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Stop Being Ridiculous

July 13, 2020 | Letters
Author: Dr. Nicole Olynk Widmar, Associate Head and Professor, Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics

stacks of papersHow many times have you lamented your interaction with a business for doing something ridiculous? For example, invoices arriving every two days, each with an invoice number all its own but not linked to the last invoice or showing payments on that account to date. Why must there be 17 invoices in a single month all due on their own independent dates? Wouldn’t it be simpler to get one big bill for the month, perhaps listing each delivery or service by date? Yes, it would be simpler (It would also be normal, considering we’re trained to receive credit card statements monthly that work like this). When you raise this idea/annoyance to your salesperson or point-of-contact, they agree with you that a monthly bill would be easier and make more sense, but this is how the software works…so they supply you with your 1,708 invoices and wish you a great day! We’re then left thinking, “Hold it right there. There is not some ‘very important reason’ for all of these invoices except that the computer system is programmed this way?” Haven’t we all been lucky enough to encounter some variation of this experience?

When the customer-facing agent of your business looks at a customer who is paying you money for goods/services and says, “Yes, what you are describing would be better, but this is what we do because this is how our software (or procurement system, or inventory system, or system that we don’t know what to call it) works,” you know you have a problem. Shortly thereafter, you can expect to develop a different problem in the form of lost sales and customers.

Admittedly, integrated software systems are horrifically expensive and hard beasts to be managed. SAP (systems applications and products in data processing) software systems are complicated. Many of these systems are attempting to link financials to human resources to logistics to inventory to billing, and on and on. It’s complicated, and nobody wants to mess with those systems once they are in place. It’s a massive management feat to edit even seemingly small aspects of such integrative systems, and the system was put into place by someone very high up who you prefer not to challenge who was doing it for some very good reason that you simply cannot articulate right now. These systems are where personnel, personality, business and computing all run together in a blur of…It’s complicated.

I am not proposing that every customer’s ideas are worthy of a million-dollar computer programming retrofit. I am simply proposing that there is a balancing act inherent in customer-facing, largely sales-based businesses in determining what is RIDICULOUS and should be addressed versus what needs to be lived with as it stands.

The lesson here is fundamentally one of cost-benefit analysis and tradeoffs: How bad does the customer’s experience with an aspect of interacting with your company have to get before it is worth it to you to upgrade/change that interaction? It will depend on how badly the experience is hurting you versus how expensive it would be to fix. Some invoicing system changes could require custom programming work and multi-national implementation to make systems able to talk to one another. Admittedly that is a high bar to clear. Other changes may be much simpler/cheaper.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but I aim simply to call the question – are you being ridiculous? If so, why? Because the cost is too high to make it worthwhile to solve the problem, or because you haven’t taken to heart the customer’s experience and at least conducted the cost-benefit assessment of the variety of potential ways to make improvements?

Why do I bring this up NOW?

Social media has aided the ability to complain loudly about what someone sees as ridiculous. In truth, social media allows you to complain loudly about what may be completely NOT ridiculous, and also your own self-imposed consequences of poor behavior as a customer. But I digress. Analytics possible via online media data analysis (see: Is Online Media Sentiment a Performance Measure You Should Consider for YOUR Business? for an example of only the tip of the iceberg on what is possible in this space) can help you determine how widespread an opinion is and, with some additional work, to even understand what geography complaints are arising and/or from what types of customers. Open lines of communication for customers and customer-facing employees. Feedback is a more straightforward way of understanding customer experiences. Given the number of people on social media sharing why they left supplier X for supplier Y after complaining about XYZ for years, it seems the loss of the customer shouldn’t have been a surprise – that is, if you were listening.