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Smart tech best practices: why marketing and support need to be joined at the hip

What Las Vegas hotel would you rather stay at? The Venetian or the Rio? Most people would say the Venetian. But business book author MJ Demarco would argue vehemently with you. In his book “The Millionaire Fastlane,” a book he wrote in 2011, he relates his experience staying at both hotels.

The Rio is an older hotel, a little frayed at the edges. Not the kind of hotel a high roller would normally want to be seen at. But DeMarco was pleasantly surprised at the excellent service he received. The friendly greetings and caring treatment from hotel staff. How they went out of their way to make sure his stay was comfortable.

Then he transferred to The Venetian, one of Vegas’ most spectacular, shiny hotels with all the right touches: opulent architecture with “ornate columns and corbels, lavish chandeliers, and other affluent appointments that scream royalty.”

Customer Journey Support Checklist

But Demarco said he would never stay there again. The service “sucked” as he so succinctly said. Housekeeping was unresponsive. Hold times for hotel services unacceptable. Staff were robotic. Prices were exorbitant. You get the picture.

Now what does a story about a stay in Sin City have to do with customer service in the consumer IoT industry? Plenty.

In an industry that is still at the beginning states, where technology is sexy and cutting edge but still somewhat unstable, and copycat products are nipping at your heals, your biggest differentiator is your service.

In fact your customer support processes and support people are probably your biggest competitive differentiators.

If you deliver outstanding support and treat your customers as VIPs throughout their experience with you, you’ll make marketing less relevant!

Marketing Doesn’t Really Start Until You Get A Customer

So why are marketing and customer support at consumer IoT companies joined at the hip? It boils down to my favorite definition of marketing.

First, what is your definition of marketing? At a recent conference for startups I posed this question to the audience during my talk. Most people’s answer was a version of this: “To create awareness for your product.”

That’s a start, but it’s incomplete. Peter Drucker, the 20th Century’s foremost management guru said:

“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”

Fast-forward to today, Ryan Deiss, Co-Founder and CEO of Digitalmarketer.com said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that marketing is to help move the customer along the journey with your company, including (and I would say especially) after they become a customer.

In his epic article Customer Value Optimization: How to Build an Unstoppable Business, Deiss explains the economics behind a McDonald’s Hamburger. He asks whether you and I would be shocked if we found out that McDonald’s makes almost no profit from the sale of their hamburgers.

Source: https://www.digitalmarketer.com/blog/customer-value-optimization/

The cost of their hamburger barely covers the cost of getting a customer in the door.

Then they invented the value meal.

While they make an average profit of only $0.18 on each hamburger, when they upgrade you to fries and a Coke, they make an extra $1.14 in profit. In total they make a profit of $1.32 per value meal, which is a whopping 7.3 times more profit than the sale of a single hamburger.

It’s in McDonald’s best interest to sell more per customer. But is that it? No. They want you to keep coming back and buy more and more.

In fact, the Customer Value Optimization concept Deiss describes is all about marketing to customers once they have become a customer.

Support Feeds the Consumer IoT Marketing Pipeline

If marketing doesn’t really begin until after you get a customer, how does support at a consumer IoT company help with the marketing function?

There are four ways.

Market Research

Because of the complexity and maturity of the innovative technologies in the home tech and wearables spaces, there are infinite reasons for customers to open a support ticket.

Through data analytics that tracks and produces intelligence on support trends, support can identify:

  1. Common user errors
  2. Common requests
  3. Common product errors

Product marketing can use this data to quickly improve product functionality, correct errors, improve user interfaces, and invent new features.

cta blueprint call

Sell more stuff

Customer support can design automated workflows to sell more, in addition to helping solve problems. When is a customer more open to a product recommendation that when they’ve gotten a resolution to their issue?

Ensure customers become net promoters

In the #FlipMyFunnel Account-Based Marketing methodology diagram, the base of the flipped funnel is the “Advocate” layer. This is increasingly becoming more and more common, as customer support and customer service are quickly becoming the distinguishing feature for winning companies.

Your best marketers are your ecstatically happy customers. They share on social media. They rave on forums. They tell their friends and neighbors about you.

Source: https://flipmyfunnel.com/

Discover new use cases and “personas” for your product

Finally, customer support can discover new use cases or “personas” for your marketing department to use in their marketing materials. Since customer support is on the front line of a business, they are the ones who see how your product get used in your customers’ day-to-day.

Make Your Customer Support A Foundational Part of Your Marketing Efforts

I hope I have convinced you that customer support and marketing are joined at the hip – and that they are (or should be) a foundational part of your marketing effort.

As Forbes recently said, customer service is the new marketing.

As an innovative company in an industry that still has a long way to go before reaching the “early majority” phase, constant collaboration and joint product development with your customers is a must.

Keeping them happy and channeling their complaints, errors and opinions into a continuous feedback loop between support and marketing can put you at the top of the game.

And if you’re having a bad day with negative complaints hitting you on all sides after you’ve introduced a new product to the marketing, do as marketer Jay Baer says: “Hug Your Haters.”

Has been involved with high-tech sales and marketing for 22 years and is a prolific blogger. He’s written about IoT, digital transformation, agile development, and international marketing. He lives in Austin, Texas, the “Silicon Hills” and is passionate about startups and how to help companies achieve fast growth.

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Alert Signals That You Have a Scaling Challenge

Does your support operation have a scaling challenge? Are response times getting slow? Are customers complaining that their requests aren’t being answered adequately? Is your support reps’ hair on fire?

Technology startups that experience any kind of significant growth will get to a point where their customer support operations as they’ve known them will suddenly hit a wall.  At that point the way things have worked will no longer be effective, and you will need to look at people, process and technology solutions that allow you to not only keep up but excel with your customers.

That is the point where you will have a scaling challenge on your hands, which of course you will need to solve efficiently and cost-effectively.

This is the first in a two-part series about scaling your customer support services. In this article, we’re going to discuss eight alert signals that indicate you might be at the point where you need to do that.

In the next article, we’ll discuss how to actually scale your support operations. A word of caution though: scaling support doesn’t necessarily mean throwing more people at the problem. It’s also about optimizing and leveraging technology and processes to do more with less.

So how do you know you have a scaling problem?

1. Your backlog

backlog

If you’ve been coasting along for the past two or three years with a backlog of between 20 to 50 issues, and then suddenly that explodes to a queue of 400, you might have a scaling problem.

And you’ll only know that if you’re actually tracking these volumes, which is not always the case. When you’re not tracking what issues are coming in and getting resolved, or how a product launch or product release may impact your volumes and your reps’ workload until it does, then you will hit a brick wall pretty quickly and unexpectedly.

A growing backlog of issues means you’re getting an increasing volume of requests which are not getting served, and that will not get better just by working harder.  This all seems obvious, but in my experience it takes a while for many support teams to realize what is going on.  Many times, this increasing backlog is a result of success and is actually a good problem to have, so you need to scale your operation. Maybe your people aren’t able to cope with the higher volume, which calls for a larger team or increasing automation, or your team can’t resolve certain types of issues, which may call for additional training or a clear escalation process to more experienced team members.

Whatever the cause, a growing backlog is the first alert signal.

Q&A2. Quality

Is the quality of your responses suffering or taking a back seat to the priority of just getting them out?

By quality I mean preciseness, completeness, thoroughness, tone of voice or reply, follow up.

If your team is spending all their time on the urgent issues, but lower priority issues such as product feature questions or product roadmap queries are getting ignored.  If any or all of this is happening, then that is a signal that you might have a scaling challenge.  People don’t want to write incomplete answers to requests or ignore them, many times that is only the result of an increased overload.

A rapidly increasing volume of support requests has you focusing on the “urgent” while giving short-shrift to the “important.”

And while you are handling the queries that are screaming the loudest, not answering the tier 2 or 3 questions can have a negative impact on your customer experience, your CSAT scores and eventually on customer retention and revenue.

If you measure NPS, your detractors might start to overtake your promoters, because they might start rating you low on the quality of service.

3. Deteriorating numbers

If your reporting is showing longer response times, higher volumes, or higher resolution times, then you might have a scaling problem.  That is the importance of reporting and doing it with a cadence.

What are your reports telling you about the health of your support operation?  If you don’t produce and review reports or a metrics dashboard on a regular basis or have no health indicators, that is an alert signal in itself.  Unless your volumes are very low, you absolutely need to “scale” the robustness of your customer support technology.  There are many cloud-based platform options out there -Zendesk, Talkdesk, Kustomer, Freshdesk, to name just a few- so make sure you evaluate and select one.

Assuming that you do have indicators and metrics, the negative signals mentioned above, reflected in your numbers, could lead to rushed or incomplete responses, mistakes and angry customers.

Response times going from 30 minutes one month to 2 hours the next month is something to watch and probably be concerned about, so make sure you at least report on basic measures, such as volumes, response times and open issues, and pay attention to the signals!

Customer Journey Support Checklist

4. Internal Stress

If your support team is feeling stressed, you might have a scaling problem.

Your team’s stress may or may not affect your customers, but when they have more work than they can handle, as is many times the case with support teams, that can pretty reliably result in internal stress.

They’re stressed out about the fact that they can’t keep up the volumes. They’re stressed out about the fact that they’re escalating to level 2, and level 2 is not responding. They’re even stressed that they’re not meeting their own SLAs or goals or their collective SLAs.

Keep an eye on the stress levels of your team members.   It may tell you a lot about what’s really going on and what issues you need to pay attention to, whether that’s adding resources, resolving bottlenecks, escalating issues to your engineering team or all of the above.

5. A chaotic process.

Chaotic process

Got chaos in your operation? If things are chaotic, you might have a scaling problem.

Let’s define chaos for the purposes of this article: can’t quite track open issues well, your team is unable to get to the growing number of issues, the number of days or hours that pass between the request getting to you and your reply to the customer is growing, internal answers or direction are lacking or contradictory, it’s not clear who to escalate or they’re not even responding.

It’s hard to keep track of how many open issues you actually have or to identify the age of those issues, who’s doing what, did rep A respond to this request already or am I supposed to.  Are your tools not allowing facilitating the work, such as managing escalations, merging tickets, reporting or a thousand other things support teams need to do every day?

Who exactly is handling this little queue over here of urgent issues ?

That’s chaos and a clear signal that you need to scale the size of the team, your processes and perhaps your toolset.

6. Costly Work- arounds.

If you’re taking the easy way out resolving issues and not really resolving them (the end result is that you’ve just swept them under the carpet to be resolved later, resulting in higher costs), you might have a scaling issue.

Let’s look at a specific example: you don’t try to really work on whatever technical issue the product has, instead you might just exchange the product for the customer. That’s a costly workaround.

And that’s not sustainable for a company long-term.

Or you might be working around issues yet not really fixing them.

Your reps may be telling customers: “You know what, just go to such and such a setting, turn it off and that will make the problem go away…” for now.

These work-arounds are costly because you’re not really solving the real problem. That may be because you don’t have the time or resources to do anything else, or simply can’t get a fix from engineering.

No management or reactive management.7. No management or reactive management.

If you get to a point where you just don’t have time to manage what’s going on, you might have a scaling problem.

If you’re the manager, you’re constantly reacting. You become just another agent because you have so many issues and it’s all-hands-on-deck.

You’re in reaction mode. There’s no time to document things, no time to actually come up with real fixes or request them, or make better tools available to your team. You’re not producing adequate reports about your operation, etc.  You get the picture.

8. Inadequate tools

We have touched on this already, but if you’re managing your support issues in Outlook or Excel (God forbid), you might have a scaling problem.

And I know Outlook and Excel are extreme examples, but I’ve actually seen this!

Or maybe you’re using tools that aren’t built for support, such as tools really built for collaboration or bug trackers. Maybe you’re using something like Asana or your CRM, but these tools are inadequate because they can’t do the types of things you really need to do to manage a support operation well.

For example, you can’t really track the history of an issue. You can’t really tell what was the sequence of things that happened on a specific issue, who said what and who did what at what time. The metrics aren’t really there either to report on them.  And if you can’t track these things not only can you not really resolve issues easily, but you can’t really scale.

As the saying goes, what you can’t measure you can’t improve.

cta blueprint call

CEO and Founder of Infolink-EXP. He’s founded technology companies in big data analytics, Internet services, software, nearshore outsourcing and technology customer support for 20+ years. Lives in El Paso, Texas and spends part of his time in San Jose, CA and the Silicon Valley. Passionate about customer experience (CX), in particular through consumers’ complete cycle of selecting, adopting and fully utilizing IoT technology to improve their lives.

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How to Optimize the IoT Customer Journey With Data

The Internet-of-Things revolution is on!  Every day new consumer IoT products make it to the marketplace, to make our homes smart, automate some of our daily tasks, manage our health and sleep, make us safer, etc.  Not to say anything about a whole other category of IoT devices intended for industry 4.0 applications.

But let’s focus on the challenges that we as consumers have with all of this and how the tech companies can help…

With the exponential growth of an IoT/connected ecosystem in our lives, there is also an increasing growth in complexity.  The Man-Machine interface, which not long ago basically meant how we interfaced with desktop and laptop computers, now includes not only our smartphones and tablets but a deluge of voice and app-operated devices.

And remember, not everyone trying to make the transition to a connected, machine-happy world is a millennial or Generation Z’er.  If this technology wave is to have any success at all, the transition must necessarily move from the early majority of users to the late majority of less tech-savvy, perhaps older and more tech-resistant people among us.

The magic intersection between connected consumer electronic devices and human beings (whose evolution has been a little slower than the pace of technology evolution) will be somewhat complicated to say the least, and smart vendors will have to manage it by accompanying their users through the transition.

The biggest challenge for consumer IoT companies is not selling their devices – rather it is to make sure their customers derive value from them, keep using them and stay engaged with the company by ensuring a happy, successful ownership experience.

In support-speak, that means making sure we optimize the customer journey, from beginning to end.

And the main way we have to do that is by using data.

Because these are connected devices, and we live in a connected world, data about a customer’s experience with a product is pervasive. You can use this data to your advantage, to ensure your customers not only have a fantastic experience throughout their lifecycle with you (the ‘customer journey’), but also to ensure they become raving fans and ultimately come back to you for more solutions.

You can start by tapping into all the data the rest of your systems are already producing about your customers, including what they bought, when, with what, for how long, and about every customer interaction with your company at different points of the journey.

In this article we’re going to discuss four steps to ensuring you optimize your customer’s journey with data. We’ll discuss your goals for customer journey optimization, which customer touch points in that journey you need to focus on, the sources of data to rely on, as well as the data model you can build to help you optimize that journey.

Your Customer Journey Optimization Goals

So why should you optimize your customer’s journey? What are your objectives? Before we get into that, let’s first define the customer journey:

The customer journey is the lifecycle of a customer with your company or with your product, from when you first provide pre-sales information to that customer, to the time when you’re trying to either renew a subscription or upgrade the customer to some other product.

Everything that happens from point A, when the customer first acquires your product (or even when they’re still inquiring about it, as mentioned above), to point Z, is the customer journey.

So what are your goals for optimizing the customer journey? In my view, there are three main ones:

  1. Provide the best possible customer experience for your users throughout the journey and help them get the value they expected
  2. Provide your company with the best way to engage and retain customers
  3. Provide your company with a way to expand your customer relationships from a value and revenue standpoint.

To summarize, I’m talking about making sure the initial purchase of your product is not the last interaction with your customer, but is rather the first interaction in a long, fruitful and profitable relationship with your customer.

Which Customer Touch Points Should You Focus On?

There are key points along your customer’s journey you need to optimize to ensure a relationship that not only moves forward, but also results in an expanded relationship.  Disclaimer: please remember we are talking about a technology/consumer electronics product.  The customer journey for other types of products and/or customers may look completely different.

 

1.    Product purchase and on-boarding

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll group the experience of purchasing the product and first setting it up into one phase of the journey, although you could always separate it into different touch-points.

In the case of many of the consumer IoT products we have referred to, we are talking about a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) experience.  That said, many of your customers will require assistance, whether that is from online help guides, in-product guides or live support.

During the initial product purchase and product on-boxing and setup, how can you optimize their on-boarding experience? How can you reduce the customer’s effort in setting up your product? Are you providing on-boarding emails and videos? Are your customers consuming this content? What happens when they do call?  What are they calling about? How is that going? How often are they calling and how is that impacting their experience?

Are they able to configure the product and the mobile app that controls it on their own?   Which parts do they struggle with?

These are all questions you may try to answer with data.  Once you have some insights, you can decide what actions to take to optimize those particular touch-points to meet your goals.

2.    30, 60 and 90 day touch points

Once a product has been setup in the customer’s home, car, wrist or whatever the case may be, the first 90 days are a critical period, as the experience of your customers with your product AND company can make or break the relationship. You need to ensure each 30-day increment is optimized.

During the first 30 days, your customer might still be trying to solve certain product setup issues and learn the basic product functions. The next 30 days she might be interested in connecting it to other devices, such as Alexa or Google Home. The following 30 days she might be trying out more advanced functionalities, such as interpreting and using your product’s analytics.

How are you handling this usage growth curve and challenges along the way? Are you providing tools, videos, and helpful live assistance? How can you avoid customer defection when users hit various roadblocks? How can you ensure your interactions with them create delight and loyalty?

3.    Ongoing product use

Then, when your customer is at a “mature” stage of usage with your product, what issues typically pop up that can affect their status as a happy – or unhappy – customer? Are they trying to find out more ways to use your product, new use cases? Have whatever issues they have faced been resolved? Or are they ongoing? Are they calling support too frequently?  What for?  There is a difference between the desired engagement of a customer who calls once in a while as they progress along the learning curve and a frustrated customer who calls frequently because his product keeps failing and he’s not getting the value.

What is the right balance?

How do you make sure that you’re always there and the customer stays engaged?

4 End-of-life

Lastly, towards the end of the customer journey, you will want to identify whether your customer is ready to upgrade, purchase complementary products or throw in the towel. This is another critical touch point and can make the difference between linear or explosive growth for your company.  We all know that retaining customers and expanding on those relationships, even for consumer products, is key to sustainable growth.

So how can you tell if a customer is prone to upgrade or expand?

Conversely, how can you tell is they’re ready to switch to a competitor?

What choices can you offer?

How do you learn, even from detractors, about what worked and what didn’t?

The good news is, you can collect and analyze data through these four critical customer journey stages. In the next section we’ll describe some of the data sources you can tap into to optimize each touch point.

So Where Can I Find This Data?

There are more than enough sources of data you can use to gain the insights to optimize your customer journey.

1.    Your Support Platform

Your support platform provides a wealth of information. What are your customers calling in about? What product issues come up most often?  You can identify product bugs with this data, as well as usability issues. But your support platform can also provide you with customer insights, such as previously unknown or corner use cases and what features your customers wish your product had.

2.    Your Subscription Management Platform

The platform you use to manage recurring subscriptions can also provide relevant data points that you will need as part of your overall data model.  This includes what plans your customers have chosen, when they renewal dates are, and what upgrades are still available for them.

3.    Your e-Commerce Platform

Your e-commerce platform is another source of data, which includes what products your customers have bought and when any accessories bought along with them or at a later time, what generation of product they acquired, product discounts applied, etc.

4.    Your Marketing Automation Platform

If you’re a consumer IoT company, you can’t afford to actually call your customers, and you’re likely communicating with them at different points of the journey through e-mails messages.  Your marketing platform can provide information about who of your customers are opening your e-mails and engaging with the tools you are providing (videos, FAQ links, blog posts, etc.), and those that aren’t, for example.

5.    Your Phone Platform

Your PBX or phone platform can provide a wealth of data too.  This will include frequency and type of calls, but also the actual conversation between your support agent and the customer.  There are various tools available to transcribe those conversations into text, in order to inform your decision-making regarding your customers’ experiences.

6.    Product Usage Data

Lastly, since we’re talking about connected devices here, your products themselves or the phone apps attached to them will provide valuable data on usage.

For example, if it’s a multiple user device such as a camera or a smart lock, how many users or guests use it, and who uses it the most? What times of the day? If it’s a tracker or wearable, what is it telling you about how/when it’s being used?  About its settings at the time of a certain event? Same for a connected doorbell cam or a car cam, appliance or any other type of product with embedded sensors.

At the end of the day, there are plenty of sources of data, but data by itself isn’t sufficient. We need a data model to help you combine these various data points and make sense of it.

The Data Model

This can get pretty technical but you’re a connected device company so I wouldn’t worry.

Much like an architectural model, a data model is an approximation of reality, a simulation, if you will, about what combination of data points will help you arrive at a particular decision or insight regarding your customer.

It all starts with business questions.  Once you’ve identified the basic business questions you are trying to answer and determine whether they can be answered with data, you need to set up the appropriate data model to inform your customer optimization strategy.

Actually, you can go fairly low-tech by using your CRM or support platform to build a data matrix that helps you collect your data for all your customers and see patterns or even make decisions, as well as build dashboards and graphs to help you look for insights.

Alternatively, you can get into data science territory (probably a must for consumer companies), and leverage tools such as the Crisp-DM methodology and analytics toolsets, to help you identify business question, select the right data for answering those questions, prepare it and combine it and build analytics models that will get you the insights you want to get to.

You can get pretty high tech about this or not. It’s up to you.

Below you will find an example of a simple data model, which includes a number of data variables used to determine whether a customer is at risk of churning (abandoning the brand) or not, and to what degree.  Some of these variables are obtained from the support platform, some from the e-commerce system and yet others from the subscription management platform.  Estimating a probability of churning, as well as which variables impact it the most, will provide insight into what actions to take.  In the rest of these series, we will delve into the details some more.

Again, you can collect and analyze data to help you optimize your customer journey through the four critical stages we described before.  For native digital business models, such as IoT and consumer IoT in particular, this is not only most important but also extremely feasible.

The more you know and the more roadblocks you are able to remove for your customers and users, the easier their transition to their smart, connected life will be.

CEO and Founder of Infolink-EXP. He’s founded technology companies in big data analytics, Internet services, software, nearshore outsourcing and technology customer support for 20+ years. Lives in El Paso, Texas and spends part of his time in San Jose, CA and the Silicon Valley. Passionate about customer experience (CX), in particular through consumers’ complete cycle of selecting, adopting and fully utilizing IoT technology to improve their lives.

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How Customer Support Can Spur Customer Discovery

Customer support provides a surprising benefit that can help product management, marketing, customer success, and your company’s overall growth. What is that benefit? It’s what we call customer discovery.

For too long support operations have been in the shadows of company growth, but no longer. With today’s complex AI-driven products, like smart home devices, security cameras and trackers, wearables, sleep tech, pet tech, and a host of others, customer support can make or break your operation through the valuable insights they discover.

Customer discovery is when your support professionals – who are in weekly, if not daily contact with your customers – discover new things about your product and your customers’ lives that can inform your strategy going forward.

As customer success consultant and thought leader Kristen Hayer recently said in an article on the InfoLink blog in reference to onboarding new customers:

“Part of an amazing onboarding experience includes some discovery. Why did the customer purchase your solution? What are they hoping to achieve with it? What will tell them that they made the right decision? The answers to these questions provide critical information you can use to refine your product and customer journey.”

Let’s break down in detail how customer discovery can help your firm.

Discover New Use Cases

Many marketing and product innovations come from discovering how customers are actually using your product, which may or may not be how you originally envisioned.  Product teams are very creative in visualizing their ideal persona and their particular use cases. But there’s nothing like a few real, surprise use cases that can spur new thinking.

For example, we happen to work with a smart lock manufacturer, who among other critical use cases designed their for the pure convenience factor of unlocking the door remotely after you park your car in the driveway.

But one of our support agents discovered an interesting use case. A man was living at a house with a smart lock installed. His younger brother, who lived with him, would often come back home in the late hours of the night (doing what younger brothers do he would go out and stay out late with his buddies).

Instead of getting up in the middle of the night, the older brother would now just reach over to his nightstand, grab his phone, and unlock the door for his younger brother. He got to stay in bed, and the younger brother avoided sleeping on the front steps.

Discover Product Issues

Customer discovery is also a great way to discover product problems so you can incorporate improvements in upcoming releases.

But this isn’t limited to discovering product defects; you can also discover awkward user interface issues or design flaws that make your product difficult to use for a particular use case.

Discover Possible Partnerships

What other smart tech products have your customers purchased along with yours? Does your car-cam customer use a particular insurance company? Maybe you can forge a partnership with the insurer so that they offer the smart car-cam to their customers, or at least accept your data feeds as evidence of accidents.

Discover Customer Motivations

Why did your customers buy your product? Discovering reasons and motivations can be as surprising as discovering new use cases. If you can find out a new use case, such as opening the door remotely with your smart lock when the young’uns come home from a late night of partying, maybe you can tap into a whole new market of people who don’t care about the security aspects but have a house full of college students or teenagers?

Or maybe your customers bought something for a previously unknown reason (to you), but they’re finding it takes longer than they expected to work, or they find it hard to get value out of your product for their particular reason for purchasing.

Discovering new motivations can also help you improve your Customer Journey Support process to improve time-to-value and satisfaction for a new segment of buyers.

Establish a Continuous Feedback Loop

The benefits of customer discovery begs the question: how can we systematize customer discovery to benefit our product management and marketing processes? We recommend implementing a continuous feedback loop as part of your standard operating procedures.

Kristen Hayer again:

“Invest in a discovery feedback loop between your onboarding and product teams, and measure the impact on product-market fit and your retention rate.”

Setting up an established feedback loop is an operational decision, but you must back it up with technology. Make sure you invest in software that allows you to include stakeholders from various departments, including support, product and marketing, as power users. Set up the workflows so your continuous feedback loop becomes a central part of your management platform.

So where do you go from here? Adopt the mindset that puts customer support on an even playing field with product, marketing and operations. Realize that customer support personnel are the front lines in your company’s relationship with your customers.

I would even go so far as to say that they are probably the most important part of your market research efforts. Your customer service reps, if trained right, become your customers’ confidantes. Your customers open up to them. They share information candidly and without reservation because they feel safe with the nurturing and helpful nature of your front line support people.

Give them the position they deserve – because they can give you the intelligence you need.

CEO and Founder of Infolink-EXP. He’s founded technology companies in big data analytics, Internet services, software, nearshore outsourcing and technology customer support for 20+ years. Lives in El Paso, Texas and spends part of his time in San Jose, CA and the Silicon Valley. Passionate about customer experience (CX), in particular through consumers’ complete cycle of selecting, adopting and fully utilizing IoT technology to improve their lives.

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The Value of an Amazing Onboarding Experience

Intuitively we know that effectively onboarding a new customer is an important part of the overall experience. As consumers, we have come to expect solutions that are easy to adopt and use, so we know that our own customers expect the same from our products. As you build your company and consider how much to invest in the customer journey, how do you quantify the value that an amazing onboarding experience provides to your organization? What are the metrics that matter? Here are 5 outcomes you should consider:

Faster time-to-value

Customers who have spent money on your solution expect to receive value from it quickly. At this point, even in B2B environments, this has become table stakes. The faster your customer can start receiving value from your solution, the more likely they are to renew their agreement, expand their business with you, and recommend you to other potential customers. Invest in the people and technology to speed up the onboarding process, and measure the impact on your retention, expansion, and referral rates.

Clear customer expectations

Part of an amazing onboarding experience includes some discovery. Why did the customer purchase your solution? What are they hoping to achieve with it? What will tell them that they made the right decision? The answers to these questions provide critical information you can use to refine your product and customer journey. Invest in a discovery feedback loop between your onboarding and product teams, and measure the impact on product-market fit and your retention rate.

New expansion opportunities

A common outcome of great onboarding is the discovery of additional selling opportunities. Perhaps the customer would be better off with the next subscription level. Maybe a related product would provide them with even more value. Building an onboarding experience that uncovers opportunities benefits both your customers and your bottom line. Invest in building onboarding processes that drive leads, and measure the impact on expansion revenue and customer satisfaction.

Solid customer relationships

In addition to the technical aspects of onboarding, there is a relationship-building aspect as well. Even if your onboarding process is largely automated, the way you communicate with your new customers is critical to their impression of your company and product. Customers don’t just want to know about the technology, they want to know how to maximize its value. Invest in a strong communication plan during the onboarding process, and measure the impact on product adoption, customer satisfaction and your renewal rate.

Raving fans of your brand

Customers who are happy with your company will talk. In our culture of online reviews, referral programs, and word-of-mouth marketing, an amazing onboarding experience can be a valuable brand asset. This requires designing an onboarding program that doesn’t just meet, but exceeds customer expectations in terms of speed, value or the overall experience. Invest in an onboarding program that goes above and beyond for your customers, and measure the impact on online reviews and referral sales.

An amazing onboarding experience can drive key metrics across the customer lifecycle and your organization, from product and marketing, through sales and support. Drive toward a fast, but exceptional, onboarding process. It may take time to design and build the optimal experience, and you will need to refine it as your company grows. It’s worth the investment.

Founder & CEO of The Success League, a consulting firm focused on customer success. She believes that customer success is the key to driving revenue, client retention and exceptional customer experiences. Prior to founding The Success League, Kristen built and led several award-winning customer success teams. She has published over 60 articles on customer success, and hosts the popular customer success podcast, Strikedeck Radio.

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Growing Your IoT Startup Through Retention, Revenue Expansion, Referrals and Partnerships

For IoT companies to grow, they need to focus on more than just increasing their sales and marketing activity.

To really grow – in revenue, profits and influence – IoT companies must look to customer success and customer support.  Support, in particular, must go from being a cost center to a profit center.

In our work supporting the growing consumer IoT industry, we’ve found that service and support can be an important driver for IoT startup growth, if not the most important driver.

In fact we’ve identified four specific levers of growth for consumer IoT companies that support operations can impact.

Retention

The first and most important growth lever is retention. Retention is the goal of any serious customer support effort.  According to the Harvard Business Review, reducing customer churn (customers who leave a brand) by 5% can boost profits from 25% to 85%.

Everything you do in your support operation should be geared to making sure your customers stay with you.

But why is retention so important?retention

It’s all about the math. The more you reduce customer defections, the more profitable you’ll be.

Let’s take an important measure of customer value, Customer Lifetime Value (CLV). If a customer is valued at $100 a month, and stays with you for a year, their value to your company is $1,200. But if you convince them to stay with you three years, that customer will be worth $3,600, tripling their value to your company.

With IoT products the key to long-term customer satisfaction is a great customer experience, and that starts with how you “on-board” new users, especially since these products are so innovative  and technology-driven. Your customers need to understand the ins and outs of how to setup your product and everything they can do with it.

There are a number of ways you can excel at this initial step of the customer journey, which will impact your retention rates later: provide clear onboarding information via your website (how to set up the hardware, configure the mobile app, integrate with Alexa, describe most common use cases), or through an email series, or even an onboarding phone call with a support rep if that’s what it takes.

Once you’ve ensured they can use the product and understand what the product can do and bow to use it, they’ll have questions, challenges and issues along the way. Your customer support team needs to be there to answer those questions and get your customers unstuck so they can continue to have a great experience.

To this end, meet your customers where they are. Cover all the channels they might expect to receive support through: email, chat, and phone especially. And make sure no calls or requests fall through the cracks – answer any support tickets as quickly as possible, within seconds for phone calls and chat, and within a couple of hours for e-mails.

The bottom line is, excellent support is table stakes for any company today, especially for consumer IoT and consumer electronics companies. The bar has been set higher for service, so the better you service your customers, the more likely they are to stick around.

Revenue Expansion

Revenue Expansion is the second and newest growth lever, and it should be a key growth driver for IoT companies.

Once you have a customer that has purchased a $300 product from you, what should you do so that they not only stick around longer, but buy more?

IoT products have a built-in advantage here. They’re constantly evolving: adding new features and functionalities, attaching subscriptions to their products (such as for storing data or providing advanced analytics), releasing new versions, introducing complementary new products.

You need to find a way to keep offering your customers additional value, as their use cases evolve.

This isn’t just retention, this is expansion.

revenue expansion

And your customer support reps are in the best position to do this cross-selling and upselling. They frequently know your customers the best, their home environment, home office or small business.   They are uniquely suited to identify opportunities to present customers with options to upgrade or complement what they already have.

Theirs is a consultative sale, because they know that due to some life event or use case the customer would be better served with the new accessory that integrates with the latest version of the product.  This is not about pushing product.  It’s about delivering value, and helping your customers through a buying experience that makes sense to them and responds to their needs.

Let’s take another look at the Lifetime Customer Value calculation we used earlier. Say we can increase retention to three years, and the customer’s value to your company goes from $1,200 to $3,600.

If you can expand your relationship with that customer and get them to expand what they get with you, you could boost the $100 a month relationship into a $150 or $200 a month. The CLV of those customers could go to $7,200!

Referrals

The third growth lever for IoT companies is referrals. Happy customers make great salespeople. It’s not just you saying great stuff about your products (prospects are always suspicious of self-promotion), these are happy customers talking wonders about you.

This is gold.

Customers who recommend you to their friends, family and colleagues become an inexpensive sales channel for your organization, especially when compared to advertising, content marketing, PR blitzes and other types of paid promotion.

To make referrals more consistent there are simple programs you can institute, programs that reward customers who refer new business to you. You can give them points, deliver coupons, or give discounts for their next purchase.

Find a great way to kick-off a referral process early on in your company’s existence.

Partnerships

Partnerships, the fourth lever, are a little different from the previous three levers, and not necessarily tied to your support operations. The nature of IoT products makes partnerships a logical source of new business, since the IoT ecosystem provides a ready cadre of partners.

Smart homes are becoming a hodge-podge of brands – often competing brands – that make up the whole. All products must work together, providing built-in opportunities to create referral partnerships.  Your customer success and support team can provide unique insights on this, since they’re the ones on the trenches dealing directly with customers.

What kind of co-marketing program can you forge with other manufacturers in your ecosystem? Can a smart lock manufacturer form an alliance with a smart tracker manufacturer and a smart lamp vendor for mutual referrals?

Keep an open mind to what could be a potential competitor and think about how to turn them into a collaborator.

This isn’t a strict IoT example per se, but I was at Best Buy recently where I saw a complete Amazon showroom. Best buy used to be Amazon’s mortal enemy! But they have now become one of Amazon’s channel partners.

Which competitor can you forge a mutually beneficial referral relationship with?

Conclusion

Sales and marketing plays a huge role in getting the word out about your IoT brand. But look at your market growth strategy as more of a “land and expand” strategy than your prime growth strategy.

Sales and marketing gets your foot in the door by “landing” an initial client. Then customer success and support take over to retain, expand and facilitate referrals.   Lastly, think about partnerships as yet another way of  “expanding” your footprint within the market.

The sooner you can shift your thinking to see support and service as your most important growth lever, the sooner you can become a market leader.

CEO and Founder of Infolink-EXP. He’s founded technology companies in big data analytics, Internet services, software, nearshore outsourcing and technology customer support for 20+ years. Lives in El Paso, Texas and spends part of his time in San Jose, CA and the Silicon Valley. Passionate about customer experience (CX), in particular through consumers’ complete cycle of selecting, adopting and fully utilizing IoT technology to improve their lives.

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Why Service Is The New Marketing for IoT Manufacturers

Today more than at any other time in modern history, service is actually really really important. It used to be that companies would claim that “service is our middle name.” But the reality was that their service was always lacking.

But today there’s nowhere to hide. There’s nowhere for a shoddy product, bad experience on the customer service line, or a pushy sales person to hide.

Why?  The answer is obvious: everything is instantly sharable on social media. All the time.

To take a non-business related example, how often now are we witness to viral videos on Facebook and Twitter of racist rants and police brutality? The increase in frequency is never-ending.

The same is true for bad customer service and poor quality products.

This is especially true for the consumer IoT industry, which has a whole set of issues all to its own.

 

The IoT Ecosystem Challenge

Let’s attack this issue right away. IoT products for consumers, such as home automation, wearables, trackers, sleep tech, pet tech, and all sorts of other techs, have opened a Pandora’s box of previously non-existent problems.

From connectivity problems like learning your device requirements and edge router, to connectivity to other devices, or incompatibility with your mobile platform of choice, consumers have a steep learning curve.  Consumer devices are pretty friendly, as their designers put a lot effort into making them not only functional, but built for a great user experience.  That said, this is all new to most users.

The IoT manufacturers that win at this game are the ones who have implemented a well thought-out process for holding customers by the hand so that connecting, using and trouble-shooting these connected devices are a breeze.

Takeaway: make a complicated technology product easy to use by implementing friendly and timely support processes to help customers learn to use and connect their new IoT devices.

Something to Share on Social Media

Social media has changed everything related to marketing and customer service. If your customers are not saying great stuff about your company, it’s really your word against theirs. And in social everything comes to light.

The best types of social sharing is 3rd party sharing. In other words, social proof. And when you deliver a fantastic customer experience, whether through your great product design, UI or customer support and service, customers will rave about you on social media.

But I’m not just talking about great service. I’m talking about really great service. People don’t share “good” stuff on social media. That’s boring. People share surprising incidents that amaze them.

Surprise your customers through some sort of “delight” mechanism. How can you delight your customers by going the extra mile and putting them off balance a little bit, albeit in a positive way?

Takeaway: deliver outstanding customers service, and include a type of “delight” component that surprises and amazes your customers. They’ll absolutely want to share that on social media.

Educate Your Customers About Everything They Can Do With Your Product

You don’t know how frustrating it is when I buy a new phone, and I realize I’m only using about 3% of its functionality. It took one of my nephews to show me a few cool tricks I could do with my phone, and that was just scratching the surface.

So many consumer IoT products can do so many amazing things, but most customers don’t take full advantage of them because they don’t know about them. And when they don’t take advantage of everything, there’s no opportunity for them to really fall in love with your product so they can eventually become repeat customers.

Launch tutorial videos or webinars so you can teach your customers how to get the most out of their smart security camera or smart lamp. Show them cool new things they can do.  If your product receives firmware updates with new functionality, make sure to accompany the firmware updates with video tutorial updates as well.  Share all this with your customer support team as well, so they can built it into their knowledge base and they’re aware and prepared to share it with your customers.  Do the same with your Customer Success Managers.

Takeaway: use content to educate your customers so they can use as much of the functionality of your products as possible.

Cross-selling and Upselling

With consumer IoT devices chances are you won’t make your money from the first sale. You make your money from service subscriptions, cross-selling and upselling.

When your customers buy your tracking device, smart camera, smart lock or pet fitness device, that’s just the first step in the funnel. This is an opportunity for you to shine in your service so you can sell them the next thing in your funnel – usually something that is a bit more expensive, or something that they will pay monthly for.  Hint: Leverage your customer support team, the people that have the most direct contact with your users, to recommend upgrades and additional solutions to your customers.

Takeway: deliver excellent service so you can sell more products and drive profitability. Your first product, the one that’s getting all the attention, may just be the loss leader for your whole product offering.

Turning Customers Into Advocates and Promoters

Another effect of social and digital media is the disintermediation of the sales person. You don’t go to a stereo store anymore these days, and you avoid the pushy sales guy barely surviving on those stereo commissions.

 

But somebody has replaced the sales person: the brand ambassador. Whether you establish a deliberate brand ambassador program (like Hennessey) or it happens naturally, you need to get to a point where your customers are so sold on your company, so dedicated to your brand, that they will gladly spread the word for you as free sales people.

Takeaway: start a brand ambassador program, or find a way to delight your customers into promoting your brand.

Conclusion

Bottom line: today, if you want your IoT company to become a household name, you need to be a ninja at support and customer service.

  1. Help your customers figure out the ecosystem challenges
  2. Deliver a surprising “delight” experience so they can share about your brand on social media
  3. Educate your customers so they can fall in love with everything they can do with your product
  4. Set up a cross-selling and upselling funnel driven by awesome service
  5. Turn your customers into brand ambassadors.

It used to be, back in the day, that good marketing could make up for a bad product. Not today. Today, your product and service is the marketing. It’s especially true for consumer IoT products.

Happy customer servicing!

Has been involved with high-tech sales and marketing for 22 years and is a prolific blogger. He’s written about IoT, digital transformation, agile development, and international marketing. He lives in Austin, Texas, the “Silicon Hills” and is passionate about startups and how to help companies achieve fast growth.

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8 Barriers to Consumer IoT Adoption

These are exciting times.  Technology is rapidly changing the way we do almost everything, even the simplest tasks of our daily lives.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explained what is happening and even coined the term the “Second Machine Age,” a time when the use and capabilities of the technologies we’ve created over the last nearly 70 years is quickly accelerating, as a result of the compounding effects in computing power, Moore’s law, and the digitization of just about everything.

It started with music – the iPod -, then the smart phone and mobile apps, and it’s now moved on to a multitude of connected devices, both in the industrial and consumer space. This is very exciting, yet very difficult for most of us to cope with.

My purpose here is to reflect on a few of these challenges and barriers to both our understanding of what these technologies are, what they do, and also how far they might go.  As the before mentioned authors said, we have reached an inflection point and things are just getting started.

  1. The Learning Curve

The first barrier we all seem to run into is simply to learn what these technologies are and what they intend to do for us.

I am sure I’m not the only one who notices a general resistance to adopting technologies that might seem like magic.  This happens with every new technology wave, but as we are hit by IoT and 4th generation technologies at home and at the workplace, there’s a feeling that we just can’t keep up.

And it’s true. In a way, we can’t.  There’s just too much going on. Even for relatively young folks in their 30s and 40s, it may feel like there just isn’t enough time to learn many of the features in our mobile phones, much less understand how we can control our sound systems, security systems or vacuum cleaners, to mention a few.

The Genius Bar was one of the genius moves by Apple in the first decade of the 21st century.  People needed hand-holding. Younger people may need less of it then older folks, but guess what, those younger people are quickly getting older (in technology dog years any way), and very soon they will not be able to keep up either.  Aren’t we already seeing 25 year old’s asking 13 year olds about technology features on their phones or game consoles?

It’s all moving way too fast, and it’s incumbent upon technology vendors and their partners to make a real effort to help us deal with this learning curve, the “elephant in the room.”  We can’t just keep throwing technology at people and expect that they’ll be able to absorb it all.

 

  1.  Is this necessary or just a novelty?

There’s no doubt that we’re living an explosion of connected devices which are meant to make our lives easier.

It is no accident that the revolution has started in the security arena.  People value their security and that of their loved ones above all, and everything that can help keep them secure sounds like a good investment, both in terms of money and time.

The first successful wave of IoT and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies involves cameras, sensors, self-monitoring apps, cameras on doorbells, facial recognition, and other related technologies and features. These make sense.

As normally occurs in the first phases of a new technology wave though, we’re seeing many other applications, most of which make some sense too.  But is acquiring a voice-operated hub to ask her for jokes or for the daily cultural bite really a necessity in our lives? Are most people really looking to turn lights on and off through a voice interface, or would they still rather just get up and turn the switch on?  These are niceties for sure, but are they essential? The same goes for monitoring our dietary intake or that of our dog for that matter.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think all of these products are quite exciting and I own a number of them, but my point is that many of these products and companies will not truly scale until they can move beyond the novelty phase.  And for many consumers out there, they still need to be convinced that they absolutely need these things and should continue to digitize their lives, homes and workplaces.

  1.  Device integration

This one has more to do with the technical challenges in getting all this stuff to work.  Going back to the Genius Bar example, there is little doubt that many people need someone to show them how to make all these devices functional, install them physically, configure their apps, and make them useful.

I happen to believe that a number of the leading consumer electronics/IoT vendors out there are doing a pretty good job of walking people through these initial steps.  But integration is still a barrier to adoption for most folks and will continue to be for some time, especially as this all becomes mainstream and we get to the late majority of adopters.

The more connected devices people have, the more challenging it is to maintain their ecosystem and the more points of failure there are (the service provider’s modem, Wifi, Wifi extenders, device hardware, apps, settings, AI algorithms, etc.).  I know of people that have gone all in, with digital/wireless/Internet-connected music systems, home lights, smart TVs, security systems, etc., only to scream in exasperation the first time the lights don’t turn on like they’re supposed to, or they get locked out of their own home.

These things happen, and they’ll continue to happen.  It’s the nature of nascent technologies. They need to mature.  But in the meantime, there are certainly opportunities for vendors, partners, integrators and crowds (crowdsourcing) to help out, by accompanying technology adopters through the pain of learning and self-implementing their IoT environments.

  1.  Feature immaturity

In the race to be first, technology vendors are building features into their products as fast as they can.  Some of those features actually work and provide value to their users. Some don’t as much.

The reason is that these are complex technologies.  Most competent vendors can put out a hardware device that connects to the Internet.  The difficulty comes in the software algorithms that make many of these products “smart”.  That is where technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence come into play.  But these are hard to build and hard to make really precise.

They not only need really smart algorithms to be able to do face recognition, for example, or tell if something in the camera actually moved or not, but they also need vast amounts of data to train.  These algorithms are built to infer a decision based on everything they’ve learned in the past. So until the machines have actually done quite a bit of learning, their reasoning will not be quite as precise.  To the regular Joe, an immature feature will look like a malfunctioning device and might be interpreted as not quite meeting the expectations of the product in question.

This will all come with time, and we’re getting there already, little by little.  Features in products we buy and install at home will get better and smarter, not only as a result of smarter algorithms, but as a result of broader market validation of what’s useful to the consumer and what is not.

Until then, we’ll have to live with a certain degree of tolerance for immature technology and  somewhat “dumb” product features or “skills”.

  1.  Compatibility and connectivity

You probably wouldn’t notice this until you’ve actually bought some of these smart products and start to install them.  As I said before, most vendors do a wonderful job of making product installation and configuration as easy as they can, but there’s no going around the fact that there are still technical challenges left to solve.

For one, a home network may present certain challenges of its own.  Internet connectivity to your service provider may not be there or be stable enough.  Same for Wifi.

Secondly, there are and will continue to be competing IoT ecosystems out there.  Maybe you prefer Amazon’s Alexa, while others prefer Google Home or Apple or Samsung.  Each device that you consider adding to your smart home, whether smart lights, security cameras, smart locks or garage openers, will connect to some of these. But probably not all.

Or there may be an app for Android, but not for iOS, let’s say.

The point is that this is a developing story.  The IoT industry and the digitalization of the home and the workplace are unfolding before our very eyes.  This is a baby, not a college graduate. So be prepared to live with some of these inconveniences when it comes to product compatibility, connectivity issues and feature immaturity or incompleteness.

  1.  Security Concerns

As I mentioned before, many of the smart devices out there have looked to fulfill a void in people’s need for greater security, for themselves, their homes, their families and their workplaces.

From the tracker installed in a woman’s purse or our own mobile phones, to the AI operated camera that CAN tell between friend and foe, we are quickly adopting solutions that will make us feel more secure.

That said, what and who are we entrusting our safety to?  Is that tracker tracking me all the time, even when I may not want to be?  Who may be watching what I or my family do and where we go? This Big Brother concern has been here for a while.  At least since Apple introduced features like Find Friends, as did Google too.

In many of our minds, there will always be a trade off between using technology for personal/home safety and letting go of a little bit of privacy.  As we move forward, some of these concerns will subside, surely as some of these technologies prove their value in our lives. For now though, there’s no doubt that some people will think twice about entrusting their safety to some of these digital agents.

  1.  Picking a brand

As normally happens for technology waves, there is a period of expansion of technologies, applications, vendors, and then there is a period of consolidation.

As I write this in 2018, I believe we’re still in the infant stages of the IoT revolution.  The number of companies offering smart devices, many of which are almost indistinguishable from their competitors, is still large and growing.  We can also see this in the number of competing platforms that have been announced in the market over the last year or two.

There are the big ones: Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung, but in the CES in January of this year, I was able to identify at least five other obscure platforms from companies in various parts of the globe, all of which have the express desire to be the nervous system behind your smart home.

For customers, both consumers and commercial ones, this will undoubtedly continue to present a challenge as they try to determine which platform and which set of products and brand names to work with.  For a while, it will look like they all say and do the same things. Just as it was during the infamous Beta versus VHS war in the 1980s, or Android versus iOS more recently, we will likely be divided into two or even more camps.  That is, until industry consolidation solves this challenge for us, at least partially, and picks some winners, for better or worse.

  1.  Where is this all going?

Lastly, there is the question of where this is all going for all of us.   There seems to be much more technology than human beings can reasonably be expected to absorb.

There is literally something new every day.  People in more conservative places or industries may still not notice it as much, but in places like California’s Silicon Valley, New York, Vancouver, and a growing number of hubs in North America, Asia and Europe, the pace of innovation is already overwhelming, even for people in the middle of the revolution.

This is an interesting question.  It is legitimate to ask whether the promise of a digitized life, run at least partially by smart, AI-driven devices and technologies, at home, at school, at work, in our healthcare system, etc., will materialize without us losing much of our lifestyle and what has made our societies work a certain way for so long.

It is a good question, but I have the feeling that we’re likely on a trajectory that will be very hard to change significantly at this point.  Our lives will get more comfortable, more challenging, more interesting, all at the same time, as a result of the technology revolution we’re currently undergoing.   It is probably smart of us to start to embrace some of these challenges as we prepare ourselves for even greater things to come.

CEO and Founder of Infolink-EXP. He’s founded technology companies in big data analytics, Internet services, software, nearshore outsourcing and technology customer support for 20+ years. Lives in El Paso, Texas and spends part of his time in San Jose, CA and the Silicon Valley. Passionate about customer experience (CX), in particular through consumers’ complete cycle of selecting, adopting and fully utilizing IoT technology to improve their lives.

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The Complete Guide to Securing Your Smart Home

With the advent of the Smart Home, there’s a new set of security threats we have to contend with, and they’re all digital.

From botnets to WiFi smart cameras that “spy” on you, you may believe that your smart home is a potential pandora’s box of privacy invasions and hackings.

But you can enjoy the benefits of Smart Home technologies, and prevent these attacks from happening, by taking a few simple precautions.

In this comprehensive guide, we give you the step by step instructions you can take to lock-down your smart home and feel secure that no Russian Hackers will steal your grandma Betty’s secret lentil soup recipe after they’ve hijacked Alexa’s “always on” listening capabilities.

Let’s start from the beginning.

1. Multi-factor authentication

Whether you’ve installed one of those talking doorbell systems, or you have a smart fridge that lets you know when you’re low on frozen pizza, many of the smart home devices you have on your network use passwords.

And if you haven’t caught on to it yet, passwords are about as passé as the horse and buggy.

The way to secure your devices today is through multi-factor authentication. This is done either through combining a password plus a temporary secret code texted to you automatically (or through a robo-call) or via a little key-card that comes with the device that you hold up to the device to let them know you’re physically there, you need to set it up.

How to set up multi-factor authentication:

The good thing is that most smart devices already come with multi-factor authentication as the default. However, there are some devices that don’t have it.

If that’s the case you can enable it by acquiring third-party apps such as Authy or Google Authenticator.

Authy is a device that enables you to set up a two-factor authentication (2FA) to add to your network or device.

And even though most IoT devices have two-factor authentication that comes with the mobile apps that are associated with each of them, having an extra layer of security via a service such as Authy can give any homeowner peace of mind.

The video above from Authy explains how to use their application to set up two-factor authentication for multiple devices: (https://player.vimeo.com/video/79935776)

What Your Smart Device Vendor Can Help You With

If you’re having trouble setting up multi-factor authentication for your smart devices, many manufacturers have customer support reps that can help you set it up.

2. Install Malware Protection

Although you can’t install malware and antivirus software on your Nest or on Alexa, you can definitely secure the devices that control them – your phones and computers.

Install Malware Protection

In addition to a firewall, antivirus and anti-malware software can go a long way toward preventing some of the most vicious internet attacks.

How to install malware protection and antivirus software

These types of applications are very common for PCs, but Macs need them now as well. And of course, the new frontier for viruses and malware are smartphones – especially of the Android variety.

You can install antivirus and anti-malware applications on your PCs, laptops or smartphones, or you can install a physical antivirus like a smart home cybersecurity hub.

Bitdefender box, one of the pioneering cybersecurity hubs, is sort of like a router and antivirus all-in-one. It connects to your WiFi router and serves as a super-charged physical firewall to protect all your smart devices, including computers and smartphones.

3. Secure your Wi-Fi

According to Wtop, avoid WEP, the most commonly used Wi-Fi protocols. Wired Equivalence Privacy (WEP) “…is weak and easily compromised,” according to experts at Tom’s Guide. They recommend switching to Wi-Fi Protected Access II (WPAZ) protocol and give it an obscure name that has nothing to do with your username and password.

Two Home Networks

Why is this important? Some of the scariest attacks can come from Wi-Fi threats, such as Wi-Fi cameras that might all of a sudden start sending information about your home valuables to thieves.

How to Secure Your Wi-Fi

Your best defense against a Wi-Fi attack is to encrypt your wireless network.  According to Lifewire, to enable WPA2 encryption on your wireless router, follow these steps:

“1. Log into your wireless router’s administrator console. This is usually done by opening a browser window and typing in the address of your wireless router (usually http://192.168.0.1, http://192.168.1.1, http://10.0.0.1, or something similar).

You will then be prompted for the admin name and password. If you don’t know any of this information check the wireless router manufacturer’s website for help.

Secure Wi-fi

  1. Locate the “Wireless Security” or “Wireless Network” settings page.
  2. Look for the Wireless Encryption Type setting and change it to WPA2-PSK (you may see a WPA2-Enterprise settings. The enterprise version of WPA2 is intended more for corporate-type environments and requires a much more complicated setup process).

If you don’t see WPA2 as an option, then you may have to either upgrade your wireless router’s firmware to add the capability (check your router manufacturer’s website for details) or, if your router is too old to be upgraded via firmware, you may have to purchase a new wireless router that supports WPA2.

  1. Create a strong wireless network name (SSID) coupled with a strong wireless network password (Pre-shared Key).
  2. Click “Save” and “Apply”. The wireless router may have to reboot for the settings to take effect.
  3. Reconnect all your wireless devices by selecting the wireless network name and entering the new password on each device.

You should periodically check your router manufacturer’s website for firmware updates that they might release to fix security vulnerabilities associated with your router. The updated firmware may also contain new security features as well.”

4. Create Two Home Networks

Another way of securing your home network is by creating two networks: one for your computers and smartphones, and another for your smart home devices.

According to this MarketWatch article, Jerry Irvine, chief information officer of Chicago-based security firm Prescient Solutions stressed the importance of segregating your home devices on a separate network. You can do this by either purchasing a separate internet connection or by splitting an existing internet connection using a virtual local area network (VLAN).

How to set up a VLAN at home

Setting up a VLAN is the most cost-effective solution, and one of the ways we recommend to set up a second home network for your smart home.

To set up a VLAN, check out this useful guide from Flashrouters.

5. Change default usernames and passwords

Have you ever had the experience of using a garage-door opener to open up your garage and all of a sudden you also open up a neighbor’s garage? Me neither. But it’s a very common occurrence – and that’s because most of these devices are shipped with a default factory-set password.

Change Default usernames and passwords

The same is true for all your smart home devices, and hackers know this.

As soon as you take delivery of your new smart camera, toaster or smart blender, immediately change the username and password.

How to change your smart device’s password and username

All of your smart devices are accompanied by a mobile app that serves as the control interface. Go into the device app’s settings, locate the username and password section, and change it right away.

If you’re having trouble locating where you can change the username or password, call your manufacturer’s technical support number and they’ll walk you through it.

6. Buy From Trusted IoT Brands

It’s kind of ironic advising you to buy devices from only well-known brands since there’s a new IoT startup popping up every day. If you took this advice literally your choices would be severely limited.

So instead, we’ve named this sub-section “buy from trusted IoT brands.” Trusted IoT brands are those that either come from well-known manufacturers or have received lots of press, positive reviews and some significant round of funding.

Nevertheless, we recommend researching which brand of smart home device you purchase to avoid devices from obscure manufacturers with lax security protocols or whose owners have malicious intent.

trusted IoT Brands

How to Know Which Brand Is Secure

Usually, if your smart home device has appeared in some kind of “best of” list from a prestigious source such as PC Mag or Wired magazine, the device should be a trusted device. For example, PC Mag recently published a guide called “The Best Smart Home Devices of 2018, but there are other guides and leading products you will find with a little research.”

CNet has done the same thing, publishing an article with the exact same name!

7. Choose Devices That Update Firmware Automatically

Again, you’ve got to do your research here. It’s all in the details, and the more details you know, such as whether firmware or software is updated automatically, the better off you are.

But why is this important? Why not just acquire a smart device that leaves firmware or software updates up to the user? You could easily just remind yourself via a repeat calendar reminder to check for updates on a regular cadence, couldn’t you?

Devices That Update Firmware Automatically

First of all, the more up-to-date your home device is, the more secure it is. Manufacturers are regularly monitoring security threats and patching vulnerabilities in their device’s firmware to keep ahead of the threat curve.

But why do we suggest automatic updates instead of manual updates? Mostly because smart devices are supposed to make your life easier, not harder. It’s easy to just forget to check for a manual update.

An automatic update, on the other hand, won’t just make your life easier, but it might just come at a critical moment when a surprise attack is imminent. Do you want to risk missing a window of opportunity to secure your device just because you weren’t keeping track of your vendor’s emails warning you of the latest coordinated botnet attack?

How to Update Your Device’s Firmware

If you really want to geek it out and update your device’s firmware and software by yourself, we recommend always checking for pending updates on your device’s app on your smartphone.

8. Disable Guest Network Access

If you haven’t set up a separate network for your smart home, or at least a VLAN, we recommend disabling guest network access for your home network. You’ll prevent your kids’ friends from inadvertently uploading a nasty virus to your network or a rougue repairman from deliberately infecting it.

How to Disable Guest Network Access

This doesn’t require any technical ability – it’s just a question of imposing a “no guest Wi-Fi” access rule. However, if this seems mean and un-hospitable, we recommend referring to number 4 above,

“Create Two Networks.”

9. Get a Dedicated Unified Threat Management (UTM) Appliance

Disable Guest Network Access

We touched on this on number 2 above, but I wanted to delve a little deeper into it here.

You need a dedicated secure WiFi for your smart home network. End of story. There are too many vulnerabilities with a home full of connected devices, each with its own IP address.

Each one of these devices is a potential hacking vulnerability, and who wants SkyNet orchestrating a coordinated attack against you and your family using your smart devices as its commandeered weapons of choice?

Not me.

Fortunately, a new crop of Unified Threat Management (UTM) appliances have popped up on the market. As mentioned previously, Bitdefender Box 2 has emerged as the leader (being first to market). But not far behind are Norton with its Core secure router, the F-Secure Sense, and the Cujo.

So what exactly does a UTM do to secure your smart home?

As Bitdefender explains in their Box 2 product video, after connecting the box to your home network, it can:

  • Detect all connected devices in your home, including those you might not be aware, are connected
  • Device management allows you to control connectivity. For example, if somebody tries to connect, it notifies you.
  • Provide you with detailed traffic reports
  • Allows you to create user profiles with security preferences and rules
  • A vulnerability assessment for those devices that aren’t exactly secure when they come off the assembly line
  • Safe browsing features prevents your smart devices, such as game console or smart TV, from going out to the internet to unsafe locationsUnified Threat Management (UTM) Appliance
  • Advanced parental control to track children’s internet activity

And more.

How to Set Up Your UTM

Each manufacturer has instructions for how to set up their particular device, but they’re pretty straightforward. Typical setup starts with downloading their app and having the app walk you through all the connectivity and setup issues.

Bitdefender has a setup instruction page. Norton includes free setup that they value at $69.99. F-sense also provides a setup guide, and Cujo not only provides a setup guide, but a cool setup video.

10. Get a Premium Support Plan

And speaking of convenience, there is nothing like the peace of mind of having a 3rd party service provider stand vigil on your home network, proactively protecting your smart home against threats.

Many IoT manufacturers offer support and premium support plans, and there are third party plans you can acquire as well.

How to Set up a 3rd Party Smart Home Support Plan

Companies such as HelloTech and Iris by Lowe’s provide premium support plans for smart homes. We recommend contacting these and other 3rd party plans to provide an extra layer of security over your smart home network as a whole, instead of implementing premium support plans on a piece by piece basis per device.

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5 Challenges In Supporting IoT Devices

Whether you’ve noticed it or not, the Internet of Things (IoT) is spreading and influencing your lifestyle. Look no further than your car and you’ll see an inventory of gizmos and gadgets no one had dreamed of just a few short years ago.

GPS, Bluetooth and video/music streaming now sells more cars than torque or gas mileage.

Home appliances used to mean toasters and blenders. Now your appliances talk and listen.

You can control your home security from any location in the world where there’s a WiFi connection.

Doctors can diagnose medical conditions from hundreds of miles away.

And shopping sites are full of deals to bring you into the world of IoT.

The Internet of Things is bringing a whole new set of challenges to both the vendors and users of the technology.

1.  The Learning Curve

As an IoT vendor, you understand you’re delivering a consumer product that’s new to the user. Why is that significant?

Consumers now have a learning curve with home appliances and smart devices of different kinds, and it’s not just “where’s the on/off button” or “how do I set my blender to purée?”

That is the case with smart locks, smart cams, voice-operated hubs, lights, wearables, speakers and many others.

We also have to teach them why interconnectedness is good!

IoT presents a major shift in how consumers relate to and interact with products. And this, in turn, presents major challenges to companies delivering on the promise of IoT.

2.  How To Deliver the Technology

To be successful at marketing consumer IoT – which includes home automation, wearables, pet security, as well as sleep and fitness devices (among many other categories)- requires vendors to brand such products as important, secure and useful to consumers.

And they’ve got to be easy to use. Anything difficult to understand or use will disarm and disappoint customers.

As a result, delivery plays a much more important role than before. Delivery is more than just packaging and handling.

Challenges for the IoT ecosystem

It begins with product design, image, and branding. Consider the sleek appearance of Alexa and Google Home. Minimalist design full of functionality and utility.

Branding of any consumer IoT product must show that it actually works at tasks meaningful to the market.

Setup and instructions of the device itself and their accompanying mobile apps must be minimal and effective for consumers with no time – nor inclination –  to read or spend much time configuring their settings.

Consumers want plug-in efficiency, and you need to give it to them.

3.  Customer Experience

As IoT products multiply, so do the hubs that look to integrate them, and their accessories.  Think Alexa, Google Home, Apple Pod, Samsung SmartThings, Nest and a number of others.

Consumers are assaulted with competitive products with only slight differentiation in the eyes of the customer, as vendors are rushing to get products into the early adopter phase of this market.  These products need to integrate with the various hubs to deliver on their promise to automate our lives in some way.

As a vendor of the device that must talk to sometimes more than one hub, you risk confusing consumers during this phase.

Many of the challenges we see at Infolink-exp that customers struggle with, have to do with compatibility between products, mobile apps and hubs, integration, security and usability.

At some point in the next few years, we’ll get to a market correction, where a major shakeout and consolidation in vendors is expected, but in the meantime these various IoT ecosystems are forming and looking to both gain ground and integrate with one another.  Vendors must strive to deliver a customer experience that does not intimidate users and helps them cope with the multitude of products and technologies being offered to them.

Eventually, some level of consolidation will probably be a good thing and also help consumers who both want and need their IoT ecosystem to work simply, efficiently and affordably.

4.  Maturity of the Technology

Much of the emerging technology is still relatively immature. Lacking a consistent and universal ecosystem, devices must communicate better amongst themselves and with their respective hubs.

For example, until vendors, connectivity devices and consumers are on the same page, security is still not airtight. There is security exposure to users in the neighborhood, and there are still gaps that leave devices open to hacking, denial of service attacks and ransomware.

Part of the maturity challenges also include innovating vendor business models as well.  An increasing numbers of vendors are promoting products that require service subscriptions. Just like buying a smartphone and paying monthly service, you are now being asked to pay for certain services associated with your IoT home security or automation system, and other IoT installations.

Even though it may be difficult to sell the concept initially to the consumer market, business is going the subscription-route. B2B buyers are used to the subscription obligations attached to CRM, HRIS and other SaaS innovations, and consumers technology is catching up.

5.  Retaining Customers In A Consumer Electronics/SaaS dual Reality

As IoT expands with next-generation products and systems, gaining, securing and retaining customers becomes a priority.

Customers tolerate software bugs more readily than they do malfunctioning hardware. They expect their product to work as described. It must function flawlessly to retain their interest. Customers want flawless performance, and they want that value to be priced fairly.

Hardware is the core product in IoT offerings, and vendors must deliver this hardware free of operational defects, as is usually the expectation for consumer electronics.  However, the dual reality for IoT vendors is that they must also support software applications and connectivity protocols, both embedded in their hardware and in their accompanying mobile or web apps.  The software piece raises issues around connectivity, compatibility (with hubs and various mobile platforms), security settings and others.

Vendors should be ready to accompany users in their IoT journey with customer support services that address any negative feedback, increase adoption and help users capture the benefits promised by the technology.

The IoT Challenges We Manage

IoT is shaking up product innovation, e-commerce, revenue models, automation, consumer electronics, data footprints, and more. Its rapid growth is challenging product branding, delivery and customer values.

Even where vendors are succeeding, they are subject to rapid change, competition, and replacement. And, as IoT approaches the shake-out phase of its evolution, it needs integration and support.

It needs help in connecting manufacturers and tech startups and end users learning to cope with this new level of complexity in their lives. The technology companies bringing IoT to life also need help in identifying and resolving their customer experience and scalability challenges, as the IoT revolution evolves from the tech-savvy consumer with taste for all things new to the larger majority of adopters.

Companies like Infolink-exp provide value in supporting the leading IoT vendors to tackle customer support and education challenges, deliver value to consumers, and provide a customer experience that will move the ball forward for all of us.

Read more about the specific challenges described in the next chapters of our IoT Challenges series.  Next: The Complete Guide to Securing your Smart Home.

CEO and Founder of Infolink-EXP. He’s founded technology companies in big data analytics, Internet services, software, nearshore outsourcing and technology customer support for 20+ years. Lives in El Paso, Texas and spends part of his time in San Jose, CA and the Silicon Valley. Passionate about customer experience (CX), in particular through consumers’ complete cycle of selecting, adopting and fully utilizing IoT technology to improve their lives.