Just Help Yourself

In the early 1970s, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, from National Public Radio’s Car Talk, opened a garage called Hacker’s Haven in Cambridge, Mass. “This was the time when everyone was working on his own car, so we thought, and our idea was to open a garage where people could do their own work and we’d rent space and tools to them.” Ray expected to make “wheelbarrows full of money” as a result of this clever self-service idea, but instead it was a fast track to financial ruin. Customers who could not open the hoods of their cars came to the garage expecting to replace their own transmissions. Tom and Ray (and expensive professional mechanics they hired) had to help these folks, usually doing all the work for them, for the $2.50 per hour customers paid just to rent garage space. Users who could open the hoods of their cars attempted repairs far over their heads and drove off in their lethal contraptions. After one such customer repaired his car, Tom and Ray watched in horror as, “Amazingly, the thing started up. We watched as he drove his car out the door, stepped on the brake pedal, and crashed that wreck into the building across the street.” The garage was soon converted into a regular non-self-service garage where Tom and Ray could actually make money and customers were not a danger to themselves and others.

Hoagie Heaven
Wa Wa, an East coast chain of convenience stores, sells 35 million built-to-order hoagies each year. At lunch time, a dozen or so customers would often collect in front of the deli counter and shout things such as, “Gimme an Italian with no mayo; double onions. No, I do want mayo, no peppers; well, mild peppers on the side. Do you have Virginia ham? Use that instead of the turkey or salami.” The hoagie makers behind the counter frantically tried to make sense of the crowd barking their orders while at the same time making the right hoagies and getting them to the people who actually ordered them. Of course communications were bi-directional. Hoagie makers shouted back things such as “Is that a Junior, Shorti, Classic, or 2 foot? Do you want salt? What kind of cheese?” It’s a wonder that any hoagies ever came out exactly right.

Today in many Wa Wa’s the chaos has been replaced by a few self-service touch screens. Customers are led through different kinds of hoagies and myriad options one simple screen at a time in order to choose the exact ingredients they like. The screen also markets new menu items—“Try our new breaded chicken,” and makes customers aware of options they may not have known about. Customers can make changes, price different options, and print a receipt, which they can pre-pay.

The hoagie makers read final orders from a LCD panel in a standard format that reflects the way they make hoagies. They spend all their time turning out perfect hoagies as efficiently as they can. If a customer really needs help with the touch screens, a Wa Wa employee will step in, though usually it is other customers who provide user support.

Self Service
IT departments increasingly build self-service applications for their users. Before you dash off and do that, it would be helpful to understand why Wa Wa’s self-service was so successful while Tom and Ray’s was such an abysmal failure. Tom and Ray, as skilled mechanics themselves, saw cars as simple logical machines. One d'esn’t have to be a rocket scientist to code XML—I mean change spark plugs. Everyone understands the basic principles of relational databases—I mean auto electrical systems. Tom and Ray used self-service to turn users into auto mechanics. But their users were not mechanics, couldn’t quickly become mechanics and didn’t want the greasy, messy work, which they couldn’t handle anyway. They just wanted their cars fixed cheaply.

Wa Wa uses self-service to give users more control over their hoagies. They give customers a simplified and improved user interface, make the outcomes more reliable, and at the same time make back-end operations (the making of hoagies) much more efficient. Had Wa Wa followed the Tom and Ray model, their customers world have made their own hoagies. Imagine the chaos of unleashing Wa Wa customers behind the hoagie counter with electric deli slicers, sharp knives, pots of boiling chili, and jars of double-dipped condiments.

Wa Wa’s self-service endeavor cost a great deal of money for screens, wiring, training, support, and so forth. No one lost their job because of it—because Wa Wa’s goal was better service, not lower cost. They offer customers fast access to correctly made personalized hoagies. Their touch screens are simple and colorful, with pictures and text for every choice. They do one simple thing. Wa Wa had the technology to have the screens do banking, buy money orders, and do Excel spreadsheets, but they resisted that temptation. Wa Wa clearly understood the specific problem they were trying to solve and understood their users’ needs and abilities. They spent the money to build something to save their users time—not to lighten their own load, which actually increased.

Most IT users are not IT professionals and have no desire to become one. However, all users would benefit from having control over the information and applications that they rely on to do their jobs effectively. Using Wa Wa’s philosophy for self-service as our model we will have our users choosing the exact data and applications each one needs. They’ll get great service effortlessly, our systems and data stores will run more efficiently, and all of us will find that quite a tasty combination.

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