Friday, September 11, 2009

Sign of the (computer) times...

Computer systems change... who knew?

This morning I went to my Starbucks for my usual morning wake-up.  When I presented my card for payment, the gal behind the register scanned the screen for a moment then called the barrista over asking: "Where did they put the new Gold Card button?"

Now for those of you who may not know, Starbucks has a Gold Card which gives you a 10% discount on all purchases (I'm a charter member due to the fact that I get many  lattes from Starbucks). The Gold Card has been out for roughly one year and it has always taken two swipes of the card to properly handle payment: the first swipe is to register the fact that you purchased something using the card and the second swipe is to actually collect payment, assuming that you've put money on the card. Ever since the Gold Card came out, there's been this little "dance" that we do: They swipe the first time and then ask me if there's money on the card to which I respond "yes" and then they swipe it a second time. I've gotten in the habit of handing them my card with the statement: "Yes and No", meaning "Yes there's money on the card and no receipt." Most everyone in any Starbucks store gets it pretty quickly and has some funny comment to make about how I must do this a lot -- part of the great ambiance that I like about Starbucks.

Anyway, I've always wondered why the two swipes and when they would change the system to fix this. Apparently they've now done this, because that's what her question was about. Together they look over the screen, touch a few buttons and can't immediately find what they're looking for. Comments like: "I think I heard that they fixed this..." Pretty soon they ring things up, and I walk out the door a happy camper... until I look at my receipt which shows no 10% discount.

This reminds me of countless such experiences I've had over the years. As a long-time manager/developer of business systems and processes, I cringe when the people who actually have to use the system aren't told about changes. A few years back, my local Lenscrafters went through such a change, and it was even more challenging than this one. Over the weekend, the store I went to had been upgraded from an old "green-screen" DOS-style application to a modern windows application. I knew something was wrong the moment I walked in to the store: it was usually organized and efficient with a small number of people waiting. This time there were a large number of obviously impatient people waiting around and clerks were huddled around the screens trying to get customers checked in. In one case, a sales assistant and the manager were trying to enter some data on a screen and getting error messages back -- they were unable to enter the basic parameters that they were taking for the customer's glasses.

Rather than being a "15-minute and out" process as was usually the case, it seemed to take 20,  30 minutes or more to get a single customer taken care of, thus the long frustrated lines.

When it was my turn, I asked about this. They showed me the screen: obviously some designer had decided to use all the Windows GUI (Graphical User Interface) widgets available and collect everything that they could possibly want -- the screen was filled to bursting with input fields, drop-downs, and even a slider or two as I recall. As I think back, the data checking was quite strong, as several inter-dependent fields had to be entered correctly (a good thing). However, as the employees told me, they had come in Monday morning and the old system had been swapped out and the new one installed -- with no warning or documentation or training (a bad thing).

They were apologetic, polite and supportive (good customer service to the extent that they could give it), but they were hamstrung by the new system and their lack of knowledge about it.

Which brings me back to this morning. When I walk back in and show them the receipt, they both go back to the register screen and start looking through the menus/options. While this is going on, one of them says: "They never tell us when they change things. Sometimes they'll change the entire layout on us."

On the one hand, as an IT professional, I'm rather critical of this: besides the customer impact, the employees are the ones who take the brunt of these sea changes: they don't have the right tools to do the job and they have to deal with angry/upset customers. And my gut-level response is to say: "How can they do this... This ain't no way to run a business."

On the other hand, as a business consultant/coach, I understand some of the tradeoffs that are a necessary part of business...
  1. How many people have to be trained?
  2. With a large temporary work-force, where do you most effectively spend your time, money, attention?
  3. How much time does it take to prepare adequate training, must less deliver it in the field?
  4. What's the cost of all this?
  5. When is "good enough" really Good Enough?
  6. How hard should the IT folks fight for what's "right"?
  7. How do we know what's "right" anyway?
The real question is: was this a planned-out strategy or a knee-jerk reaction; hopefully the former.

And above all, my hat's off to all those employees that have to deal with these situations.

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