Friday 7 September 2007

Technology is not the answer

I’m a sucker for technology. I love my fancy PDA cellphone. I’m writing this on my laptop while sitting on the sofa while the kids watch a DVD. The wireless network at the office is amazing and fast internet access is a real benefit to the business. OK, that’s nonsense. It’s great for reading the news, surfing YouTube, downloading entirely free podcasts from iTunes and is a great way to fill in the gaps between doing real work.

Almost everything you hear from politicians, commentators and people trying to sell techie toys says that technology is also of huge potential benefit to our economy, to our development as a nation and to our progress as individuals.

The problem is that there is so much nonsense said about technology. There is just as much danger posed by not understanding what technology can really do for us as there is from not embracing it. We just need to understand what it can do, what it can’t do and how to get to work best for us.

Take call centres. All over the world banks, insurance companies, computer manufacturers and loads of others have decided that they can save money by setting up huge warehouses full of people who can act as a central contact point for customers to call. But at a time when we in Botswana are seriously considering going down the call centre road other places are doing the exact opposite. Call centres are NOT necessarily the solution to any problem. In fact they can actually make things much worse.

Many years ago in another country my bank decided that instead of being able to call my local bank manager and his team I now had to call a central call centre to get answers to basic questions. If I wanted my balance or to check a payment I had to call someone based in some far flung place who I had never spoken to before, who knew nothing about me other than what she could read on a computer screen and who was bored silly from talking to hundreds of other people that day about their uninteresting financial problems.

I was unhappy. So were thousands of other customers. Some customers actually moved banks but others like me just sat there complaining. Eventually we all got a letter from the MD of the bank. It said sorry, they had made a terrible mistake and they were going to fix it. Each branch would now have a telephonist and we could of course now call the people in the bank we knew. The call centre approach had been a complete failure.

The trouble with new technologies like those that allow call centres is that they often present organisations with what seem to be simple solutions to complex problems. It’s expensive to employ dedicated customer care staff at each branch so why don’t we employ them all centrally in a single place, give them access to every customer’s computerised data and we’ll save some money? Why not? Because it does more harm than good. Because it makes a critical mistake. Anything that puts greater distance between you and your customers is a mistake. You need to get your customers closer to you, not further away.

That’s one of the problems with the careless use of technology. It’s so easy to get seduced by something flashy sold by a computer salesman that doesn’t actually address any real need.

There are more mundane examples. Whenever I have to call a certain organisation (that will remain nameless) to complain that they’ve cut me off again the first thing they ask is “What’s your account number?” It seems like they can’t do anything without knowing my account number. But I don’t know my account number. They never send out statements so how on earth am I meant to know? However I DO have a name. I’m also lucky that I am the only person in the entire country with my name. I’m not a Modise or a Molefe. Besides that I shouldn’t have to know my account number. Just giving my name and a couple of other things to confirm who I am should be enough. The trouble is that they allow their technology to rule the way they do business rather than allowing the customer to do that. It’s 2007 for goodness’ sake. They CAN find my details using my name. I know they can because they always do finally manage to do so after I lose my cool with them and get all cross.

I’m not saying that technology or any other new idea can’t help you run your business. By all means invest in new technologies. Just make sure you understand that technology itself never solved any problem, it’s what you do with it that can help. I’ve tried hard but I can’t think of any industry that didn’t exist in some form before the introduction of the personal computer. I think all businesses would benefit from understanding that just because something is new that doesn’t mean it’s good. My favourite business writer, Robert Sutton, is fond of quoting a colleague of his at Stanford, Jeffrey Pfeffer who says, "Instead of being interested in what is new, we ought to be interested in what is true."

This week’s stars!

  • Rose at Nandos at Game City for being cheerful and excellent with the kids.

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