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Corporate May 11, 2011

Technology that complicates, confuses and alienates

By Ivor Soans

A theme that often comes up at every event or CIO interaction I participate in is that of Business-IT alignment, which is all about ensuring IT is driven by business objectives, rather than for IT's sake alone. And it makes perfect sense, considering that history is strewn with examples, some positively horrifying companies closing down after changing well-oiled business processes in order to meet the needs of a fancy ERP system, for instance.

But wasn't all that a decade or so ago? Despite history, some organisations don't seem to learn, and often introduce IT that complicates both business and customer interactions. Take the example of Standard Chartered Bank India. Some time ago, the bank introduced smart little machines which collected a cheque deposit and gave you a transaction slip in return. The process was simple enough--punch in your account number, follow the directions to insert your crisp cheque (no folded cheques please) into a slot, from where the machine took over, read the MICR code on the bottom of the cheque and spewed out a transaction slip.

Photo by wrestlingentropy

I rarely used my Standard Chartered credit card and so in the rare case when I came up against these machines, it took a few tries to get the machine to accept the cheque. I assumed it was simply teething errors. Recently though, I decided to cancel my credit card since I wasn't using it anyway, and since I decided to redeem my reward points before closure, I had to pay a small amount of Rs 55.15 towards service charges and the applicable taxes for redemption of points.

So this morning when I dropped by at a Standard Chartered's ATM opposite Mahim Station, I expected it to be a 2-minute job. I entered the ATM with the cheque, only to be told by the guard present that the cheque deposit machine wasn't working. I tried it, and realised he was right. Naturally, I assumed that Standard Chartered Bank would have thought of this eventuality since machines do break down and would have a drop box handy. Not quite, I learnt. The guard told me no drop box existed and I had to find another drop box or ATM to drop my cheque. Ouch!

But, being the technology enthusiast that I am, I didn't think of customer service issues and decided to travel a few kilometres down the road to the next Standard Chartered Bank ATM. Here there was no guard around, but when I tried the machine, I ran into the same problem despite multiple attempts. The darn machine wouldn't accept my cheque, which was crisp, not folded and not stapled. Want proof? Check the video below.

A bit hot under the collar by now, I decided to use the phone provided at the ATM to call their customer service executives. Got connected after a wait and a polite lady called Fatima heard me out and asked me which ATM I was using. I said it was the one opposite Matunga Road railway station, a landmark that was built ages ago by the British and is therefore quite well known. Unfortunately, Ms Fatima didn't seem to care--she insisted there was no Standard Chartered ATM there and asked me to provide a better landmark. Now, if you're a Mumbaikar, you'd know there's no better landmark than a railway station when you're bang opposite it, but that didn't cut much ice with the lady. Finally, she concluded that Standard Chartered had perhaps not updated the ATM location on her list and very helpfully gave me a drop box location a few kilometres away.

This interesting experience got me thinking. I'm not so bothered by the fact that a Standard Chartered Bank executive had no clue about an ATM location or the fact that a guard wasn't around in the 10-15 or so minutes I was there. Databases are notorious creatures and guards are human. But what bothers me is that a bank that has deployed technology has absolutely no provision in case that technology fails. Which going by my experience, seems to be quite frequent. I'm sure the bank deployed these machines with a purpose in mind and there was a clear business case. But, since human intervention is also needed here to collect the cheques from the machine and send them for clearing, wouldn't it make sense to have a drop box in place for emergencies? Or for senior citizens who often struggle with technology and would quite naturally hate one more machine interface they have to go through to deposit a simple cheque. It's not like the cheques are teleported to the RBI clearing centre directly from the machine.

And take the cost involved--for a Rs 55.15 cheque, I spent more on travel trying to deposit it. And while I ended my credit card relationship with the bank not because of any customer service issues but simply because I wasn't using the product, I'd be wary of signing up for any other Standard Chartered product if they expect customers to jump through hoops to make a simple cheque payment, when every other competitor has a far simpler solution--a cardboard or a wooden drop box.

I always thought technology made life simpler--as a technology journalist, it's almost a tad depressing to realise that sometimes organisations will implement technology that they think will simplify a business process or provide a better experience for customers, but which end up doing the exact opposite.

by Ivor Soans

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