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Are your stores really just factories?

As I scrolled through my Twitter feed last Sunday morning, a TED Talk caught my attention that I haven’t been able to shake. I hope it haunts you as it has me.

The talk, The way we think about work is broken, by a psychologist named Barry Schwartz, asks why we subject ourselves to working environments that are demeaning and soulless and gives a brief answer that should give pause to any business owner or manager.

My ruminations on this talk have to do with the notion of applying technology to the customer experience.

[ted id=2324]

The Factory

Dr. Schwartz quickly sets up his premise by getting us listeners to agree that those who do something merely “for the money” are negatively judged. That is, we instinctively understand that there’s more to life than the pursuit of riches.

He also establishes buy-in to the idea that the overwhelming majority of people on the planet get up everyday and go to jobs that are less than inspiring, less than fulfilling and less than what we dream of.

He connects the bleak cultures that exist in so many places today with those of the Industrial Revolution, when people were incentivized with a steady paycheck but driven like brute animals.

Why do we subject ourselves to such inhumane conditions, even when the money stops being good?

Idea Technology

The remainder of the talk is given over to explaining that people are highly susceptible to the power of ideas, that technology isn’t limited to only things or digital bits.

Technological innovation extends to the ideas that shape us and motivate us, but the weird thing is our human nature. In science, if a theory is proved false, it is discarded. No one believes that the earth is flat anymore, or that the sun orbits around the earth. Those ideas were disproved, and we’ve moved on.

With human nature, it’s a completely different story. We will believe falsehoods about ourselves and our place in the world that envelopes us when they are reinforced repeatedly over time. Anyone who has spent any time in therapy knows how easy for us to buy into false realities.

Perhaps you’ve previously worked in a toxic environment, and once you finally broke free from it, you wondered why you stayed so long. Some people work their entire careers in toxic workplace environments.

As people, we are so adaptable and so social that we will negatively adapt to a social situation, in this case a toxic workplace culture, to get along. Sometimes for a while. Sometimes forever.

The point in all of this is why Dr. Schwartz’s talk has stayed with me, and it’s this: if companies with toxic cultures experiment with the latest CX deployment, aren’t they doomed to fail?

Think about it.

Let’s say you have a chain of stores that sells green socks to men, women and children and you run the operation like a factory from a Dickens novel, how are those front-line associates feeling about the company? If your constant message to employees is bottom-line metrics, with no input or feedback from staff, how are the associates feeling about the company? If associates are looked upon as interchangeable parts because of high turnover and frequent no-shows and a lack of “good people,” how do you think those same interchangeable people are feeling about the company, no matter how wonderful the green socks?

Then, think about your busy time, when you get the rush on green socks. You’re staffed lean so you can save money, but one associate doesn’t show, another can’t work overtime and a third is 30 minutes late for his shift. How do you think this skeleton crew acts towards the green-sock-seeking-customer who’s also having a bad day and takes it out on the one girl who bothered to show up on time, but is stressed?

No tech deployment in the world can overcome negative human-on-human experiences. We expect the technology to be cold, but when the humans who work at the store demean us, it gets personal.

Before you can expect technology to salve over the hurt feelings of your harried customers who will surely find their green socks elsewhere, you’d better fix the problem of demotivated, demeaned and disenfranchised associates who are the connective tissue between the customer and your brand.

Before purchasing technology in the form of digital bits to engage your customers, make sure that you have the proper technology of ideas that has created the kind of top-to-bottom culture that will truly support deeper engagement.

A bolted-on technological solution can’t overcome a factory culture.

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