Customer service levels are not a function of how much we spend on technology. Good customer service is still, as it has always been, a direct result of keeping the customer in mind at all times.

Technology by itself is incapable of delivering an enjoyable, or at least less

frustrating, shopping experience.

This came to a boil for me during a recent visit to a local Shell station. I’m one of those drivers that doesn’t fill up the tank until the car is running on vapors. This usually happens at the most inappropriate time and therefore I’m usually in a rush. Time management isn’t my strong suit.

The local Shell station is a modern one. Totally computerized, it magically reads my passkey and directly debits my credit card. No need to stand in line, no need

to deal with a clerk and be asked if I’d also like a cup of coffee or a muffin or a bank loan at reasonable rates, etc. etc. Just wave my passkey at the pump, fill and leave. For me, the very definition of a good shopping experience.

I waved my passkey, selected this week’s pollutant, and stuck the nozzle into the SUV. So far, so good, until the voice over the intercom demanded I hang up the pump and wait until the shift changeover was completed.

Not a good start to this shopping experience. I waited about four minutes, and then, because I’d waved my passkey before the shift change, and finished filling after the shift change, I had to walk over to the cashier and pay by credit card.

The manager in charge explained, “The passkey information is lost during a shift change.”

A Glitch in the System

As a bona fide, card-carrying, know the difference between RAM and ROM,

computer person I knew exactly what was going on. A polite, but almost irate, phone call to Shell customer service confirmed my suspicions. The POS system needs to have all the pumps closed as the data transfer for the shift change is taking place.

This breakdown in customer service is not the fault of technology. At some point in the design process, someone raised their hand and said, “If we do the shift change in this manner, we have to shut down the pumps until the process is complete.” At which point everyone most probably nodded their heads, muttered “That’s right”, and implemented it anyway.

Technically, there is nothing wrong with the solution as implemented. It only fails when you add customers to the high octane mix. If there were no customers, no unreasonable impatient customers would complain to customer service.

Putting the Customer First

If this were an isolated instance, then it would be nothing more than a failure in communications, but it’s far from isolated. One could, without stretching the point, state that the Dot.Com collapse was due to the exact same failing: technical solutions that ignore the customer.

The solution to the problem seems simple enough, “Keep the customer in mind”. But where does the typical technical person get taught that lesson? Examine any technical certification program and you’ll not find any time allocated to soft concepts like “customer service” or “interpersonal communications.” The immediate response of the certification managers is that they’re not responsible for teaching that stuff. They’re there to do one thing and do it well, teach people to use a particular product.

Fair enough. The question still remains: where do technical people get introduced to the basic concepts of business? If we believe customer service is important, then so are the skills necessary to deliver it. Obviously, not everyone does.

In the USA, the National Workforce Center for Emerging Technologies (NWCET) has started to pay attention to the issue. They’re promoting what they call “Value-delivery skills” – skills that enable us to work with customers and clients, to solve business problems using both technical and soft skills. They believe there are some crucial additions to the traditional technical skill set: communication, professionalism, organizational teamwork, customer relations, leadership, decision-making, critical thinking, problem solving, self-directed and continuous learning.

This is all basic stuff, but it often gets overlooked. Technology can deliver a quality shopping experience, but only if the customer, is the focus.

Peter de Jager is a speaker and consultant on management issues relating to Managing the Future. Contact him at