“Smart” Systems

smartcomp.jpgPeople are always talking about “smart” systems. These are automated systems that are meant to make a company more efficient, drive sales, and provide a great customer experience. Often, and unfortunately, the implementation of these systems goes hand in hand with cutting back on the role of real people in the process. Time and again, these “smart” systems prove incredibly stupid.

This whole issue is particularly important to us right now, because we’re working on some “smart” systems of our own. Where are they a good thing and where are they a pain? How do you use them in a way that really does make life better rather than more complicated? Read on for my thoughts and a chance to voice your own opinion!

So here is an example of a “smart” system gone horribly wrong. A friend of mine ordered some flowers from an online flower shop. After that he started getting their personalized emails (“Hey Joe! Time to buy some roses!”) advertising all sorts of great opportunities to buy flowers. He tried the remove button but it didn’t work.

Then, this week, he gets an email reading:

“Joe, send Mary Valentine’s Roses and Save 20%!”

The problem here is that the reason Joe bought flowers originally was to buy flowers for his niece Mary’s funeral. Will Joe ever buy flowers from this company again? Certainly not. The smart system designed to drive sales has just guaranteed that this customer will never buy from them again. In fact, he’ll probably go around telling other people not to buy from them.

On the other hand, take your average Voicemail system. I LOVE voicemail. Many years ago, when I worked in Real Estate before Voicemail became common place, I used to have endless problems trying to get messages to people, and more importantly, get them to the person accurately. With Voicemail they always here exactly what I want them to hear. It’s direct, efficient, and effective.

OK, so what does all this mean to Ilium Software? Well we’re working on a way that will let people who are requesting unlock codes (“I lost my codes but need to reinstall. Can you send them?”) get them automatically, rather than waiting for us to process the request manually. It seems like a great idea, but even this sort of automated system can get really frustrating.

Take this example. Bob buys eWallet for Pocket PC with one email address and eWallet for desktop with another. He fills out the form, asking for his eWallet for Pocket PC codes, but he uses the desktop purchase email address. We write back:

“Sorry. We can’t find your purchase.”

To which Bob replies “What do you mean I didn’t buy it? Of course I bought it!” and now everyone is frustrated.

So I guess the question is this…as long as there is a way to still talk to a real person, does the advantage of instant code responses that are right most of the time outweigh those occasions where the “smart system” does something stupid? I mean we’re still there to help in person (call us, email us, we’re there) if the smart system botches the job. Or is there no amount of speed that can outweigh those moments of smart system stupidity?

We want to make sure because the goal here is to get you guys the information you need faster, but not at the expense of good service.

3 thoughts on ““Smart” Systems

  1. Peter

    I like the idea of doing this and I agree that it’s a pain. I’ve switched e-mail addresses several times and remembering which one I used is always tricky. Perhaps a way to merge accounts would be useful? Something that looks up Last name, First name, and perhaps a product to try to tie things together. If all else fails, add in some basic address lookups. At that point, you could probably provide some profile options for people to manage their addresses and merge their own information.

    Behind the scenes, perhaps some joining table that takes that profile and ties it to one or more e-mail addresses and purchases. Relatively easy to manipulate so the link ties back to one profile.

    Probably the best examples of how NOT to do it can be found at http://www.thedailywtf.com. I know I’ve see some great “smart” systems there in the past. :-)

    The only real concern I have with the smart system you mention is that you need some form of undo or a check that won’t let John Smith from Scottsdale, AZ merge his record with John Smith from Phoenix, AZ without some extra precautions. The undo is useful when people accidentally merge something they shouldn’t have (I know this from painful experience).

  2. Kevin White

    Speaking as one of the humans who will look up your Ilium Software unlock codes if you call Ilium Software :) … one disadvantage to simply having someone there to do it over the phone is that you have to have someone there to do it over the phone. If no one’s there, nothing gets done.

    We aren’t open 24/7/365, so if you need your codes after 4:30PM EST on a Friday, you are going to have to wait. Granted, the machine doing the automated processing could go down, too. (Devil’s advocate: so could the internet, the phone, electricity, earth could be bulldozed to make way for a highway, etc.)

    In this particular case, there’s a LOT that a human can do much more easily than a computer could do, but a human has to do it, which is an inherently non-automatic and non-instant process.

    Marc’s example is a particularly good example of a smart system failure. But, it’s also a failure of marketing. “How can we make people buy our stuff more? I know, let’s suggest all sorts of reasons people by flowers! Mother’s day! Father’s day! Valentine’s day! Christmas!”… the flower-buyer who is a Jewish single orphan is left out cold by all that.

    Another would be something like eMusic’s ‘your new music’ system, which attempts to suggest music. Sounds great, until it suggests something you actively don’t like. Then, you wonder, “is this just being random? I could do that myself.. close my eyes, click on an artist, whee!”

    Or AT&T’s technical support for DSL. You need to give the automated phone system your land-line telephone number in order to get help. What if you have dry-loop DSL? You have to wade through the menus until it gives up, or start yelling profanities at the voice recognition. Not so smart.

    For that matter… a lot of these are examples of ‘edge cases’, where a smart system wasn’t necessarily designed to work well. Weird email address combinations, a death instead of a more benign reason for buying flowers, not-so-common dry-loop DSL, musical tastes that are decidedly unpopular and esoteric…

  3. knaak

    I agree that some of these systems can get frustrating. Then again, I recently used webis’ system when I lost my registration code and found it was great. Indeed, I forgot the e-mailaddress I used for the purchase so I had some guessing to do, but hey, the point of these systems is not to completely eliminate the human factor, but to make it a bit more easier! It is important though to have a smart system handling this, the flower shop ‘s system is clearly having a very bad system implemented

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