When Technology Fails, Process Picks Up The Slack

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Over the weekend I went through the drive-thru of my favorite coffee chain. Without paying much attention I put in my order, pulled up behind the single vehicle in front of me, and scrolled through e-mails while I waited.

Unlike the myriad other trips to this coffee shop, however, the minutes began to pile up. By the 15-minute mark, the car in front of me at the window had not yet pulled away. By the 20-minute mark, some of the cars behind me started carefully negotiating their cars out the line and leaving the parking lot altogether. Finally, after more than 25 minutes of waiting in line, it was my turn to pull up to the window.

And what did I find? Several clearly bewildered and overwhelmed staff, one of whom (perhaps the manager?) gave a half-hearted shrug and offered the meager explanation “sorry, our server just crashed.” They asked if I had cash for my drink (I didn’t), and the cashier looked completely puzzled by the manual credit card imprinter. In the meantime, the baristas were adding to the extensive lineup of rapidly-cooling beverages.

While I behaved in Minnesota-Nice Mode at the window, I fumed all the way home. My consultant mind immediately started working through what actions the employees and their manager could have taken to mitigate the issue at hand and provide excellent customer service. Stop taking orders! Stop making coffee and send the baristas out to the drive-thru to alert customers! Serve the affected customers free of charge! It was clear these employees did not know (or, even more frightening, have) the tools and processes to manage through unusual situations. There are several retail and technology lessons to be gleaned from just one innocent cup of coffee:

  • Remember that technology is not perfect. We take technology for granted in our professional and personal lives, because 98% of the time it works. But when it doesn’t, even going about our everyday affairs suddenly becomes a challenge. Technology failures at the business level have a much larger radius of impact, because customers and others outside of the organization are now involved. What is your business going to do when the screen freezes up, the server times out, or the power goes out? This leads me to my next point…
  • Establishing process is the only way to prepare for every eventuality. As consultants we often see clients that are interested in the new technical capabilities, but business process mapping to underpin those capabilities falls to the wayside. We get it–laying out the minutiae for completing a business task or thinking through contingency plans are not necessarily exciting activities. However, process is what bridges the gaps between technologies and comes to the rescue when technology fails us. And once the process is established, it is only useful if it is ingrained in the culture and every associate understands the process. In my situation, I suspect that while there were processes in place to work around the technology issue, the employees did not fully understand their role in the process.
  • Customer perception is everything. Customer service is fundamentally dependent on technology and the processes a retailer establishes. Remove those two and giving the customer the experience they desire and expect is virtually impossible. Furthermore, the retailer will have failed to deliver on its brand promise, whether explicit or implied. Just because a retailer may be temporarily struggling with technology doesn’t mean their customers are; customers are more than happy to share their experience with their friends, family, and coworkers. Sometimes they even get inspired to use the shortcoming as the basis of an industry blog post.

So when the technology fails and the process is weaker than the day’s light roast, the best tactic is the simplest one: provide a sincere apology and a token of goodwill. Because the last thing you want is a customer pulling away from a coffee shop with a bitter taste in their mouth—whether it’s caused by the coffee or by the service.

– Amanda Aherns, Consultant, Logic Information Systems

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