February 6, 2005

The Dangerous Allure Of Technology

By Evan Schuman, eWEEK

Opinion: As retailers start using technology more creatively, the rule of unintended consequences will have them selling ideas they never wanted to sell.

One of the most disheartening things for a technology journalist to learn is that a lot of readers look at magazines to see the ads.

Well, maybe not solely to look at the ads, but the fact that readers even glance at those dastardly marketing con jobs is enough to make us weep in our espressos.

The truth is that a well-done, intelligently written ad often contains technical information, and the vendor's position about why its product is useful. But a poorly done ad is akin to those meal-interrupting telemarketers, who have no idea about—nor do they particularly care—what they're selling.

I bring this up because of some strongly-worded e-mail readers have sent about a story we ran recently about Circuit City. That piece told of the Circuit City CIO's ideas for ways to connect more closely with customers. If the readers' comments were any indication, customers might not appreciate the kind of attention the CIO was suggesting.

One of the ideas, for example, involved giving customers wireless headphones that would broadcast location-relevant ads and allow customers to ask questions of personnel.

The distinction between those two ideas—playing an ad and offering assistance—is a lot more subtle than one might assume. Is an ad annoying, intrusive or helpful? It truly depends on the ad.

Will the connection to a virtual rep be helpful? Some readers reacted unhappily to the idea, suggesting that they'd rather see the associates stop gabbing in the corner and focus on the customers instead of having some long-distance, disembodied rep bark into their ear.

The irony is that those same readers might also complain about the terrible lack of technological sophistication of those associates when they do come over to help. (By the way, the readers' comments were extended to all retailers and not just Circuit City.) If those disembodied voices came from products specialists who understand DVD recorders far better than the average store associate, I would applaud the move and could see this as a true win-win.

I will give all of my retail business to the first chain that announces the following policy: If one of our associates gives you an incorrect answer about a product, the store will give you one of those products for free, along with a free extended service plan and free delivery and installation.

Without such a policy, there's absolutely no penalty for a floor associate who just makes up whatever answer he thinks the customer wants to hear. If retailers can combine wireless technology with RFID (to determine what products the customer is near when he/she hits the "help" button), they have the potential to address a typical customer's largest complaint.

But if retailers use that technology to blast random commercials at customers and connect them with telemarketers who know less about the products than the customer does, it will likely make matters worse.

In short, technology should be a convenience, making it easier for retailers to do what they should be doing anyway. If retailers are going to not be picky about who they hire and/or fail to train them properly, using a T3 connection to a VOIP hookup and using satellites and RFID to triangulate the customer's wallet won't help.

Here's another example from reader mail, this one regarding our recent story on McDonalds restaurants using VOIP to handle drive-through traffic with a remote call center.

The reader complained that he used one of those locations late one night. The call-center connection worked well, with the order being taken properly and read back precisely. The only problem was when he drove up to pay and pick up the food, he found that the restaurant was closed. Nobody had thought to alert the call center, so they continued to take orders oblivious to the fact that no one was around to make the food.

This is not that different from the reports around about soaring error rates with new high-end cars, where they have designed wonderfully clever digital capabilities that can go wrong in heretofore unimagined ways.

A wonderful New York Times story on Sunday told of a Cape Cod family on a summer vacation. Driving their 2001 Dodge van on an especially hot day, the parents were kept cool in the front, while the children in the back were subjected to an unrelenting blast of heat from the back vents, which couldn't be turned off. Turns out that the rear temperature sensor had gone bad and was telling the heater that the children were freezing at 32 degrees, and the car was simply trying to be helpful.

Technology is a must, and the road to progress must be traveled. But are we blindly assuming that the technology will simply work and work every time? Or, for that matter, are we assuming that employees will function perfectly every time?

Did no one program a "We're closed now" backup in case a McDonalds employee forgets to call? Was that van not equipped with a manual override in case of a sensor glitch?

Another recent eWEEK.com story told the story of the Harvard Medical School CIO who had himself injected with an RFID chip to truly test the technology in real-world conditions.

The physician CIO in that story spoke of his vision for a multipronged medical error reduction technique, with RFID chips on medicine bottles, on nurse/physician ID tags and embedded into a patient's arm. That way, if a nurse is about to administer the wrong medicine, the system sounds an urgent alert. But the system can't administer the drug directly. The human needs to take the action, but the technology helps make sure they do it properly.

Now if we could only get Harvard physicians to take over retail IT departments.