Management / The American View: Mitigating the Persistence of Memory

The American View: Mitigating the Persistence of Memory

Customers love fast-track service offerings, especially when they’re rushed or distracted. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger reminds us that customers tend to treat service catalogues the same way they treat drive-through menus: something to be learned once and then assumed thereafter.

If you read Business Reporter regularly, you probably know that standardized service offerings can be a great tool for improving your internal customers’ satisfaction. Offering users a ‘menu’ of pre-approved, pre-defined services to order from speeds up both service request processing and service delivery times. Catalogues allow users to get in, ask for what they need, and get out efficiently. Moreover, optimizing your standard services improves your reputation as a valued service provider since it allows you to manage users’ expectations through consistent delivery.

A good example of this involves listing pre-tested and pre-approved peripherals that users can select out of a catalogue-like interface. I pioneered this idea [1] back when I was a new IT director: instead of forcing users to submit a lengthy and complicated ‘new technology request’ just to buy a replacement mouse or a second monitor, I set up an online catalogue which allowed users to buy the trivial items that the needed, on-demand, from a list of gear that had already been vetted by procurement and security. User morale improved, downtime decreased, and the valueless paperwork in IT procurement dropped by 80% in six months. Everybody went away happy.

This wasn’t a new idea. The tricks that I was using in back in the early 2000s had been based on successful implementations that I’d seen in the mid 1990s. It was just IT adopting best practices from other industries. Speaking of, there’s an aspect of this technique that IT frequently forgets to implement: how to address ‘menu’ changes.

By way of example, let me share a anecdote from my time working in fast-food. [2] A long time ago, I worked in the kitchen of a Burger King in between semesters. It was a minimum wage gig that augmented my military reservist pay. As a junior cook, I spent rush periods (breakfast and lunch) preparing ingredients, washing dishes, and cleaning. During lull periods (like mid-morning and mid-afternoon), the more expensive senior cooks would be dismissed; I’d be responsible for all of the food prep and packaging.

Despite what prime time cooking shows might insinuate, the life of a junior cook has more to do with mops than it does with fresh vegetables. 

We usually couldn’t hear what our customers ordered from the back of the store. The noise from the grill, the microwaves, and the deep fryers drowned out most distant conversations. Instead, we received orders from a monitor over the sandwich assembly station and we faithfully assembled orders to customer specifications. People knew Burger King as the ‘Have it Your Way’ option; many customers preferred BK’s approach to McDonald’s ‘take it or leave it’ approach. So, we got lots of peculiar orders: no ketchup, extra mustard, only left-handed onions, etc. Whatever; we built to-suit.

On slow days, we could hear the back-and-forth between cashiers and customers if we were near the food transfer window. One dreary summer afternoon, I overheard a harried suburban mother (that I’ll call ‘Angry Mom’) place a bizarre and disjointed order from the drive-through.

Angry Mom ordered several products that didn’t exist. It was clear that she was ordering from memory (that is to say, recalling a previous order) rather than reading what we actually sold as listed on the GIANT PRINTED MENU (*ahem*). Our manger running handled the process gracefully, offering alternatives for the items that we didn’t carry and had no direct substitute for. In one case, the manager translated what the customer asked without explaining that she was making a substitution.

Angry Mom paid for her food and drove away, only to come screeching back to the store a minute later. We all stopped what we were doing and watched as the harried suburbanite unloaded her hungry, complaining children and stormed into the place. It was obvious that Angry Mom was bound and determined to have a piece of the manager’s hide. She demanded that someone in authority explain to her why her order had been ‘deliberately’ filled ‘incorrectly’ even though she’d been ‘perfectly clear’ about what she’d wanted.

We all agreed. Angry Mom did not strike us as a person who employed subtlety or restraint.

Our manager cheerfully relieved the terrified girl working the till and asked how she could be of assistance. Angry Mom yanked a wrapped sandwich out of her sack and waved it like it was an imperial orb. ‘I ordered two Whopper Juniors!’ she shouted, brandishing the sandwich for emphasis. ‘and instead you gave me these … “Hamburger Deluxe things.” I want what I paid for!”

The manager smiled and patiently explained to Angry Mom that the ‘Whopper Junior’ sandwich had been discontinued nationwide by corporate three years earlier. That sandwich had been replaced by the identically-constructed ‘Hamburger Deluxe’ at a lower price point ... three years ago. So, yes: Angry Mom had received exactly what she’d asked for and got it at a lower cost, just under a different trademarked name. It wasn’t the restaurant’s fault that Angry Mom had ordered off-menu. We could have refused to fill her order since she’d asked for products that no longer existed. Instead, she’d gotten the functional equivalent so as to speed up an exasperating drive-through exchange.

Angry Mom stuffed her re-branded sandwich back in her sack, gathered up her mewling waifs, and stomped out. Unsatisfied. Probably harbouring a grudge. Our manager mused that some customers only ever learned the menu once in their lives, and then irrationally assumed that it would stay the same forever. Then she sent me to scrape up the discarded chewing gum from underneath he drive-through window. [3]

Menus don’t stay the same forever. A few years after that, BK corporate re-branded the HBD back to the ‘Whopper Junior’ … and raised its price. Plus ça change.

What’s important about this story for our purposes is the idea that standard service options can be great for customers: they’re easy to learn, they speed up ordering, and they regulate expectations. Just like fast food joint menus do. Consumers go to fast food joints for speed, cost control, and predictability, not for excellence in dining. Internal business customers go to IT service catalogs for speed, bureaucracy reduction, and predictability, nor for exceptional bespoke service. And that’s … fine. It’s fine. Really, that’s the entire point of having service catalogs: to make life easier, less stressful, and more satisfying for your users.

We’ve already replaced mall and airport electronics stores with vending machines. We’re rapidly approaching the day when we can replace fast food outlets with vending machines. People love the experience of getting exactly what they want from a vendor without all that messy interpersonal interaction. 

There is, however, some minor risk involved in establishing standard service catalogs: when users first encounter them, they’re new … so user read what’s listed until they find what they’re looking for. On every subsequent visit to the catalog, the user can speed things up based on their last successful experience. Just like Angry Mom, they stop reading what’s current and instead work from memory. When you change a catalog option, the customer might not notice … Then, when you don’t give them what they want (because you can’t), drama ensues.

The solution to this irritation is two-fold: first, you need to highlight your changes as they occur. In my ‘pre-approved equipment’ solution example, we updated our selections every year, and garishly flagged changes to the catalog as ‘new and improved’ or ‘no longer available.’ The embellishment caught some users’ eyes, preempting the ‘same again, only with onion rings’ ordering-by-rote behavior.

The second solution is to build your process such that users are required to engage with a catalog item during the request process rather than allowing them to reference the catalog with another employee. In my PAE example we did this by making purchasers click a hyperlink that took them to either a pre-approved vendor or a new page that explained that what they wanted had been discontinued, and here were the recommended replacement items. This approach interrupts the natural human tendency to ‘work from memory’ when stressed, distracted, or confused.

One last thing … you can learn from my old BK manager’s mistake. When a user asks you for something obsolete that you can fulfill with a silent substation … don’t. Even though it seems like you’re giving the customer what they wanted, you’re not giving them what they asked for. Therefore, you’ll likely get a ration of undeserved (but wholly understandable) blowback. Instead, take the time to explain how you’re going to meet the customer’s needs in light of how things have changed. Help them to change as well. Think of it as an investment in your long-term relationship. Or, if you’d prefer, help them understand that circumstances and market conditions mean that the customer isn’t always right.


[1] By which I mean I shamelessly stole the idea from a friend at a different company.

[2] I’ve been writing a lot of food-related analogies recently. I really need to stop writing these columns right before lunchtime.

[3] As the youngest male employee, I got all the dirty jobs. Yea, tradition.

Title Allusions: Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory (1931 painting)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

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Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘bloggersince 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.