more rewarding and more memorable. Try to assess each element of your service or product and better it—to see design not just as a marketing thing but as a genuine source of competitive advantage, customer and employee satisfaction and, lastly, a route to higher profits.


business design
Almost every company competes to some degree on the basis of continual innovation. And to be commercially successful, new product and service ideas must, of course, meet a real—or perceived—customer need. Hence the current managerial mantras: “Get close to the customer” and “Listen to the voice of the customer.” The problem is, customers’ ability to guide the development of new products and services is limited by their experience and their ability to imagine and describe possible innovations. How can companies identify needs that customers themselves may not recognize? How can designers develop ways to meet those needs, if even in the course of extensive market research, customers never mention their desires because they assume those desires can’t be fulfilled?

A set of techniques we call empathic design can help resolve those dilemmas.

At its foundation is observation—watching consumers use products or services. But unlike in focus groups, usability laboratories, and other contexts of traditional market research, such observation is conducted in the customer’s own environment—in the course of normal, everyday routines. In such a context, researchers can gain access to a host of information that is not accessible through other observation-oriented research methods.

The techniques of empathic design—gathering, analyzing, and applying information gleaned from observation in the field—are familiar to top engineering/design companies and to a few forward-thinking manufacturers, but they are not common practice. Nor are they taught in marketing courses, being more akin to anthropology than marketing science. In fact, few companies are set up to employ empathic design; the techniques require unusual collaborative skills that many organizations have not developed. Market researchers generally use text or numbers to spark ideas for new products, but empathic designers use visual information as well. Traditional researchers are generally trained to gather data in relative isolation from other disciplines; empathic design demands creative interactions among members of an interdisciplinary team.

Developing the expertise, however, is a worthy investment. Empathic design is a relatively low-cost, low-risk way to identify potentially critical customer needs. It’s an important source of new product ideas, and it has the potential to redirect a company’s technological capabilities toward entirely new businesses.

When Questions Don’t Yield Answers 

When a product or service is well understood, traditional marketing science provides amazingly sophisticated ways to gain useful information from potential customers and influence their purchasing decisions. Consider how subtle are preferences of smell and sound, yet car manufacturers can design automobile interiors to evoke the specific scent of expensive leather that U.S. buyers expect in a luxury vehicle. Nissan Design International tested more than 90 samples of leather before selecting 3 that U.S. noses preferred for the Infinity J-30. Similarly, manufacturers are adept at fine-tuning engines so that they make the preferred sounds associated with surging power and swift acceleration. Harley-Davidson, in fact, has sued competitors that have imitated the voices of its motors, which have been carefully adjusted to please its customers’ ears. Customers can guide an auto or motorcycle manufacturer in making even minute adjustments in its offering because they are familiar with the products and have developed over time a finely honed set of desires and perceived needs. In fact, the driving experience is so deeply ingrained that they can re-create most of the needs they encounter while on the road even when they are not actually in the driver’s seat.

The practices of traditional marketing science are also effective in situations where consumers are already familiar with a proposed solution to a problem because of their experiences with it in a different context. Peel-away postage stamps were an innovation that customers could comprehend because they had already encountered the light adhesives used in Post-it Notes and peel-away labels.

But sometimes, customers are so accustomed to current conditions that they don’t think to ask for a new solution—even if they have real needs that could be addressed. Habit tends to inure us to inconvenience; as consumers, we create “work-arounds” that become so familiar we may forget that we are being forced to behave in a less-than-optimal fashion—and thus we may be incapable of telling market researchers what we really want. 

Sometimes, customers are so accustomed to current conditions that they don’t think to ask for a new solution.

For example, when asked about an editing function in a software package, one customer had no complaints—until she sat down to use the program in front of the observer. Then she realized that her work was disrupted when the program did not automatically wrap text around graphics while she edited. Accustomed to working around the problem, she had not mentioned it in earlier interviews. 

Market research is generally unhelpful when a company has developed a new technological capability that is not tied to a familiar consumer paradigm. If no current product exists in the market that embodies at least the most primitive form of a new product, consumers have no foundation on which to formulate their opinions. When radio technology was first introduced in the early twentieth century, it was used solely for transmitting Morse code and voice communication from point to point. Only after David Sarnoff suggested in 1915 that such technology could be better employed in broadcasting news, music, and baseball games was the “radio music box” born. Sarnoff had put his knowledge of the technology together with what he found when he observed families gathered in their homes to envision a totally different use for the technology. No one had asked for broadcasting because they didn’t know it was feasible.

So there are many reasons why standard techniques of inquiry rarely lead to truly novel product concepts. It is extremely difficult to design an instrument for market research that is amenable to quantitative analysis and also open-ended enough to capture a customer’s environment completely. Market researchers have to contend with respondents’ tendency to try to please the inquirer by providing expected answers, as well as their inclination to avoid embarrassment by not revealing practices they suspect might be deemed inappropriate. The people who design surveys, run focus groups, and interview customers further cloud the results by inadvertently—and inevitably—introducing their own biases into the questioning. When a customer’s needs are solicited in writing or through constrained dialogue, pummeled with statistical logic, and delivered to product developers in compressed form, critical information may be missing. But why would observation be a better approach?

What We Learn from Observation 

Watching consumers has always yielded obvious, but still tremendously valuable, basic information. Consider usability: Is the package difficult to open? Does the user have to resort to the manual, or are operating principles clearly telegraphed by the design? Are handles, knobs, and distances from the floor designed ergonomically? Does the user hesitate or seem confused at any point? What unspoken and possibly false assumptions are guiding the user’s interaction with the product?

You can easily get that sort of feedback by watching people work with your products in usability labs and by testing for various ergonomic requirements. It is the additional information gained from seeing your customers actually use your product or service in their own physical environment that makes empathic design an imperative. Empathic-design techniques can yield at least five types of information that cannot be gathered through traditional marketing or product research.

Triggers of Use. 

What circumstances prompt people to use your product or service? Do your customers turn to your offering when, and in the way, you expected? If they don’t, there may be an opportunity for your company.

Consider what Hewlett-Packard learned in the early 1990s by observing users of the HP 95/100 LX series of personal digital assistants (PDAs). The company allied itself with Lotus Development Corporation to produce the PDA mainly because its product developers knew that their “road warrior” consumers valued the computing power of Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet software. But when HP’s researchers watched customers actually using the product, they found that the personal-organizer software the company had also licensed from Lotus was at least as important a trigger for using the PDA as the spreadsheet was.

When the makers of Cheerios went out in the field, they found that breakfast wasn’t necessarily the primary purpose for which certain households were using the cereal. Parents of small children, they found, were more interested in the fact that the pieces could be bagged, carried, and doled out one by one as a tidy snack anytime, anywhere to occupy restless tots.

And when the brand manager for a spray-on cooking oil saw his neighbor using the product on the bottom of his lawn mower, he discovered an entirely unexpected trigger. Pressed to explain, the neighbor pointed out that the oil prevented cut grass from adhering to the bottom of the mower and did no harm to the lawn. Such unanticipated usage patterns can identify opportunities not only for innovation and product redesign but also for entering entirely new markets. 

Interactions with the User’s Environment. 

How does your product or service fit into your users’ own idiosyncratic systems—whether they be a household routine, an office operation, or a manufacturing process? Consider what Intuit, maker of the personal-finance software package Quicken, learns through its “Follow Me Home” program, in which product developers gain permission from first-time buyers to observe their initial experience with the software in their own homes. Intuit, of course, learns a good deal about its product’s packaging, documentation, and installation from this exercise, as well as about the user friendliness of its software. But it can gather that kind of information in a usability laboratory. What Intuit can’t reliably learn in any way other than by watching someone boot up Quicken on a home computer is what other software applications are running on that customer’s system and how that software can interfere with or complement Quicken’s own operation. Moreover, product developers can see what other data files the customer refers to and might wish to access directly, what state of organization or disarray such files are in, and whether they are on paper or in electronic form. It was from such in-home observations that Intuit designers discovered that many small-business owners were using Quicken to keep their books.

Some small changes that can result from watching people use your product in their own environment can also be competitively important. When engineers from a manufacturer of laboratory equipment visited a customer, they noticed that the equipment emitted a high level of air pollution when it was being used for certain applications. That observation motivated the company to add a venting hood to its product line. Current users were so accustomed to the unpleasant smell that they had never thought to mention it and didn’t regard a venting hood as an important enhancement—until it was available. Then the company’s sales force found the hood to be a compelling sales point when customers compared the product with those of competitors.

User Customization. 

Do users reinvent or redesign your product to serve their own purposes? Producers of industrial equipment observed users taping pieces of paper to their product to serve as identifying labels. The manufacturer gained an inexpensive, but appreciable, advantage over the competition when it incorporated a flat protected space for such machine-specific information into its next model. And every Japanese automaker has set up a design studio in southern California because fanatical car owners there are prone to modifying their cars, often substantially, to meet their particular desires, be they functional (more cargo space, larger engines) or ego-intensive (spoilers, special wheels, new colors). Observing these users helps designers at Nissan and Toyota envision the potential evolution of specific models—and gives them a window on the possible future of cars and trucks in general.

Sometimes, users combine several existing products to solve a problem, not only revealing new uses for traditional products but also highlighting their shortcomings. A prominent producer of household cleaners handed video cameras to family members to record how its products were really being used in people’s basements. The company then could see homemakers concocting their own recipes for particular household chores, such as washing white curtains (“one cup baking soda, one cup dishwashing detergent,” and so on). 

Observers saw people combining beepers and cell phones not to answer calls but to screen them.

Similarly, in the course of studying consumers’ mobile-communication needs, consultants at the Chicago-based Doblin Group, observed individuals creatively combining beepers and cell phones so they could be just as available as they wished—and no more. These consumers gave special beeper codes to friends and relatives to screen out undesired interruptions. That suggested to the firm the need for filtering capabilities on cell phones.

Intangible Attributes of the Product. 

What kinds of peripheral or intangible attributes does your product or service have? Customers rarely name such attributes in focus groups or surveys, but those unseen factors may constitute a kind of emotional franchise—and thus an opportunity. When watching videos of homemakers using cleansers and detergents, representatives of the household-products company could see how often the smell of the products evoked satisfaction with their use, engendered feelings of nostalgia (“My mother used this”) or elicited other emotional responses (“When it smells clean, it makes all my work worthwhile”).

Such intangible, invisible product assets can be augmented, exploited, or redirected. After visiting the homes of Kimberly-Clark customers, consultants at the Palo Alto, California-based design firm GVO recognized the emotional appeal of pull-on diapers to parents and toddlers, who saw them as a step toward “grown-up” dress. Diapers were clothing, the observers realized, and had to highly symbolic as well as functional meaning. Huggies Pull-Ups were rolled out nationally in 1991, and by the time competitors caught on, the company was selling $400 million worth of the product annually.

Failing to note such intangible attributes can sink a new product. Environmentally friendly disks that clean washer loads of clothes without detergents have yet to attract a mass market—in large part, according to the Doblin Group’s observational research, because they don’t produce the expected clean-clothes smell. 

Unarticulated User Needs. 

The application of empathic design that holds the greatest potential benefit is the observation of current or possible customers encountering problems with your products or services that they don’t know can be addressed and may not even recognize as problems. What do you see people being unable to do that would clearly be beneficial?

A product developer from Hewlett-Packard sat in an operating room observing a surgeon at work. The surgeon was guiding his scalpel by watching the patient’s body and his own hands displayed on a television screen. As nurses walked around the room, they would periodically obscure the surgeon’s view of the screen and the operation for a few seconds. No one complained. But this unacknowledged problem caused the developer to ponder the possibility of creating a lightweight helmet that could suspend the images a few inches in front of the surgeon’s eyes. Her company had the technology to create such a product. The surgeon would never have thought to ask for it, even though its potential to improve productivity, increase accuracy, and make the surgeon’s work easier was substantial.

Unarticulated needs abound in daily routines, even when a technological solution exists. For example, Nissan Design’s president, Jerry Hirshberg, was driving along a freeway one day when he saw a couple at the side of the road wrestling the back seat of a competitor’s minivan out of the way so they could pick up a new couch. “We bought this so we would have room,” they told him, “but we can’t use it for what we want without taking out the seats.” They would never have thought of asking for any solution to their problem, but one immediately occurred to Hirshberg—six-foot runners that would enable van owners to fold up the back-seats and slide them out of the way, thus easily creating cargo room.

Weyerhaeuser won an important advantage in the market for particle board after observing an unarticulated need during a visit to a customer’s plant. The customer, a major furniture maker, created table legs by laminating together narrow boards produced by some of Weyerhaeuser’s competitors. Unable either to match the competitors’ prices or to convince the customer to pay higher prices for superior quality, Weyerhaeuser instead came up with a new way to make table legs—a new, much thicker particle board that did not have to be laminated. The consequent savings to customers in tooling and labor costs put Weyerhaeuser back in the competitive running.

Some stunning product ideas come from an engineer or designer who actually uses the products he or she develops because this individual combines knowledge of unexpressed needs with knowledge of how to fill those needs. U.S. women were annoyed for years by the inappropriateness of using a man’s safety razor, designed for faces, on their underarms and legs. When a female designer reshaped the razor for a woman’s hand and needs—the Gillette Lady Sensor—it was enormously successful.

The oft-repeated advice to “delight the customer” assumes real meaning when product or service providers push beyond what their customers anticipate to deliver the unexpected—and technology is a primary agent of such delight. But all companies have capabilities they are failing to tap in their quest to create innovative products and services because those who know what can be done are not generally in direct contact with those who need something done. Empathic-design techniques thus exploit a company’s existing technological capabilities in the widest sense of the term. When a company’s representatives explore their customers’ worlds with the eyes of a fresh observer while simultaneously carrying the knowledge of what is possible for the company to do, they can redirect existing organizational capabilities toward new markets. Consider it a process of mining knowledge assets for new veins of innovation. Usually, much of the basic underlying technology or service methodologies already exist; they just need to be applied differently. 

Empathic-design techniques can’t replace market research; rather, they contribute to the flow of ideas that need further testing.

One important note: empathic-design techniques cannot replace market research; rather, they contribute to the flow of ideas that need further scientific testing before a company commits itself to any full-fledged development project.

Empathic Design: the Process 

Companies can engage in empathic design, or similar techniques such as contextual inquiry, in a variety of ways. However, most employ the following five-step process: 

Step One: Observation 

It’s important to clarify who should be observed, who should do the observing, and what the observer should be watching.

Step Two: Capturing Data 

Because empathic-design techniques stress observation over inquiry, relatively few data are gathered through responses to questions. Most data are gathered from visual, auditory, and sensory cues. Thus empathic-design teams very frequently use photography and videography as tools.

Step Three: Reflection and Analysis 

After gathering data in many forms, the team members return to reflect on what they have observed and to review their visual data with other colleagues. Those individuals—unhampered by possibly extraneous information, such as the reputations of the individuals or companies visited or the weather at the observation site—will focus on the data before them, and they, too, will see different things. 

Step Four: Brainstorming for Solutions 

Brainstorming is a valuable part of any innovation process; within the empathic-design process, it is used specifically to transform the observations into graphic, visual representations of possible solutions. 

Step Five: Developing Prototypes of Possible Solutions 

Clearly, prototypes are not unique to empathic design. But the more radical an innovation, of course, the harder it is to understand how it should look, function, and be used. Just as researchers gather useful visual data, so too can they stimulate communication by creating some physical representation of a new concept for a product or service. 

Empathic Design as a Culture Shift 

A common criticism of the kinds of innovative ideas arising through empathic design is, “But users haven’t asked for that.” Precisely. By the time they do, your competitors will have the same new-product ideas you have—and you will be in the “me-too” game of copying and improving their ideas. Empathic-design techniques involve a twist on the idea that new-product development should be guided by users. In this approach, they still do—they just don’t know it.

Empathic design pushes innovation beyond producing the same thing only better. So for example, computer company managers who have been exposed to a deep cultural understanding of mobility no longer think only of making lighter, faster, and more durable laptops. Instead, they are challenged to consider other communication needs a portable computer might meet. Developing a deep, empathic understanding of users’ unarticulated needs can challenge industry assumptions and lead to a shift in corporate strategy.

Source Harvard Business Review

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Some companies are just better at making sure customers feel good. 

And there is a whole industry based around maximizing customer experience at "all points of contact" with a company, according to customer experience consulting company Beyond Philosophy. Interestingly, after the company interviewed 53 customer experience executives as part of its 2011 Global Customer Experience Management Survey it found that investing more resources in a better customer experience doesn't necessarily result in happier customers. 




Even though they are among the companies spending the most on customer experience, for example, companies like Hewlitt-Packard and HSBC performed among the worst of all surveyed companies. Instead, people's feelings about a company often depend on the company's ability to gauge customer emotions, which "account for more than half the typical customer experience," according to the survey. 


Tech companies, including Apple, are especially good at understanding customer emotions, according to the survey. The iPhone maker recently came out on top in the American Customer Satisfaction Index and JD Power's smartphone customer satisfaction survey. 

Of course, there are some companies bucking the trends. The survey cited American Express, a company that successfully spends big to improve customer experience. Netflix, on the other hand, has recently come under fire, as some allege the company is emphasizing profits instead of customer experience following the announcement of its new DVD service, Qwikster.





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The benefits of a strong corporate culture are both intuitive and supported by social science. According to James L. Heskett, culture “can account for 20-30% of the differential in corporate performance when compared with ‘culturally unremarkable’ competitors.” 

But what makes a culture? Each culture is unique and myriad factors go into creating one, but we've observed at least six common components of great cultures. Isolating those elements can be the first step to building a differentiated culture and a lasting organization.

1. Vision: 

A great culture starts with a vision or mission statement. These simple turns of phrase guide a company’s values and provide it with purpose. That purpose, in turn, orients every decision employees make. When they are deeply authentic and prominently displayed, good vision statements can even help orient customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. Nonprofits often excel at having compelling, simple vision statements. The Alzheimer’s Association, for example, is dedicated to “a world without Alzheimer’s.” And Oxfam envisions “a just world without poverty.” A vision statement is a simple but foundational element of culture.

2. Values: 

A company’s values are the core of its culture. While a vision articulates a company’s purpose, values offer a set of guidelines on the behaviors and mindsets needed to achieve that vision. McKinsey & Company, for example, has a clearly articulated set of values that are prominently communicated to all employees and involve the way that firm vows to serve clients, treat colleagues, and uphold professional standards. Google’s values might be best articulated by their famous phrase, “Don’t be evil.” But they are also enshrined in their “ten things we know to be true.” And while many companies find their values revolve around a few simple topics (employees, clients, professionalism, etc.), the originality of those values is less important than their authenticity.

3. Practices: 

Of course, values are of little importance unless they are enshrined in a company’s practices. If an organization professes, “people are our greatest asset,” it should also be ready to invest in people in visible ways. Wegman’s, for example, heralds values like “caring” and “respect,” promising prospects “a job [they’ll] love.” And it follows through in its company practices, ranked by Fortune as the fifth best company to work for. Similarly, if an organization values “flat” hierarchy, it must encourage more junior team members to dissent in discussions without fear or negative repercussions. And whatever an organization’s values, they must be reinforced in review criteria and promotion policies, and baked into the operating principles of daily life in the firm.

4. People:

No company can build a coherent culture without people who either share its core values or possess the willingness and ability to embrace those values. That’s why the greatest firms in the world also have some of the most stringent recruiting policies. According to Charles Ellis, as noted in a recent review of his book What it Takes: Seven Secrets of Success from the World’s Greatest Professional Firms, the best firms are “fanatical about recruiting new employees who are not just the most talented but also the best suited to a particular corporate culture.” Ellis highlights that those firms often have 8-20 people interview each candidate. And as an added benefit, Steven Hunt notes at that one study found applicants who were a cultural fit would accept a 7% lower salary, and departments with cultural alignment had 30% less turnover. People stick with cultures they like, and bringing on the right “culture carriers” reinforces the culture an organization already has.

5. Narrative: 

Marshall Ganz was once a key part of Caesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers movement and helped structure the organizing platform for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Now a professor at Harvard, one of Ganz’s core areas of research and teaching is the power of narrative. Any organization has a unique history — a unique story. And the ability to unearth that history and craft it into a narrative is a core element of culture creation. The elements of that narrative can be formal — like Coca-Cola, which dedicated an enormous resource to celebrating its heritage and even has a World of Coke museum in Atlanta — or informal, like those stories about how Steve Jobs’ early fascination with calligraphyshaped the aesthetically oriented culture at Apple. But they are more powerful when identified, shaped, and retold as a part of a firm’s ongoing culture.

6. Place: 

Why does Pixar have a huge open atrium engineering an environment where firm members run into each other throughout the day and interact in informal, unplanned ways? Why does Mayor Michael Bloomberg prefer his staff sit in a “bullpen” environment, rather than one of separate offices with soundproof doors? And why do tech firms cluster in Silicon Valley and financial firms cluster in London and New York? There are obviously numerous answers to each of these questions, but one clear answer is that place shapes culture. Open architecture is more conducive to certain office behaviors, like collaboration. Certain cities and countries have local cultures that may reinforce or contradict the culture a firm is trying to create. Place — whether geography, architecture, or aesthetic design — impacts the values and behaviors of people in a workplace.

There are other factors that influence culture. But these six components can provide a firm foundation for shaping a new organization’s culture. And identifying and understanding them more fully in an existing organization can be the first step to revitalizing or reshaping culture in a company looking for change.

source harvard business review

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Critical element in any strategy is its translation into reality

The only true measure of success is in its execution. And one of the key determinants of successful strategy implementation is organisational alignment.

Have you ever watched the rowing eights event? Now, think about the performance of the top teams – what do you see? you will see nine people (including the coxswain) working together in synchrony to achieve their primary goal of crossing the finish line first.

Successful rowing eights operate as a unit

To achieve success, the rowers must stroke at the same pace with the blades of every oar pulling at the same depth in the water. They all know the overall game plan for success and they are ready to respond to the orders of the coxswain (who’s job it is to quarterback the execution of the race strategy and communicate the adjustments that keep the boat on course in changing wind and water conditions) as individuals and as a cohesive unit.

Each member of the team knows what their job is during the race and that they can rely on their coaching, training, boat, and equipment, and the skills, technique, and commitment of their teammates while the race is on. When team alignment and cohesion is off, the boat strays off course, essentially wasting time, energy, and the resources that were invested in trying to achieve the goal of winning the race.

Without alignment, the best strategic plan will never be fully achieved

It’s very much the same for an organisation. Without alignment, the best strategic plan will never be fully achieved because organisational alignment is the glue that makes strategy execution excellence happen. An aligned organisation gets things done faster, with less effort, and with better results, and is more agile and responsive to changing business conditions. Ultimately, a high level of organisational alignment is essential for achieving increasingly better business performance results now and in the future! That’s why organisational alignment is so important for achieving better performance results.

How to cultivate organisational alignment?

1. Have a purpose beyond profit
2. Create a shared vision and a common direction
3. Visualise the journey
4. Envolve the whole organization
5. Do something together
6. Share numbers
7. Celebrate milestones
8. Measure early and often

Let's face it,  great corporate culture doesn't just happen, you need to make it happen!
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