in Innovation, Services

Innovation is a company culture

The title “Innovation is a company culture” should be no news to innovators. Innovation is one of the most important assets for a company. It’s value should be spread all over the organization or it’s going to be completely useless.

You can have the best Research and Development or Innovation team in the world but, if you fail to spread their value in the company, your are doomed to failure.

One great example I came across recently is the initiative launched by the municipality of Milan, the city where I live. In this city it is quite difficult to find a parking and, when you find one, you have usually to pay for it. In the past you could pay using some sort of scratch card that are sold in newsstands, tobacconists or metro stations. Sometimes trying to find such cards is an adventure similar to the quest for the Holy Grail.

Recently the municipality has launched a new mobile service by which you can pay you parking using an SMS from your mobile phone. Great!

Well, actually not. Great idea, bad execution.

Here is how it works:

  • Before you can use the service you have to buy a starter kit. The starter kit contains a card with your customer ID, some credit you may spend for parking and a sticker with your customer ID to be placed on the front shield of your car.
  • You can add more credit to your account through the web site of the company which manages the service (ATM Milano)
  • When you decide to park you have to send an SMS to a number with a strict syntax: [area_id].[customer_id].[personal_PIN].[parking_length]
  • After you have sent your SMS you will receive a confirmation SMS.

Here is what does not work in this.

First give a look at the sign that will show you the [area_id]. They are placed all around the city.

20060117atm.jpgYou can see the municipality logo and the company logo. Then you have some blue text that basically says “Pay your parking with an SMS” followed by the red text “Parking area ID” with the real ID.

Some issues here:

  • This a sticker that is place on road signs. It’s made of plastics and can be easily removed from where it is placed.
  • They miss to print the phone number to which you have to send your SMS. By the way, if you go on their web site and download the PDF brochure of the service you will find that the number is a standard mobile number, not even a premium number. Moreover, the phone number is not shown in the web page but only in the PDF brochure that you have to download. The name of the web page is misspelled: http://www.atm-mi.it/…/Soata_milano_SMS.htm (The right word is Sosta)

Did you see the syntax that has to be used in your SMS? It’s simply crazy. Looks like some wizard formula. I can imagine all the mistakes that will be made on this.

Why do I have to buy a starter kit? I have my unique plate on my car. Operator would be very happy to provide you with a premium number and manage all the billing and charging stuff. No need to buy credit and no need to buy a starter kit. You already have your credit on your mobile operator account. I think that the customer ID is used to check if you have paid your parking or not. The plate would do the same without forcing me to find a starter kit and buy one for every car I own.
At the end of the day I will go and try to find out the starter kit. Great stuff at the beginning. Starter kits are sent all around the city in the first months. Did you plan a good way to monitor how things are going? Did you plan to send new kits over time ? Since I know very well how it works I am pretty much sure that in a couple of months you will not be able to find a kit anywhere in the city. If you went for the plate solution you would have saved the cost of starter kits and the cost of the logistic chain management.
Again, great idea, bad execution.

Here’s why:

  • Not enough attention on the design and placement of the sticker on road signs.
  • Crazy procedure to access the service (Starter kit) with logistics implications that will translate in costs for the company (if logistic work) or bad user experience (if logistic does not work)
  • Even more crazy SMS syntax to use the service.
  • Bad marketing communication on the web site.

Here is what would have been a different implementation:

  • Clearly designed metal sign with well displayed premium phone number.
  • User [area_id][space][plate] as SMS syntax. No dots or whatever. Do you want to be really innovative ? Just put a Shotcode or QR Code on the plate and let me send the image with my plate number in the text. Please note that I said “in the text”. This mean everywhere in the message. Subject, content of the message. You should be smart enough to understand what I’m saying in the message.
  • One of the benefits of using the plate number instead of the customer ID on the starter kit is that also non residents or occasional visitor may use the service. At the end of the day this will translate in more revenues.
  • Mobile Web portal to pay without sending any SMS.
  • Sing agreement with mobile operators to manage billing and charging.
  • Make sure that your innovative idea goes through marcomms in the right way. Tell them what you want to communicate to end user.
  • Check your web pages before publishing.
  • Run trials with end users and LISTEN to their feedback.

There were so many areas to make this a really innovative mobile service. I am really sad that we have wasted an opportunity.
Why do I blog this ? It’s so easy to fail on innovation but, sometimes, it seems that you clearly decided to fail. Unfortunately in this particular case, citizens are paying for your failure.

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  1. This is a typical implementation by an organisation that does not understand the complexities (or at least how to reduce them) of the solution.

    Another way that this could have been implemented would have been:

    1. Setup short code SMS number
    2. Each user subscribes by sending a text to this number
    3. Their mobile number is held in a database, together with licence plate details
    4. Each time the user sends a text to the shortcode, their caller-ID is used to match their licence plate.
    5. Now, all the user needs to text is the location code and duration (far less text input)