Lessons from Neon

Technology is the perfect scapegoat. It costs a tremendous amount to deploy, and when it fails, it suffers our condemnation in humble silence. We know the technology is not really at fault; it can’t be, it’s just a stupid, inert tool. It has no control over how it’s used, nevertheless it is so much easier, and certainly less embarrassing, to blame the tool and not ourselves.

Bad management decisions affect the performance of even the simplest of technologies. An example?

A large neon sign is erected to proudly display a company name, ‘Change Agents Inc.’, to all the passing traffic. A year later, the letters ‘C’ and ‘e’ in ‘Change’ burn out and for six months they’re not replaced. With minor variations, and greater and lesser degrees of embarrassment, this is repeated on company rooftops all around the world on a daily basis.

Why does it happen? Primarily because nobody is given the express responsibility to make sure the sign is always working. If such a person is assigned, they’re seldom given the budget to have a replacement letter on hand for each letter in the sign. The result? Some rather amusing signs announcing that management is incapable of managing a simple task. If they can’t manage a neon sign, what does that say about their service and products?

The purpose of the bright neon sign is simple. Advertise the company’s name. If it isn’t working properly, either shut it off or fix it. Anything else is detrimental to the company.

Today’s Version Of The Neon Sign

Let’s now look at the 21st Century’s version of the neon sign, Web sites on the Internet. Over the past three years, Unisys conducted a study of ‘Web Responsiveness’ to see how financial institutions are using the Internet. The results make for interesting reading and suggest nothing has changed since the advent of burnt out neon signs.

The objective of the study was to determine how responsive the financial institutions are to Internet-based queries generated by their marketing/advertising efforts on the Web. The format of the study was to visit financial Web sites and, acting like a ‘mystery shopper’, request, via e-mail, information on setting up a new account.

Unisys identified 400 financial institutions around the world that had chosen to use the Internet as part of their marketing/advertising strategy. Unisys found that 229 (57%) did not offer any method of electronic communication to the bank, for any purpose.

A rational reason for this is to avoid spam mail. An e-mail address anywhere on a Web site will generate a deluge of mail, some of which violates corporate standards regarding pornography. On the other hand, the lack of electronic communication might lose the institution a potential customer. Amazingly, 229 institutions worldwide chose no spam over potential customers.

The remaining 171 sites were each sent an e-mail message requesting information on opening a new account. Only 94 responses were received. Of these, only slightly more than half received anything more than an automated form letter, seldom answering the initial request. The remaining 77 had so much business to deal with, they were not interested in new customers. Either that, or nobody was assigned to answer e-mail from potential customers. Of the two explanations, which seems more likely?

Not A Technology Problem

Technology is not at fault here, nor is there a technological solution to this problem. Updating the Web page or installing a multi-million dollar CRM system will not add one iota of customer service. Nor will it generate a single smidgen of customer loyalty or trust. What’s required is that someone in these companies – a live, warm-blooded person – responds to these

e-mail messages.

We operate under a peculiar myth. We seem to believe (and this is supported by the sad evidence) that if we throw enough technology at what is fundamentally a people problem, then the problem will go away. It doesn’t work that way. When a neon letter is burnt out, it needs a replacement. When a phone call or e-mail message arrives, it needs answering. If we’re not prepared to do that, then shut it off. It’s embarrassing.

Peter de Jager is a speaker and consultant on management issues related to Managing the Future. Contact him at pdejager@technobility.com.