by Barbara Quint
Many years ago, a sophisticated, though mildly technophobic,
friend of mine and I got in an argument over whether
she needed an answering machine. My friend lived a
very full life that included occasional management
consulting. What finally sold her on the concept was
the argument that callers, in particular, potential
clients, would be offended by her lack of an answering
The other day I was offended by a technological omission.
Staples had just taken a large order for office supplies
from me and, after giving me the order number, told
me to expect the shipment to arrive the following day.
When? Between the hours of 8 A.M. and 5 P.M. Gee, thanks,
guys! Now I know I can sleep till 7:45 and start shopping
for dinner at 5:05. In between, I'll just stand by
the door and wait.
I asked the Staples representative why they couldn't
give me a smaller time window 4 hours if necessary,
2 hours preferred. After all, these days even the cable
television people long the poster ogres for
customer time-wasting offer tight little schedules
and may even call if they foresee a half-hour delay.
The representative informed me that they couldn't because "we
use local delivery people for your area, so no one
knows who they are." Now that's encouraging! Let me
get the image. Some guy in a pickup truck drives by
the Staples warehouse. Warehouse staff flag him down
and ask, "Hey, buddy! You going to Santa Monica sometime
today? Do us a favor and drop this pile of stuff at
bq's, will you? Thanks, pal!"
Obviously Staples has a tighter delivery network
than that or it couldn't guarantee delivery of anything,
much less next-day delivery. Staples must have computerized
lists of local delivery people that it matches with
records from its order and inventory systems. Unless
Staples is dealing with people who shouldn't have qualified
for a driver's license, much less a Staples contract,
the delivery people have computers too. Staples simply
hasn't worked out coordinated schedules.
The Staples representative's stigmatizing of local
delivery sources indicates that sometimes more extensive
schedule information could be available, but it would
have to come from the computer systems built by a partnering
delivery service, such as UPS' tracking systems. So
now we know Staples works with people who do it right
and still chooses to do it wrong.
What we see happening here is a pattern of technological
penetration into the relationship between vendors and
their consumers, a pattern repeated many times. Long,
long before voice-mail, even long before answering
machines, businesses and individuals could subscribe
to answering services. Then came answering machines
and voice-mail. The answering service model, formerly
a small business phenomenon, morphed into a phone company
Look at the pattern. A product or service is developed
that solves a widespread problem sufficiently to support
a relatively expensive solution, expensive enough to
raise revenue for a new category of service suppliers.
Time and technology march on and new, cheaper technologies
come along to solve the same problem. Multiple solutions
now exist. The marketing of the solutions and the recognition
of the problem which came first? the chicken
or the egg? increase together until solutions
are widespread. With the problem eliminated for most
people by the solutions in place, anyone who has not
taken steps to apply those solutions is now perceived
as causing the problem either deliberately through
negligence or maybe even malice or unconsciously through
laziness or stupidity. In other words, some technological
advances no longer await implementation by vendors
or service organizations, they demand it.
Let's reexamine Staples' scheduling situation. In
the past, when only traditional businesses used office
supply stores, delivery schedules were less necessary,
as a business would always have someone on hand during
regular working hours. But, with telecommuting growing
and the SOHO (small office/home office) business sector
a major part of the economy, office supply businesses
now expect to deliver to "unestablished establishments." Sophisticated
delivery scheduling systems are in place everywhere.
People know computers can set schedules and notify
customers of changes. People also know that delivery
staff can notify headquarters or even contact
the customer using the ubiquitous cell phone
Again, multiple technologies solve a problem in the
provision of service across a number of industries.
Customers grow accustomed to getting that quality of
service from many vendors. Customers know that the
technologies used to supply that level of service are
widespread. Vendors who apply the technological solutions
early probably gain a certain competitive advantage,
but after many vendors in this case, from multiple
industries eliminate the problem, any vendor
who has not applied the solutions may face losing even
established customers. For at this stage, the customer
has come to perceive the individual vendor as the source
of the problem. The vendor who does not meet the Technological
Imperative faces real danger.
How does this lesson apply to information professionals?
The weight of the Technological Imperative falls on
all service suppliers. The only way to exempt one's
self from the burden of responding to "the revolution
of rising expectations" among consumers is to admit
that one cannot or will not meet the standards of other
services. Reactionary librarians who basically envision
themselves as servicing print collections, for example,
have tacitly admitted to their clienteles that they
aren't in the information service game at least,
not at a professional level. Hybrid librarians who
offer digital service as an adjunct to print may create
a tepid market response as, for example, the only portion
of their service that delivers quickly and round the
clock comes clearly marked as supplied by outside vendors.
Digitally dedicated practitioners may find it hard
to find managers with the vision and control of resources
necessary to reengineer and rescale operations successfully.
What changing standards impact information professionals
now and in the near future? What new Technological
Imperatives boom ever louder? Well, 24/7/365 continues
to dominate consumers, from the occasional e-commerce
shopper to the all-the-time-online knowledge worker.
And, as cell phones and PDAs and hand-held devices
continue to spew forth, the need to build information
services or restructure search results to fit the physical
requirements of the new devices has moved from the
status of a "nice little extra" to a "Finally! Someone
got it right!" Next stop? "What the heck's the matter
with you? Any idiot knows that...."
So stay alert. Keep checking the horizon. Watch your
watch. Time and technology are building new Technological
Imperatives even as we speak. In particular, identify
what makes customers happy and how happy. Listen to
their "if-only's" and their "Gee, I wish someone would...." Those
are the birth cries of Technological Imperatives.
P.S. The Staples' delivery arrived at 4:15 P.M. Have
a nice day!
Barbara Quint's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.