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4/19/2002
02:58 PM
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Business Technology: The Customer's Always Right

I recently heard about a survey of consumer attitudes toward Wal-Mart showing that of all the problems people have with the giant retailer, the No. 2 complaint is this: When people go to a Wal-Mart store, they say they too frequently emerge with more stuff than they intended to buy. In the great realm of complainthood, that's probably one that Wal-Mart can accept without too much guilt or anxiety--the report didn't say anything about store employees surreptitiously tossing extra stuff into shoppers' carts or about the possibility of the air supply inside the store being fluffed full of mind-altering chemicals forcing consumers to wantonly grab all sorts of things they don't want or need.

Maybe Wal-Mart should post big, ornery Customer Pre-Satisfaction Officers in front of all checkout registers whose job it is to vigorously question all shoppers about whether the stuff they have in their shopping carts are items that those customers really, truly, really want. Or maybe the company should post similar employees at the front of the store to ask incoming shoppers how many items they intend to purchase, then activate some manner of new-fangled IT thingy on the shopping buggy that lets that customer-specified number of items--and not a single item more!--into the cart. Violators, of course, would be escorted from the store without being allowed to buy a single thing, and as further punishment would be given computer-generated directions to one of the nearest national retailers where there is never any danger of finding all the things you want, let alone more than you want. It would be a heckuva way to run a business, but the customer is always right, right?

During an unprecedented private airing yesterday of the 31-minute cockpit voice recorder tape of the doomed Boeing 757 that crashed Sept. 11 near Pittsburgh, family members were able to hear their husbands', sons' and relatives' desperate bid to wrest control of the hijacked plane. ...

In material handed to each of those attending, the FBI warned the tape's contents were "violent and very distressing. Once the tape is heard, it may be impossible to forget the sounds and images it evokes." ... "The cockpit voice recorder does indeed confirm that our loved ones died heroes," said Alice Hoglan, whose son, Mark Bingham, died on the flight. "There was a heroic teamwork effort. ... It was excruciating" but "it was wonderful in a strange and odd way. It's an incomparable experience, one I've been very grateful to have."

--The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 19

Like the car-rental booth I visited the other day to rent two cars. I gave the agent my sheet of paper with both reservation numbers on it, along with my driver's license and credit card, and she hammered away at her keyboard for a while. Since upon my arrival at the counter, she hadn't said even so much as "hello" or "whaddaywant," her first words to me, after about seven minutes of typing, were, "Will you be the only driver?" And I thought she was kidding, because while I like to think I'm a pretty good driver, the thought of driving two cars at once is one I just can't fathom, so I said, "I can't drive two cars at once." And she glared at me for a few seconds before typing away for a couple more minutes and then asking, "Will both cars be on your credit card?" I told her that yes, as per the reservation I'd made weeks before, that's the deal. So, being the lover of bureaucracy that I am, I once more stuck my head in the lion's jaw and asked, "Do you need the name of the other driver?" Her response: "Since you wouldn't give it to me the first time, and since you insisted on having both cars on your credit card, I made the computer say that you're the only driver for each car since that's what you want."

I blinked, physically and psychologically--she had clearly won without firing so much as a shot--and glanced at her name badge. For a second I swore it read "Franz Kafka," but then I tried to remember if that sweet-thinking spinner of light-hearted tales had ever tortured any characters with IT. I couldn't remember any and then she shoved two envelopes laden with car keys across the counter and said, "You're in 27 and 29," and jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward the parking lot outside and I looked out there and then back at her and said "Amber"--her name tag said Amber, not Franz--"do you really think I'm going to be able to drive two cars?" And she said, "Sir, the computer says you are the driver for both cars, and that you're paying for both cars, and since that's the way you want it, that's the way it is." She immediately struck up a conversation with her counterpart at the rental booth next door.

I was about to say something else, but then I thought of the Kafka guy who woke up one morning to find he'd been turned into a giant cockroach, so I decided to cut my losses, meet my friends, and head to the cars. And I promised to do some research to see if Kafka, on top of The Metamorphosis and The Trial and The Castle, ever wrote an equally harrowing nightmare called The Customer.

Bob Evans
Editor-in-Chief
bevans@cmp.com

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