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Customer experience and the peer-to-peer economy: What traditional retailers can learn from the new kids on the block

Wouldn’t life be easier if, instead of selling stuff, you just let other people do it and then take a cut?

The rise of the peer-to-peer economy in recent years has flipped traditional business wisdom on its head. No longer need you worry about stock levels, store rental prices and fixed term labour contracts- instead create a platform where incentivised parties come together to exchange goods and services, and leave the rest up to the market you’ve created.  Let the eBay buyer and seller, the Uber passenger and driver, the Airbnb guest and host do the hard work and enjoy the spoils of your self-sustaining network.

Yet in this happy (and admittedly severely rose-tinted) world, where your business’ brand ambassadors aren’t even employed by you at all, how do you ensure that your customers have a consistent customer experience that will keep them coming back? In practice, peer-to-peer companies do a reasonable job of this. They control key aspects of the experience, such as the app interface and the customer service department, to ensure in the first instance customers are comfortable using the platform, and in the second instance are reassured that any issues are dealt with professionally and efficiently.

They then leave the bulk of the customer experience in the hands of strangers- your Uber driver, your Airbnb host, your eBay seller. Now what peer-to-peer businesses do which is smart is that they align the incentives of these individuals with their business interest. The Uber driver is incentivised to get on the road when more people need cabs through surge pricing. The Airbnb host is incentivised to offer competitive pricing through a pricing map showing the cost of other Airbnb rooms nearby. The eBay seller is incentivised to accurately describe the products they have on offer through customer feedback ratings. These mechanisms mean it is in the interest of all these individuals to provide a good service to their customers. This is good for the customer, who feels reassured interacting with strangers, and it is all good for the business, since it encourages customers to come back to the platform again and again.

Smart stuff.

It is clear, however, that these mechanisms aren’t perfect. There have been claims that surge pricing by Uber is exploitative. Despite “clear” photos Airbnb rooms aren’t always as fantastic as they claim to be. Customer feedback systems such as eBay’s star ratings can be inaccurate, giving customers a platform to vent problems rather than offer accurate criticism. The next stage for these businesses is to understand the insights behind these pain points and work to rectify them, working to deliver an even better customer experience, either through intervening themselves or fine-tuning their incentive framework.

Regardless, this mix of incentives and direct customer engagement is a potent and arguably less resource-heavy way of ensuring a consistent customer experience. So, traditional retailers, the next time you’re thinking about your customer experience, maybe take a leaf out of the peer to peer economy’s book?

Incentives, rather than investment, could be the solution to your problems.

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Ode to Uber: More than just a Taxi

So, I’m a bit of an Uber fan. Although admittedly a bit late to the party, the ease, flexibility and convenience of being able to summon a taxi at a moment’s notice has turned me into a complete Uber-phile. Let’s face it, I’m always going to be a fan of a service that is faster, cheaper and more convenient than the norm (a typical Millennial trait I’m sure you’ll agree).

The controversy of their ascent, aside, Uber has transformed the way we interact with taxis. From syncing your credit card to the app so you don’t have to worry about carrying cash, to seeing in real time how far your taxi is away, to developing a two-way feedback loop so that both driver and passenger know they’re in for a smooth journey, Uber has completely re-invented the industry. The question is, which industry will Uber re-invent next?

Because I really doubt Uber will be satisfied with just being a taxi company. Let’s think for a moment about what Uber has created. In one sense, Uber had created a network of taxis, allowing for a rapid response taxi service that transports people more responsively and more cheaply than existing taxi companies can. Yet in another sense, Uber has created a rapid response logistics network that has the capability to transport anything faster, cheaper and more conveniently than existing players.

 

If you start talking about Uber as a logistics company rather than a taxi company, you can begin to uncover the opportunities Uber has created for itself. What’s to stop Uber becoming…

…a rapid response food logistics operator, coming to the aid of the disorganised chef who’s run out of fish for tonight’s busy service at his restaurant?

…a mobile corner-shop, for the busy working mum who doesn’t have time to pop to the shops on her way home but still needs a pint of milk?

…a parcel delivery service, for the avid eBay seller who needs a parcel delivered quickly but doesn’t have the time to visit the Post Office? (I may be talking from personal frustration here)

 

The scary thing is, Uber is already doing some of these things. UberEats is a fantastic example of Uber’s potential. Currently in only a small number of cities, UberEats is (in Uber’s words):

…an on-demand meal delivery service powered by Uber. We partner with the best local restaurants to bring you a meal in 10 minutes or less. It’s the same cashless payment as an Uber ride. So all you need to do is tap a button and wait for the goodness to arrive.

In a shrewd tie-up from Unilever, Uber recently ran an activation with Wall’s ice-cream, enabling users to request ice-cream on demand. Not only did it generate a great buzz for both Uber and Wall’s, but it also uncovered an interesting thought: why bother letting your customers go to the shops and see competitor products alongside your own if your product, alone, can come to them?

With this and I’m sure, other partnerships in the pipeline, it seems that setting up the logistics network was only phase one for Uber. Phase two, the utilisation of that network, is just round the corner. The question is, will your business be a future partner or competitor to Uber?

 

Disruptive times lay ahead, and not just if you’re a cabbie.

THE BLURRING OF OFFLINE AND ONLINE SHOPPING

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So, what to make of the news that eBay and Argos have decided to team up and offer customers the ability to order eBay goods online and collect them from an Argos store? The tie-up of these huge retailers is an exciting proposition, with both companies seeking to utilise each other’s points of strength to create a more well-rounded shopping experience. eBay will benefit from the vast network of physical Argos stores, whilst Argos will be able to leverage eBay’s expertise in online retail to boost its own online offering.

eBay are looking to humanise their shopping experience which until now has been almost completely online and offer their customers a physical point of contact when visiting an Argos store. The benefit of this is two-fold: eBay shoppers will not have to wait for their purchases to be delivered, and instead can collect them from an Argos store when convienient. This will surely be a welcome relief to those who have spent countless hours hanging around for the delivery man. Another weak point of online shopping currently is the inconvenience of returning unwanted goods. How many times have you kept something you bought just because it was too much hassle to send back and get a refund? Having a physical store will certainly make it easier to return items and for eBay to keep its customers happier.

And how will Argos benefit? The connection to the eBay brand will undoubtably add credibility to the Argos’ online offering, who themselves are operating successfully online but are traditionally seen as an offline, bricks-and-mortar retailer. The stream of eBay shoppers collecting their goods in-store will undoubtedly drive more potential customers into Argos stores too, who may previously have not considered shopping at Argos.

The key motivation of this venture for both companies stems from their competition with online behemoth Amazon. Both companies consider Amazon, albeit from slightly differing perspectives, as a serious competitor, and this joint venture could prove to be the first real challenge to Amazon’s dominance in the online space. By providing a physical point of difference and an opportunity to interact with consumers in the offline world, eBay and Argos can offer consumers a certain human interaction which Amazon currently does not. It certainly looks like in the case of the online shopping experience, two brands may well be better than one.

(Originally posted on The Value Engineers blog on September 26, 2013)