Secret CIO: Smart Systems Suffer From Dumb Processes

Those of us who make a living in the information-technology field have spent a lot of time in our careers translating technical capability into business opportunity.
Those of us who make a living in the information-technology field have spent a lot of time in our careers translating technical capability into business opportunity. We've contributed to marvelous advances that have transformed society. Less than a dozen years ago, people didn't shop on the Internet, use RFID devices to drive through toll-road plazas without stopping, or employ E-mail and instant messaging as their main communication tools.

Satisfied with our accomplishments? Don't be. All too often, we use our technical prowess to facilitate stupid business behavior. We may have developed loads of smart systems, but we have also helped propagate lots of dumb processes. The examples are bountiful. I'll pass along just one such situation where a potential customer benefit winds up being an actual customer irritant. I describe such business processes as possessing a Negative Coefficient Of Utility, or NCU (pronounced Nuke).

I have a credit card from a major bank, one of the biggest financial institutions in the United States. They've just revamped their Web site to allow all sorts of wondrous options designed to make me an even happier customer. Am I a happier customer? I like that I've been able to do away with paper statements and that I now can schedule on their site a future electronic payment from my checking account, as I do with my other credit cards. What I don't like is the way they've implemented a process that's supposed to be a customer benefit. Every month they send me an E-mail, a few weeks after I get my statement, reminding me of the amount due and when I need to pay to avoid a finance charge. This is a great feature.

The problem is that I get this E-mail even if I have already scheduled the payment. So what happens? First, I try to remember if I've paid the bill. If I search and find my confirmation number verifying that I have already scheduled the payment, I then worry whether their system has burped and sent my pending payment to that great byte bucket in the sky. I know I need not worry because my confirmation number protects me from the impact of such digital destruction, but I cringe at having to go through their voice-mail jail to reach a real person to resolve an erroneous late fee charge (please enter your 16-digit card number and listen carefully, as our menu choices have changed). So, I log onto their site and verify that my payment is still pending. The total amount of time I've wasted isn't huge, but the point is that it's still my time wasted. Great new Web site--same old embedded NCU process.

Being the type of human being who thinks Don Quixote was being perfectly rational in attacking windmills, I've used this same beautifully designed Web site twice to request that I be sent reminder E-mails only if I haven't scheduled a payment. On both occasions I received a response explaining that the E-mails are a feature for the benefit of customers and if I don't want to be reminded when a payment is due, I can opt out of it entirely. My third attempt was less polite: In capitals (I know shouting isn't polite) I asked if the bank reminds customers who had just put their card into an ATM that they have to put their card into the ATM to use it. As a result of my sarcasm, I fear that I have offended the entire customer-service organization and will have my account flagged as belonging to an implacable Luddite who doesn't appreciate the finer points of quality communication. We shall see.

In the past, I've commented on some other examples of smart systems but stupid processes. Do you have your own Negative Coefficient Of Utility list? I'd like to hear about them. In a future column, I'll publish the best of the NCUs that you've encountered.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty). Send him E-mail at [email protected].

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To find out more about Herbert Lovelace, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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