Basically, the basics.

Not too long ago, we had an epidemic at work. “Basically” crept into conversations as the filler word and before we knew it, that word had became contagious.

The filler word epidemic was not a random coincidence. We had started to get into a rather deep topic and in the attempt to explain complexities, we ended up abusing the word that the urban dictionary has taken a dig on. Apparently that word’s popularity goes way beyond our company.

In the world that is cluttered by information, we humans perpetuate the load by adding personal interpretations, opinions and frameworks. It is not deliberate but a living example of the human’s limited cognitive capacity and thus inclination for mental shortcuts (or heuristics). Ironically, while the user of the heuristic gains subjective clarity and shares his learning, the recipient struggles to integrate the new information with more Google-searched sources. Not until he finds his own mental shortcut to understand and share the now convoluted reality in his own way, and of course, peppering statements with “basically”.

Once in a while, some enlightened individuals would offer the clarity of their minds and help people take a step back. At least I was among the grateful lot who, after reading Daniel Drescher’s “Blockchain Basics: A Non-Technical Introduction in 25 Steps”, could finally partake genuinely in the geeks’ excitement about block chains. I also appreciated the session where Li-Ling Ch’ng, the Head of Capital Markets from a law firm, reminded us to go back to basics and compared conventional funding options to explain the pros and cons of security token offerings.

In our work, we confront the basics of what make us human. We build financial (self-)advisory journeys and constantly grapple with simplicity and paranoia. From time to time, we pull back and ask ourselves, “What is the basic motivation for someone to go through our journey?” Many industry veterans would advise me to keep it short and sweet. Buy insurance in less than 10 minutes! They assure that this would shake up the industry. The invention of instant noodles was felt the same way in the 20th century though now the same noodles are declared harmful.

In the Reiss Motivation Profile® (RMP), a scientifically valid, peer reviewed and standardized assessment of what motivates any person, speed or simplicity definitely does not count among the sixteen universal motivations. Rather they are the means to the expression of our motivations. Don’t we take the time to browse online for the things we like? But for matters that are more obligatory than satisfying, such as payment, we just want to get it over and done with. Surely, we do not want to keep up the perception that financial advisory journeys are obligatory and not satisfying. By visiting the basic human motivations, we found the sweet spot in our product development.

Thankfully, the word epidemic did not last over a month. All it took was a brave (and irritated) soul to point out the abuse and a few good laughs to cure everyone of the disease.

What do you want?

What do you want? Few can answer this affirmatively. Many are clear what they do not want. They cannot however articulate what they want.

Why is this question challenging? It might be greed. We want a lot of things but unfortunately our resources are limited. It might be the lack of imagination. We only know what we know and do not realize other possibilities. It might be the lack of self-awareness or even self-security. Few tire of personality tests, no matter how unscientific – pleased to be validated, even hoping to be surprised.

The goal-based journey frivolously installed in too many self-directed financial planning assumes we know what we want. When would you like to retire? When you retire, do you imagine spending more or less than today? Frankly, many of us do not even know what we will be doing the next year, let alone imagine the retirement years.

It’s not all despair. It’s about asking the right questions in the right sequence. Financial planning is not done for the sake of it. Financial planning is the means to attaining the life that we are at ease with. Life is in harmonious balance only if we manage the expressions of our internal values consciously. For example, the person who spends beyond his means may turn out to thrive on others’ acceptance. Financial planning for him should be based on managing the need for acceptance. Enforcing disciplined savings would backfire. Asking how much he wants to spend during retirement years would truly end in despair.

So, dear self-directed journeys, do not ask what I want. Ask what motivates me. Take the time and effort to know me.

A Family Genie Spell for the Full Moon

In the Mid-Autumn Festival month, mooncakes show up often on my social feed. Year after year, no matter how different and innovative the flavors would be, the mooncakes would be consistently round to signify the full moon in the night sky. For the Asians celebrating the festival, the full moon represents harmonious family reunions and prosperity. This representation is too important to be trifled with.

The linkage between family harmony and wealth features strongly in the Asian culture. A traditional Chinese saying even describes that the family harmony is the basis of prosperity. Family harmony cannot be sustained on conflict avoidance. Unspoken resentment has its way of rearing its ugly head. Instead the harmony must be built on the conscious and collective effort to approach and align on difficult topics such as money and life goals. Considering how a family is an unit of individuals with own motivations, interests and concerns, attaining the harmonious state is a family journey.

The journey may well start with creating a shared understanding of experiences. While it may be easy and pleasant to create shared memories, it is understanding each other’s unique experiences that brings family members closer together. Life events are valuable triggers. Every family member creates his or her life milestones. A child’s first test experience is as important as a teenager’s receiving his first paycheck from a holiday job. Understanding each other’s experience is not an intuitive process. The human tendency to judge and dismiss, especially if communication styles are authoritarian or parenting styles over-protective, kills conversations and even trust. However if done right, the family conversations to support each other’s milestones are opportunities for the members to reflect, guide and learn together. A shared identity forms.

Family members’ roles must be fluid to create the family’s shared identity. Allowing their child to create own experiences with an arm’s length guidance would require the parents to evolve their role gradually from being caregivers to peers over the child’s life stages. Traits and habits that are associated with financial success, such as resisting impulsive behavior and having savings discipline, stick for a lifetime if learnt with guidance from own experiences.

Material topics like money and life goals are ideal areas to operationalize. In 360F, we once had an undergraduate intern whose parents entrusted him with the family’s investment portfolio, mainly to let him learn while maintaining financial prudence. The current flagship product, Multi-Generation Investment Genie, facilitates a shared financial experience within the family by enabling a Netflix-inspired platform of investment and protection planning.

If the wish-granting Genie does appear, it would be wiser to ask for the means to cultivate family harmony for future prosperity than a winning lottery ticket.

Spotlight: The Secret Revolutionaries

A particular customer segment has been rising in prominence. This group of people seeks to define themselves, independent of what the society prescribes. If this is the fourth industrial revolution we have just recently entered, then these people are the beneficiaries, movers and shakers, also known as the “secret revolutionaries” in an experience-driven society[1].

I note some worthy examples to showcase how businesses are catering to this segment.

Travel Immersions

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Airbnb recognizes that its customer base is not necessarily and primarily motivated by cost. A portion of its customers pines for an authentic travel experience to learn about the local culture. It is more than just about creating a personal itinerary. It is the desire to immerse oneself in the foreign environment while remaining true to one’s intrinsic motivations. A traveler driven by the need for physical activities is able to sign up for a local high intensity experience as easily as someone driven by idealism and wants to fight for a social cause.

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At the first glance, the trend looks like the result of the wish for a personalised experience. When we delve deeper into the propositions, we notice how these customers are actually keen on having human guides whose role and qualifications have evolved in this economy. The acceptance of the peer-to-peer marketplace model means that businesses such as Withlocals can connect locals with travelers easily. The locals provide not only the translation help, but also the assurance to let the travelers enjoy a local and unique experience.

Design Immersions

That the journey is an accompanied one should make us curious and ask if the secret revolutionaries are perhaps not self-confident or self-sufficient. A start-up business Modsy gives the hint.

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Modsy operates on the premise that customers are capable of expressing themselves but limited by self-confidence and experience. According to the CEO of Modsy, “We feel that people are innately talented, creative and have their own unique tastes and opinions”. To overcome the limitations, Modsy separates creativity from craft[2], providing personal style profiling, visualisations and a purchase ecosystem to empower the customers from the beginning to the end of conceptualisation and design.

Lessons for the Financial Services Industry

The secret revolutionaries want to co-create value with businesses. They are intelligent and participative but would appreciate that businesses help raise their confidence and make up for their lack of experience. They want to pursue hands-on activities but organisers who understand only the literal meaning of “hands-on” create an irksome experience. The hearts and minds must be engaged.

The financial services industry has to develop a granular understanding of its customers – are so many customers truly disinterested in advisory or can it be that by engaging a segment in respect of their values, they would be motivated to pursue a holistic financial planning? Can it be that they distrust the industry because they cannot visualise intangible products or have not understood the fundamentals of risk? If taking a personal finance course in school has no impact on savings behaviour and financial literacy[3], how can the industry help people immerse to learn?

[1] The Personalities by USM Book. Hatje Cantz Verlag. October 2015.



Help your Customers cope with Choices

We struggle with choices. Some say it is good to have options but in several instances, we have so many choices that many among us postpone, avoid or even delegate decision-making.
This struggle is costly to the consumers and the businesses. “50% of consumers spend 75% or more of their total shopping time conducting online research…as the current state of online and mobile shopping yields a time-consuming, inefficient experience.”[1] Things do not get better after purchase either. Buyer’s remorse creates negative emotions at the post-purchase stage – a poor way to complete the customer journey, risking customer retention.
Behavioral research offers a tactical solution. Based on the concept of emotional closure, customers who make the physical act of ‘closing off a choice’ report satisfaction.[2] For example, it would be better to make customers close and return a menu booklet than to have them leave menu cards on the table. The human being’s thinking activities operate pretty well on an “out of sight, out of mind” basis.
The tactical solution benefits user experience but it does not steer the decision-making process, especially in big purchases or those of long-term consequences e.g. insurance contracts.
Motivational psychology research offers a fundamental solution. Given that intrinsic motivations are recurrent and generally stable in nature, businesses can not only help customers make decisions by recommending products and services which are in sync with their intrinsic motivations, but also can predict their future behavior and customer lifecycle. American psychologist, Steven Reiss, outlined 16 universal motivations which are empirically validated across more than 60,000 individuals over 4 continents – Asia, Australia, North America and Europe[3].
This intrinsic solution may well be one of the critical keys to overcome the respect issues customers report to have with financial services. A Harvard Business Review article commissioned an annual Customer Quotient study[4] to measure “how people feel about companies and the experiences they provide”. In particular, it investigated how much people feel they are respected and understood by the companies. Although two firms from the financial services industry were listed among the top 20 companies customers feel most respected by, financial services ranked low on the list of industries.
By uncovering customers’ intrinsic and personal traits, the insights would benefit businesses which apply the understanding to help customers trust them and feel understood. Customers may not be able to articulate the exact form of the product they want but they can express their personal values. These values drive the intention behind the behaviour, consciously or unconsciously.
When customers’ intrinsic preferences and personal traits are actively utilised, three dominant benefits are apparent. The conversion rate increases as customers feel more confident about their choice. This confidence about own choice is important especially on self-directed journeys. Sales efficiency increases as time spent on ‘window shopping’ reduces significantly. Customer value increases – sticky relationships develop over time as the business ‘gets’ the customer.
Businesses today invest in data mining tools to obtain customer insights – but it is not certain if the impact has predictive validity and reliability over the customer lifetime. Such insights are really based on observed behaviour in the context pre-set by the firm’s business and operating model. The insights offer no ‘what-if’ scenarios and even if these scenarios are simulated, their relevance is not engineered to tap on what truly matters to the individual customer.
How then can businesses uncover their customers’ intrinsic motivations? As with many instances in life, the best way is to ask. Ask the customers the right questions. Ask them to engage them. Ask them to give them back value. However as with many instances in life, the fear to ask looms over businesses.

Natale, J. (2014, April 23). IBM Watson Group to transform the consumer shopping experience. Retrieved from
[3] Reiss, S. (2000). Who Am I? The 16 basic desires that motivate our actions and define our personalities. New York: Tarcher/Putnum
[4] Trevail, C., Austin, M., Schlack, J.W. & Lerman, K. (2016). The Brands that make Customers feel respected. Harvard Business Review.

See the big Picture

Albert (a fictional character) took a mandatory risk profiling questionnaire with his banker. He was profiled as someone with very high willingness and ability to take risks. He also had substantial investing experience. Accordingly, he was deemed suitable to take on very aggressive portfolios.

If you are Albert’s banker, what would you do?

  1. Follow the questionnaire results and recommend him very aggressive portfolios
  2. Have further interaction with him to understand his natural behaviour

Realistically, we expect most people to choose option 1. It is after all a compliant process. Option 2 may even be viewed as unproductive for sales.

However, let’s say you now spend more time to interact with Albert before recommending any portfolios. You uncover more personal information about Albert.

It turns out that Albert values independence very much. He likes to travel alone because he does not like to follow others’ plans. Of his own accord, he is a freelancer.

Does this new piece of information change your investment recommendation for him?

Albert assures you that he is a very decisive person. In his words, he does not like to over-analyse and believe that in life, one should “just do it”.

Would you still stick to the aggressive portfolio recommendation?

It takes an astute advisor to caution Albert of his multiple blind spots in his investments and recommends preventive measures. Being independent, he is self-confident of his own judgement and insists on his own way. Not a fan of deliberation, he tends to act (almost) instantly. In stressful times such as a stock market crash, he can be expected to become too impulsive and stubborn for his own good.

We have made some very important assumptions in this story. We assume that you ask Albert the right questions to elicit relevant insights about him. We also assume that you have managed to piece the clues together to form the big picture. Lastly, we assume that you have the gut instincts and/or experience to realise the investment implications.

Without these assumptions, you would still be a compliant banker for Albert by choosing option 1.

However, a systematic tool-supported process to uncover Albert’s intrinsic values would have helped you fulfil our assumptions with confidence to deliver value to him.