A Confusing Ride Along the Path of a Product

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August 12, 2012
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oyster card

(Originally published in August 2012 issue of  Lafferty Cards & Payments Insights.)

There is a traffic circle (or “round-about” if you’re from England) along one of the main roads in Bucharest that is, unfortunately, a perfect metaphor for many of the new products and businesses found here.

Constructed in the past couple years, the circle appears well-built, it’s attractive – and it’s round. There is no doubt it is, by definition, a traffic circle. The problem is it’s not clear why they bothered. The radius is so small, it is virtually impossible to stay in a single lane as you pass through it. It does not bring other roads together. It does not calm traffic. You don’t slow down – you just rapidly veer around it. If the intent was to increase safety, mitigate speed, or control traffic flow, then this otherwise successful traffic circle appears to be an absolute failure.

I mention this because too often this is the way products are designed, especially in Eastern Europe: travel somewhere, see something you want, and come back and build it – or something that looks like it. Nevermind that it can take as much strategic thinking to import an idea as it does to create it.

And then what happens? Confusion – confusion in product design, in image, in message, in marketing, in education, in goals, in the customer experience, in the full range of attributes that define a product and make it truly successful. We see this too often in business, including, unfortunately, in banking.

My latest example was found here in the subway just a few months ago. A table, set up by Erste-owned BCR, the biggest bank in Romania, was offering a debit card with a contactless feature that could be used for riding public transportation. At least, that was the dominant marketing message.

The card did not immediately attract my attention. It was the location of the sign-up tables that initially caught my eye. Was there any other place where fewer people would want to stop to fill out an application than inside the subway on their way to or from work? Perhaps the bank should try the taxi stand at the airport, I thought.

Then I started noticing other things about the card. The signage in the subway clearly placed this as a travel product. I would receive a “gift” towards the fare.

So it was a transit card. But it also mentioned “bonus” awards for spend in different categories: 1 percent at grocery stores, 2 percent for shoes or clothes, 10 percent at museums, etc.

So it was a loyalty card. Then there was the card image, which like any design element should help communicate what the product was about. On this card, it was a generic city skyline with a somewhat insipid smile on it – hence the name of the card, Zambet, which means “smile” in Romanian. (Exactly what city is pictured on the card no one seems to know). And then there was the bank logo and Visa Electron.

So it was a debit card. In other words, it was a bit of everything – and apparently, that gets us to the heart of the problem.

For me, having grown up with the subways in New York and being a big fan of the Oyster card in London, the idea of using a card to swipelessly enter the subway held great appeal. So one day, in no hurry, I walked up to the table where a young man and woman seemed momentarily perplexed why I had stopped to talk to them. I had one basic question: “What is this card?” I asked. “It’s a Visa,” they said, “and you can open an account.” “I don’t need an account,” I said. “But, look at the points,” they said. “You earn lots of points.” “I want to ride the subway,” I said. “Oh, yes,” they assured, “you can do that too.”

After completing the forms (and missing three trains), I was told I would receive a call when the card was ready and I was handed a thin, cheap shopping bag as a “thank you.” I suppose I see the connection – card, shop, spend, carry – but honestly, rather than feel appreciated and connected to my new bank, my only emotion was embarrassment for these two young people who (it was obvious) realized this little recycle sack did not impress me.

Things got worse from there. When I went to pick up my card, the bank representative was a very nice man. Unfortunately, it turned out, he was also a very nice new employee and he was not too sure what forms I should sign or what to do with my card. Luckily, there was a woman helping him. Unluckily, she kept leaving to do other things.

Before I left, he assured me the card was ready to use. I could now ride the subway or bus with just a touch of the pad. Yet what was that, I wondered, under the card? A long series of numbers on the card carrier. Oh, he said, I needed to register that, but only for the bus, the subway would be fine.

The subway was not fine. The card did not work. And that’s when the questions really began. This clearly was not an Oyster card, so what did I now have in my wallet? And what did the woman mean about needing to fund a separate transit account? And who were the partners where I could redeem lots of points? Back I went to the nine printed pages of terms and conditions. Back to several branches to find a manager who could help me. Back to the website where I finally found my card, listed with five other debit cards, not among the “loyalty” cards, which only include “credit.” And back to the subway to ask the ticket-seller more questions.

So what is this card, really? When all is said and done, it’s mostly a good old- fashioned cash-back card. And if I want, I can use it on the subway – at twice the price of a commuter fare. Well, now that I know that, the problem is I don’t need a cash-back card. I don’t want a cash-back card. You see, they charge me 2.5 lei (about 65 cents) a month to maintain my account. They charge me 1.5 lei a month to maintain my card. So I need to buy at least 400 lei of groceries each month to earn 1 percent cash back, which I will receive in three months, to cover the monthly fees. I need to buy 50 lei of shoes each subway trip to cover the extra fare. (Or is it 47.50 if I get a 5 percent bonus when I use the card to charge my transit account?) I suppose if I ate in restaurants a lot wearing new clothes, the cash back could really add up. Or if I lived in a museum. And the gift? That turned out to be 10 lei they applied towards the fare, which came out of the 20 lei I paid to open my account.
So the fact is here I am, the unhappy owner of a Zambet card meant to make my life easier and mostly what it has done is confuse me. And cost me. And, incidentally, cost the bank.

Now, it’s dangerous to impute a particular intent and goal to someone else’s actions. So I don’t want to suggest I understand why the card was designed the way it was. Why it was marketed the way it was. How it is – or is not – integrated with other products. How it is intended to move customer behavior. What its sales projections are. What its cross-sell potential is. Whether it has its own P&L?

The bank seems to regard the card as a great success. It was launched almost a year ago, and in a recent press release, it heralded the card as a “star,” accounting for 20 percent of all their reward debit cards. I’m not sure how many that is because, despite a promise to let me know, I never did hear back from the bank’s spokesman. But I’m happy for them.

And I’m not upset about the fees, though I don’t understand all of them. What really bothers me is that I wonder: what does this bank want from me? I don’t know. Why did they bother setting up tables in the subway and hire people with a goal of attracting 10 new accounts a day? I don’t know. They want me to use my card? I don’t know. They want me to use my account? I don’t know. I know I gave them my email. But nothing. I was not asked to transfer my payroll account there. I was not told of any benefits for using this bank. I was not asked what I use a bank for, or what I want from a bank. I was only given incorrect information about how to use my new subway card.

The sad fact is I have not heard from them. (I did get an SMS to wish me a happy birthday, so at least that department knows I exist.) I’m not looking for a hard cross-sell, but I wouldn’t mind being told of some other products, or uses, or reasons to switch my activity to this bank. I have never been asked what I need from a bank or what I use a bank for. I make international transfers. I need internet banking. I eventually want a local credit card. They could help. Maybe. But I have not been asked. I have this nagging feeling I was tricked. I have their card and I have an account there, but I’m not even certain I’m a customer. I think I’m just a casual acquaintance, or maybe the equivalent of a one-night stand.

The fact is, I don’t know the answer to these questions. I wonder if the bank knows the answers to these questions. Because usually, when you are asked to buy a product, you know what it is. You know why you are buying it. Or at least the company tries to convince you why. But here, I don’t know. That’s not good.

Then companies wonder why products like this don’t succeed – at least not as well as they could. The fact is they fail because the product lacks understanding. It lacks the integration with other products. It lacks a coherence and a coordination. And without that integration, the reason for the product is unclear. Then the goals are mistaken. Which makes the marketing confusing – on the internet, in the branches, in the subway, on ATMs. Employee education falters. Then account acquisition, database marketing, and customer service fall out of alignment. And then there is no way to use the information to leverage the product and streamline the portfolio, which saves costs, which increases profits, etc.

Now one anecdote, or experience, does not tell a whole story. But it too often indicates a much larger systemic issue that should not be ignored. And my guess is, if some of the other departments at the bank read this column, they will discover some things that somehow failed to be communicated across departments before. What I suggest is that they ask each other not why the product was created, or even how the product works. But rather why the product works how. In other words, why was the product created to work in the specific way it was created?

Like the engineers of the traffic circle, the creators of this card should be able to explain why it was designed the way it was. What was the goal, not just for it, but for its effect on the whole. In other words, how does it fit into the bank’s flow of traffic. And what impact was it intend- ed to have? Because a traffic circle is not just a circle. Like any product, it is a solution – for something. And it should be very clear, as I drive along this road as a customer, precisely what solution this card is providing and, by the way, which lane I should be in.

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