I: Cloud People
I want to open this afternoon’s talk with a story about my friend Kate Carruthers. Kate is a business strategist, currently working at Hyro, over in Surry Hills. In November, while on a business trip to Far North Queensland, Kate pulled out her American Express credit card to pay for a taxi fare. Her card was declined. Kate paid with another card and thought little of it until the next time she tried to use the card – this time to pay for something rather pricier, and more important – and found her card declined once again.
As it turned out, American Express had cut Kate’s credit line in half, but hadn’t bothered to inform her of this until perhaps a day or two before, via post. So here’s Kate, far away from home, with a crook credit card. Thank goodness she had another card with her, or it could have been quite a problem. When she contacted American Express to discuss that credit line change – on a Friday evening – she discovered that this ‘consumer’ company kept banker’s hours in its credit division. That, for Kate, was the last straw. She began to post a series of messages to Twitter:
“I can’t believe how rude Amex have been to me; cut credit limit by 50% without notice; declined my card while in QLD even though acct paid”
“since Amex just treated me like total sh*t I just posted a chq for the balance of my account & will close acct on Monday”
“Amex is hardly accepted anywhere anyhow so I hardly use it now & after their recent treatment I’m outta there”
“luckily for me I have more than enough to just pay the sucker out & never use Amex again”
“have both a gold credit card & gold charge card with amex until monday when I plan to close both after their crap behaviour”
One after another, Kate sent this stream of messages out to her Twitter followers. All of her Twitter followers. Kate’s been on Twitter for a long time – well over three years – and she’s accumulated a lot of followers. Currently, she has over 8300 followers, although at the time she had her American Express meltdown, the number was closer to 7500.
Let’s step back and examine this for a moment. Kate is, in most respects, a perfectly ordinary (though whip-smart) human being. Yet she now has this ‘cloud’ of connections, all around her, all the time, through Twitter. These 8300 people are at least vaguely aware of whatever she chooses to share in her tweets. They care enough to listen, even if they are not always listening very closely. A smaller number of individuals (perhaps a few hundred, people like me) listen more closely. Nearly all the time we’re near a computer or a mobile, we keep an eye on Kate. (Not that she needs it. She’s thoroughly grown up. But if she ever got into a spot of trouble or needed a bit of help, we’d be on it immediately.)
This kind of connectivity is unprecedented in human history. We came from villages where perhaps a hundred of us lived close enough together that there were no secrets. We moved to cities where the power of numbers gave us all a degree of anonymity, but atomized us into disconnected individuals, lacking the social support of a community. Now we come full circle. This is the realization of the ‘Global Village’ that Marshall McLuhan talked about fifty years ago. At the time McLuhan though of television as a retribalizing force. It wasn’t. But Facebook and Twitter and the mobiles each of us carry with us during all our waking hours? These are the new retribalizing forces, because they keep us continuously connected with one another, allowing us to manage connections in every-greater numbers.
Anything Kate says, no matter how mundane, is now widely known. But it’s more than that. Twitter is text, but it is also links that can point to images, or videos, or songs, or whatever you can digitize and upload to the Web. Kate need simply drop a URL into a tweet and suddenly nearly ten thousand people are aware of it. If they like it, they will send it along (‘re-tweet’ is the technical term), and it will spread out quickly, like waves on a pond.
But Twitter isn’t a one-way street. Kate is ‘following’ 7250 individuals; that is, she’s receiving tweets from them. That sounds like a nearly impossible task: how can you pay attention to what that many people have to say? It’d be like trying to listen to every conversation at Central Station (or Flinders Street Station) at peak hour. Madness. And yet, it is possible. Tools have been created that allow you to keep a pulse on the madness, to stick a toe into the raging torrent of commentary.
Why would you want to do this? It’s not something that you need to do (or even want to do) all the time, but there are particular moments – crisis times – when Twitter becomes something else altogether. After an earthquake or other great natural disaster, after some pivotal (or trivial) political event, after some stunning discovery. The 5650 people I follow are my connection to all of that. My connection is broad enough that someone, somewhere in my network is nearly always nearly the first to know something, among the first to share what they know. Which means that I too, if I am paying attention, am among the first to know.
Businesses have been built on this kind of access. An entire sector of the financial services industry, from DowJones to Bloomberg, has thrived because it provides subscribers with information before others have it – information that can be used on a trading floor. This kind of information freely comes to the very well-connected. This kind of information can be put to work to make you more successful as an individual, in your business, or in whatever hobbies you might pursue. And it’s always there. All you need do is plug into it.
When you do plug into it, once you’ve gotten over the initial confusion, and you’ve dedicated the proper time and tending to your network, so that it grows organically and enthusiastically, you will find yourself with something amazingly flexible and powerful. Case in point: in December I found myself in Canberra for a few days. Where to eat dinner in a town that shuts down at 5 pm? I asked Twitter, and forty-five minutes later I was enjoying some of the best seafood laksa I’ve had in Australia. A few days later, in the Barossa, I asked Twitter which wineries I should visit – and the top five recommendations were very good indeed. These may seem like trivial instances – though they’re the difference between a good holiday and a lackluster one – but what they demonstrate is that Twitter has allowed me to plug into all of the expertise of all of the thousands of people I am connected to. Human brainpower, multiplied by 5650 makes me smarter, faster, and much, much more effective. Why would I want to live any other way? Twitter can be inane, it can be annoying, it can be profane and confusing and chaotic, but I can’t imagine life without it, just as I can’t imagine life without the Web or without my mobile. The idea that I am continuously connected and listening to a vast number of other people – even as they listen to me – has gone from shocking to comfortable in just over three years.
Kate and I are just the leading edge. Where we have gone, all of the rest of you will soon follow. We are all building up our networks, one person at a time. A child born in 2010 will spend their lifetime building up a social network. They’ll never lose track of any individual they meet and establish a connection with. That connection will persist unless purposely destroyed. Think of the number of people you meet throughout your lives, who you establish some connection with, even if only for a few hours. That number would easily reach into the thousands for every one of us. Kate and I are not freaks, we’re simply using the bleeding edge of a technology that will be almost invisible and not really worth mentioning by 2020.
All of this means that the network is even more alluring than it was a few years ago, and will become ever more alluring with the explosive growth in social networks. We are just at the beginning of learning how to use these new social networks. First we kept track of friends and family. Then we moved on to business associates. Now we’re using them to learn, to train ourselves and train others, to explore, to explain, to help and to ask for help. They are becoming a new social fabric which will knit us together into an unfamiliar closeness. This is already creating some interesting frictions for us. We like being connected, but we also treasure the moments when we disconnect, when we can’t be reached, when our time and our thoughts are our own. We preach focus to our children, but find our time and attention increasing divided by devices that demand service: email, Web, phone calls, texts, Twitter, Facebook, all of it brand new, and all of it seemingly so important that if we ignore any of them we immediately feel the cost. I love getting away from it all. I hate the backlog of email that greets me when I return. Connecting comes with a cost. But it’s becoming increasingly impossible to imagine life without it.
I recently read a most interesting blog post. Chase Saunders, a software architect and entrepreneur in Maine (not too far from where I was born) had a bit of a brainwave and decided to share it with the rest of the world. But you may not like it. Saunders begins with: “For me to get really mad at a company, it takes more than a lousy product or service: it’s the powerlessness I feel when customer service won’t even try to make things right. This happens to me about once a year.” Given the number of businesses we all interact with in any given year – both as consumers and as client businesses – this figure is far from unusual. There will be times when we get poor value for money, or poor service, or a poor response time, or what have you. The world is a cruel place. It’s what happens after that cruelty which is important: how does the business deal with an upset customer? If they fail the upset customer, that’s when problems can really get out of control.
In times past, an upset customer could cancel their account, taking their business elsewhere. Bad, but recoverable. These days, however, customers have more capability, precisely because of their connectivity. And this is where things start to go decidedly pear-shaped. Saunders gets to the core of his idea:
Let’s say you buy a defective part from ACME Widgets, Inc. and they refuse to refund or replace it. You’re mad, and you want the world to know about this awful widget. So you pop over to AdRevenge and you pay them a small amount. Say $3. If the company is handing out bad widgets, maybe some other people have already done this… we’ll suppose that before you got there, one guy donated $1 and another lady also donated $1. So now we have 3 people who have paid a total of $5 to warn other potential customers about this sketchy company…the 3 vengeful donations will go to the purchase of negative search engine advertising. The ads are automatically booked and purchased by the website…
And there it is. Your customers – your angry customers – have found an effective way to band together and warn every other potential customer just how badly you suck, and will do it every time your name gets typed into a search engine box. And they’ll do it whether or not their complaints are justified. In fact, your competitors could even game the system, stuffing it up with lots of false complaints. It will quickly become complete, ugly chaos.
You’re probably all donning your legal hats, and thinking about words like ‘libel’ and ‘defamation’. Put all of that out of your mind. The Internet is extraterritorial, it and effectively ungovernable, despite all of the neat attempts of governments from China to Iran to Australia to stuff it back into some sort of box. Ban AdRevenge somewhere, it pops up somewhere else – just as long as there’s a demand for it. Other countries – perhaps Iceland or Sweden, and certainly the United States – don’t have the same libel laws as Australia, yet their bits freely enter the nation over the Internet. There is no way to stop AdRevenge or something very much like AdRevenge from happening. No way at all. Resign yourself to this, and embrace it, because until you do you won’t be able to move on, into a new type of relationship with your customers.
Which brings us back to our beginning, and a very angry Kate Carruthers. Here she is, on a Friday night in Far North Queensland, spilling quite a bit of bile out onto Twitter. Everyone one of the 7500 people who read her tweets will bear her experience in mind the next time they decide whether they will do any business with American Express. This is damage, probably great damage to the reputation of American Express, damage that could have been avoided, or at least remediated before Kate ‘went nuclear’.
But where was American Express when all of this was going on? While Kate expressed her extreme dissatisfaction with American Express, its own marketing arm was busily cooking up a scheme to harness Twitter. It’s Open Forum Pulse website shows you tweets from small businesses around the world. Ironic, isn’t it? American Express builds a website to show us what others are saying on Twitter, all the while ignoring about what’s being said about it. So the fire rages, uncontrolled, while American Express fiddles.
There are other examples. On Twitter, one of my friends lauded the new VAustralia Premium Economy service to the skies, while VAustralia ran some silly marketing campaign that had four blokes sending three thousand tweets over two days in Los Angeles. Sure, I want to tune into that stream of dreck and drivel. That’s exactly what I’m looking for in the age of information overload: more crap.
This is it, the fundamental disconnect, the very heart of the matter. We all need to do a whole lot less talking, and a whole lot more listening. That’s true for each of us as individuals: we’re so well-connected now that by the time we do grow into a few thousand connections we’d be wiser listening than speaking, most of the time. But this is particularly true for businesses, which make their living dealing with customers. The relationship between businesses and their customers has historically been characterized by a ‘throw it over the wall’ attitude. There is no wall, anywhere. The customer is sitting right beside you, with a megaphone pointed squarely into your ear.
If we were military planners, we’d call this ‘asymmetric warfare’. Instead, we should just give it the name it rightfully deserves: 21st-century business. It’s a battlefield out there, but if you come prepared for a 20th-century conflict – massive armies and big guns – you’ll be overrun by the fleet-footed and omnipresent guerilla warfare your customers will wage against you – if you don’t listen to them. Like volcanic ash, it may not present a solid wall to prevent your progress. But it will jam up your engines, and stop you from getting off the ground.
Listening is not a job. There will be no ‘Chief Listening Officer’, charged with keeping their ear down to the ground, wondering if the natives are becoming restless, ready to sound the alarm when a situation threatens to go nuclear. There is simply too much to listen to, happening everywhere, all at once. Any single point which presumed to do the listening for an entire organization – whether an individual or a department – will simply be overwhelmed, drowning in the flow of data. Listening is not a job: it is an attitude. Every employee from the most recently hired through to the Chief Executive must learn to listen. Listen to what is being said internally (therein lies the path to true business success) and learn to listen to what others, outside the boundaries of the organization, are saying about you.
Employees already regularly check into their various social networks. Right now we think of that as ‘slacking off’, not something that we classify as work. But if we stretch the definition just a bit, and begin to recognize that the organization we work for is, itself, part of our social network, things become clearer. Someone can legitimately spend time on Facebook, looking for and responding to issues as they arise. Someone can be plugged into Twitter, giving it continuous partial attention all day long, monitoring and soothing customer relationships. And not just someone. Everyone. This is a shared responsibility. Working for the organization means being involved with and connected to the organization’s customers, past, present and future. Without that connection, problems will inevitably arise, will inevitably amplify, will inevitably result in ‘nuclear events’. Any organization (or government, or religion) can only withstand so many nuclear events before it begins to disintegrate. So this isn’t a matter of choice. This is a basic defensive posture. An insurance policy, of sorts, protecting you against those you have no choice but to do business with.
Yet this is not all about defense. Listening creates opportunity. I get some of my best ideas – such as that AdRevenge article – because I am constantly listening to others’ good ideas. Your customers might grumble, but they also praise you for a job well done. That positive relationship should be honored – and reinforced. As you reinforce the positive, you create a virtuous cycle of interactions which becomes terrifically difficult to disrupt. When that’s gone on long enough, and broadly enough, you have effectively raised up your own army – in the post-modern, guerilla sense of the word – who will go out there and fight for you and your brand when the haters and trolls and chaos-makers bear down upon you. These people are connected to you, and will connect to one another because of the passion they share around your products and your business. This is another network, an important network, an offensive network, and you need both defensive and offensive strategies to succeed on this playing field.
Just as we as individuals are growing into hyperconnectivity, so our businesses must inevitably follow. Hyperconnected individuals working with disconnected businesses is a perfect recipe for confusion and disaster. Like must meet with like before the real business of the 21st-century can begin.
III: Services With a Smile
Moving from the abstract to the concrete, let’s consider the types of products and services required in our densely hyperconnected world. First and foremost, we are growing into a pressing, almost fanatical need for continuous connectivity. Wherever we are – even in airplanes – we must be connected. The quality of that connection – its speed, reliability, and cost – are important co-factors to consider, and it is not always the cheapest connection which serves the customer best. I pay a premium for my broadband connection because I can send the CEO of my ISP a text any time my link goes down – and my trouble tickets are sorted very rapidly! Conversely, I went with a lower-cost carrier for my mobile service, and I am paying the price, with missed calls, failed data connections, and crashes on my iPhone.
As connectivity becomes more important, reliability crowds out other factors. You can offer a premium quality service at a premium price and people will adopt it, for the same reason they will pay more for a reliable car, or for electricity from a reliable supplier, or for food that they’re sure will be wholesome. Connectivity has become too vital to threaten. This means there’s room for healthy competition, as providers offer different levels of service at different price points, competing on quality, so that everyone gets the level of service they can afford. But uptime always will be paramount.
What service, exactly is on offer? Connectivity comes in at least two flavors: mobile and broadband. These are not mutually exclusive. When we’re stationary we use broadband; when we’re in motion we use mobile services. The transition between these two networks should be invisible and seamless as possible – as pioneered by Apple’s iPhone.
At home, in the office, at the café or library, in fact, in almost any structure, customers should have access to wireless broadband. This is one area where Australia noticeably trails the rest of the world. The tariff structure for Internet traffic has led Australians to be unusually conservative with their bits, because there is a specific cost incurred for each bit sent or received. While this means that ISPs should always have the funding to build out their networks to handle increases in capacity, it has also meant that users protect their networks from use in order to keep costs down. This fundamental dilemma has subjected wireless broadband in Australia to a subtle strangulation. We do not have the ubiquitous free wireless access that many other countries – in particular, the United States – have on offer, and this consequently alters our imagination of the possibilities for ubiquitous networking.
Tariffs are now low enough that customers ought to be encouraged to offer wireless networking to the broader public. There are some security concerns that need to be addressed to make this safe for all parties, but these are easily dealt with. There is no fundamental barrier to pervasive wireless broadband. It does not compete with mobile data services. Rather, as wireless broadband becomes more ubiquitous, people come to rely on continuous connectivity ever more. Mobile data demand will grow in lockstep as more wireless broadband is offered. Investment in wireless broadband is the best way to ensure that mobile data services continue to grow.
Mobile data services are best characterized principally by speed and availability. Beyond a certain point – perhaps a megabit per second – speed is not an overwhelming lure on a mobile handset. It’s nice but not necessary. At that point, it’s much more about provisioning: how will my carrier handle peak hour in Flinders Street Station (or Central Station)? Will my calls drop? Will I be able to access my cloud-based calendar so that I can grab a map and a phone number to make dinner reservations? If a customer finds themselves continually frustrated in these activities, one of two things will happen: either the mobile will go back into the pocket, more or less permanently, or the customer will change carriers. Since the customer’s family, friends and business associates will not be putting their own mobiles back into their pockets, it is unlikely that any customer will do so for any length of time, irrespective of the quality of their mobile service. If the carrier will not provision, the customers must go elsewhere.
Provisioning is expensive. But it is also the only sure way to retain your customers. A customer will put up with poor customer service if they know they have reliable service. A customer will put up with a higher monthly spend if they have a service they know they can depend upon in all circumstances. And a customer will quickly leave a carrier who can not be relied upon. I’ve learned that lesson myself. Expect it to be repeated, millions of times over, in the years to come, as carriers, regrettably and avoidably, find that their provisioning is inadequate to support their customers.
Wireless is wonderful, and we think of it as a maintenance-free technology, at least from the customer’s point of view. Yet this is rarely so. Last month I listened to a talk by Genevieve Bell, Intel Fellow and Lead Anthropologist at the chipmaker. Her job is to spend time in the field – across Europe and the developing world – observing how people really use technology when it escapes into the wild. Several years ago she spent some time in Singapore, studying how pervasive wireless broadband works in the dense urban landscape of the city-state. In any of Singapore’s apartment towers – which are everywhere – nearly everyone has access to very high speed wired broadband (perhaps 50 megabits per second) – which is then connected to a wireless router to distribute the broadband throughout the apartment. But wireless is no great respecter of walls. Even in my own flat in Surry Hills I can see nine wireless networks from my laptop, including my own. In a Singapore tower block, the number is probably nearer to twenty or thirty.
Genevieve visited a family who had recently purchased a wireless printer. They were dissatisfied with it, pronouncing it ‘possessed’. What do you mean? she inquired. Well, they explained, it doesn’t print what they tell it to print. But it does print other things. Things they never asked for. The family called for a grandfather to come over and practice his arts of feng shui, hoping to rid the printer of its evil spirits. The printer, now repositioned to a more auspicious spot, still misbehaved. A few days later, a knock came on the door. Outside stood a neighbor, a sheaf of paper in his hands, saying, “I believe these are yours…?”
The neighbor had also recently purchased a wireless printer, and it seems that these two printers had automatically registered themselves on each other’s networks. Automatic configuration makes wireless networks a pleasure to use, but it also makes for botched configurations and flaky communication. Most of this is so far outside the skill set of the average consumer that these problems will never be properly remedied. The customer might make a support call, and maybe – just maybe the problem will be solved. Or, the problem will persist, and the customer will simply give up. Even with a support call, wireless networks are often so complex that the problem can’t be wholly solved.
As wireless networks grow more pervasive, Genevieve Bell recommends that providers offer a high-quality hand-holding and diagnostic service to their customers. They need to offer a ‘tune up’ service that will travel to the customer once a year to make sure everything is running well. Consumers need to be educated that wireless networks do not come for free. Like anything else, they require maintenance, and the consumer should come to expect that it will cost them something, every year, to keep it all up and running. In this, a wireless network is no different than a swimming pool or a lawn. There is a future for this kind of service: if you don’t offer it, your competitors soon will.
Finally, let me close with what the world looks like when all of these services are working perfectly. Lately, I’ve become a big fan of Foursquare, a ‘location-based social network’. Using the GPS on my iPhone, Foursquare allows me to ‘check in’ when I go to a restaurant, a store, or almost anywhere else. Once I’ve checked in, I can make a recommendation – a ‘tip’ in Foursquare lingo – or simply look through the tips provided by those who have been there before me. This list of tips is quickly growing longer, more substantial, and more useful. I can walk into a bar that I’ve never been to before and know exactly which cocktail I want to order. I know which table at the restaurant offers the quietest corner for a romantic date. I know which salesperson to talk to for a good deal on that mobile handset. And so on. I have immediate and continuous information in depth, and I put that information to work, right now, to make my life better.
The world of hyperconnectivity isn’t some hypothetical place we’ll never see. We are living in it now. The seeds of the future are planted in the present. But the shape of the future is determined by our actions today. It is possible to blunt and slow Australia’s progress into this world with bad decisions and bad services. But it is also possible to thrust the nation into global leadership if we can embrace the inevitable trend toward hyperconnectivity, and harness it. It has already transformed our lives. It will transform our businesses, our schools, and our government. You are the carriers of that change. Your actions will bring this new world into being.