Our Digital Lives

The Ultra-Informed Customer

nabicht / March 26, 2011

What happens when a company’s information flow is better out to the customer than it is internally? And what if that company is in the end nothing more than a service provider that relies heavily on information exchange in order to meet all of its required goals. Well I can tell you that it completely erodes confidence in the company. The other day I was flying to Newark from Chicago on United an my flight was delayed. The gate sign said on time, the big departure board said on time, and the gate agent said on time. In fact, they were hurriedly boarding us. But, along with a large group | of fellow passengers, I knew we were delayed. Right before the beginning of boarding was announced about 20 people reached for there cell phones because we had all just received a text message that told us our flight had been delayed an hour.

As we boarded many of us inquired as to why since the flight was delayed. I made a similar inquiry and showed the text to the gate agent so she would know what we are all talking about. Exact response: “that must be wrong. We’ve received no information about a delay and the system is designed to tell us first!” (my exclamation point is to denote the incredible rudeness in her tone but it is woefully inadequate).

About a minute after we were all boarded and the flight attendants had locked the door the pilot came on the PA to apologize but “I just received word that due to a ground halt in Newark we are delayed by about an hour”.

Inevitable complaining ensued virtue most vocally upset were those who received the text message. United had done a better job managing communications with its customers that I had internally. They were better at notifying us than in managing their own logistics. Clearly notification of paying customers is no good if the staff doesn’t have notification as well. Over the last yea of increased travel I’ve become convinced that airlines, industry-wide, are horribly, horribly run and ridiculously inefficient. But this example goes beyond that. I think it is a sign of things to come for many large companies.

Customers are more technologically adept, connected to information at all times, and very nimble in adopting new features. Marketing is more and more willing to provide more features to customers as a way of differentiating from (or keeping up with) competitors in the race to attract and keep customers. However, the technological core of the company, that which runs the day to day of the company’s inner workings isn’t as quick to keep up. Often the technology is outdated an made incredibly complex by a continuing series of upgrades and fixes. Te leadership of the company is afraid of the risks of failure that comes from complete overhaul and replacement and often want to avoid the large price tag that comes with it (even though a steady stream of smaller costs of maintaining outdated systems often add up to more).

The technological end result is a customer facing system that is better and more efficient than the core systems that the company relies on. The business end result is frustrated customers that now doubt the company’s product and will look elsewhere because of their interaction with the (working!) features that were designed to attract them in the first place. The fear is that slow, backwards thinking companies will “fix the problem” by getting rid of — or changing — the working parts to cover up the problems in their primary systems. In effect turning up the radio so that the engine rattle goes away.

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