“Who pays the price?”: Why INNOVATIVE PRODUCTS without SERVICE EXCELLENCE hurt customers — the ETHICS of product innovation

This can’t be right.

How can innovation come under the purview of a critical discussion? Isn’t it the best thing that happened to mankind? Isn’t it non-progressive to pause and reflect about innovation (see Elon Musk tried asking people to think through the mother-of-all-innovation — AI, and what happened to him!)

Isn’t all innovation good? Isn’t innovation just for the sake of innovation good? Isn’t business all about design more and more “innovative products”?

Well, today I want take the fizz out of innovation — only a little bit.

Recently, I built my own website, and was searching for some customer analytics tools. I came across a product, which made me feel like “wow! thank goodness someone thought of innovating this”. I was almost about to pay a 1-year subscription when my I had a gut feeling of doing a deep search.

What appeared like “wow-what-a-product” a few hours ago, turned out to be “thank-goodness-I-did-not-pay-for-it”.

The simple reasons: poor service through the year, bad customer support and interface, tricky exit policies.

This is not an unheard of story. We have become very good at identifying needs, ways of doing things better — and coming up with new product and services. Be it how we shop, consult doctors, educate, commute, connect. A new gadget, a new app, a new service offering, a new educational tool.

But once the customer is excited and on-board, we are unable to deliver the promise in a sustained manner. Issues manifest in many ways:

  1. Product does not function in the way communicated
  2. Too many fine prints, conditions apply
  3. Features are missing, or not functioning well
  4. Support team is not in place
  5. Support team is not trained enough
  6. Change of hands, ownership

So while the newspapers and social media, is applauding a start-up or established organization for great product innovation, are we missing out on asking fundamental questions of:

  • How will you deliver it?
  • How will you sustain quality and customer experience?
  • Does your business plan factor in capacity building for service excellence?

Consider the following:

#1) Innovators, are not often executors

The skill-set required to build a new product is different from the one required to build operational excellence to deliver that product.

People who build innovative products are the ones who are good at observing the eco-system, the gaps, the dots and how they connect. They work with a lot of ambiguity, through trial and error. They are likely to be high on the openness dimension (seeking new experiences), risk taking ability, looking at the big picture. They are likely to regard rules as a broad guideline and have very flexible plans.

If you look at the nature of innovation, such qualities perhaps are required to do that kind of work.

Building service excellence, on the contrary, requires a different set of qualities. Eye for detail, regard for rules and process guidelines, being able to preempt issues, planning and data tracking. It is about precision, diligence, discipline.

If you evaluate the nature of work involved in driving operations every single day, those are some of the qualities required.

For an innovative product to be delivered to the customer, the organization must invest in both skill-sets.

While there is lot of glitz and fanfare in the product organizations, with star employees, organizations need to invest proportionate amount of money and effort in finding star delivery personnel.

Sometimes organizations view a delivery team as an ‘inferior’ version of the product team.

And that is the lapse in judgement that kills many innovative products.

Delivery team needs unique and different skills than the product team. A delivery job is a lot more about brass tacks, sweat and grease and far less glamorous — but it requires a specific skillset and mindset — which the organization must spend time curating from the talent pool internally or externally.

Don’t get me wrong. Product job is not easy. I personally come from the product organization. What I am saying is, if you want to do some heavy weight-lifting of innovation — you need both your arms strong — product and delivery.

The validation of an innovative product is not sales number.

The validation of an innovative product is the actualization of the experience that was promised to the customer.

Sales prove, if the product can make money. Customer experience proves, if the product can deliver on its promise.

The former is business. The latter is ethics.

The organization needs both — a strong product and an equally strong delivery team to get both right.

#2) Individual ambitions, pressure of scale, sell-offs

Here is the movie script, that gets told on social media…

We saw this gap, we were deeply concerned about it, we wanted to make a difference in the world — so we made this innovative product. We built it, you buy it, and we live happily ever after…

But real life and business world is not so simple. Not that the intention of creating a good product is necessarily missing. But there are villains in the story — personal ambition, money, scale, etc.

Entrepreneurs — who build a business to get acquired. Investors — who want fast scale-up and return on investment. In established organizations, top executives — who have personal ambitions, other roles to move on to, executive movement..

In isolation, nothing is wrong with any of them.

Where it goes wrong, is when no one asking the question of — what happens to the customer?

There are just too many cases of a product being built in a start-up, getting acquired after few years, and 3–4 years later again getting hived-off as the CEO and executive cadre changes. Or a product being built inside the organization, the core team moves on, and the new team left clueless; and customers given the answer of “the previous team made those promises, we are new in the system”.

In all this, the casualty is the customer who gets,

tossed around like an orphaned child from one foster home to another

Who is accountable, and how do we hold those people accountable is a discussion that cannot be ignored — within established MNCs and start-ups alike.

#3) Who pays the price?

There are different kinds of products, and stakes may vary for the customer. Important ones, among them are:

#1: Products for a customer’s individual use

  • Low stake could be phone, app, home-based service, clothes
  • High stake could be an educational course, college course — which if fails can impact your career or in the least impact a full academic cycle or a health product

#2: Products customer uses to run their business, and be answerable to their customers

  • Low stake could be something like a survey tool or customer analytics
  • High stake could be a web service you are running your business on, anything acting as raw material to your final product offering

Life as it stand today is anyways cluttered. Innovative products, while they promise to make life better, require time, effort and money to adapt to. So we have a moral obligation to make it worth the while for customers.

It is important for product innovators to remember that it is not just them that put their neck on the line, but also the,

early adopters who pay an invisible price, especially for high stake products.

Innovation, particularly with respect to technology has grown at a speed beyond measure.

But discussions on accountability, and ethics of innovation, have just not kept pace

When Elon Musk spoke about the need for regulatory frameworks to govern AI, half the world came swooping down upon the man who himself is a front-runner in AI. Of all people, he was pitted against Mark Zuckerberg, whose own company ironically did not know how to deal with bots inventing their own language codes. The timing of that facebook-shutting-down-the-AI-program was uncanny.

It was as if the universe was sending a sign

And I think Musk, has a larger point; and that is — the need to reflect about the pace of innovation, its impact and what preparation we need as a society.

It could be behavior change, mind-set change, legislation, new skill building, support groups — the list is long.

Those preparations and regulations can be open to debate

But there can be no debate on the fact that we actually need to have the debate.

We human beings are becoming phenomenally adept at taking one thing and taking it to its absolute absurd extreme.

Salad is good for health, so replace all meals with salad

AI is good, so replace everything and everyone with AI

Innovation is good, so keep bringing new products, forget the ones you started last year.

I think it might need a Sufi Saint to help us build some perspective here .

As the story goes, someone asked Rumi, “what is poison?”

He said,

Anything that is more than our necessity is poison — power, wealth, hunger, ego, love, ambition..

I will add “innovation” to that list.

Not just in terms of more innovation than necessary.

But innovation, that comes about, without asking the questions on:

  • How do we deliver to the customer, the dream that we sold them?
  • Who is accountable?
  • Who pays the price?

If our innovations fail to answer these questions, then far from being elixir, they might actually become poison, killing the ability of customers to trust the next person who dares to innovate.

Ironically, such innovation may actually kill future innovation.

Strange then, it might not just be the customers, but innovation itself that will pay the price.

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Swati Jena is a writer and entrepreneur. While she writes on a wide variety of subjects, her favorite topics are leadership, culture, artificial intelligence, education and ‘self’.

She is the founder of GhostWritersWorld (LinkedIn Page).

Her other articles include:

Technology & product

  1. “If Robots will do everything, what will humans do”: Why AI Rhetoric deeply worries me
  2. “Justice delayed is justice denied”: Could AI and Data Science be the answer to India’s judicial backlog?
  3. Flirt with your product ideas, don’t fall in love
  4. LOL … driverless cars for India??: When AI meets Cows, Rajinikanth and Ganpati
  5. Love in the time of Artificial Intelligence: Valentine’s Day 2030

Leadership and Organization

  1. “If you are nothing without the suit, you don’t deserve it”: 3 cardinal tests for anyone who calls himself leader
  2. 3 unforgettable lessons I learnt from an Indian Ed Tech Leader
  3. “I love solving problems”: The BIG problem with problem solving
  4. “So why are you leaving?”: Don’t treat retention discussions like a ONE TIME date
  5. Sophisticated-fear-based-management: 3 unmistakable signs
  6. Interns or cheap labor? Making internship count

Diversity and Inclusion

  1. 3 taboo questions Millennials are asking, leaving hiring managers shocked
  2. Why the ‘Corporate-style Women’s Day Celebrations’ gives me the creeps
  3. The OOUCH of maternity leaves: Why managers secretly dread it
  4. Man or Woman? Who should lead gender diversity? Why we are simply asking the WRONG question.
  5. “She has good figure”: Why creating a safe place to work takes much more than just sexual harrassment policy

Education

  1. The Yin and Yang of Ed-Tech: Will schools even survive the next 10 years?
  2. Why we “grown-ups” are the biggest reason the education system must change urgently
  3. “No chair for teacher”: Is it time we do away with this regressive and myopic policies

Self-help

  1. The Monkey Catcher’s Lesson: Why we get stuck in our jobs, situations, emotions..

2. “Anger is remembered pain”: 3 steps to healing from difficult experiences at workplace

3. A “50-over-50” list: Pressures of adults “growing up” in a world of over-achieving youngsters

4. The (difficult) art of doing nothing and why it matters in a world proud of “busy”

5. 500 Uber rides without driver talking on the phone: My personal starfish story

6. “Here is a muffin that will make you successful”: The unspoken truth about success

7. 5 reasons we should “stop fighting” for a cause

8. “You are hiding something”: 4 reasons we find it difficult to trust those we love

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