How Fast Can We Go?

Faster, better, cheaper. It is the mantra of today’s business. In her latest contribution to Thursday Night Insight, Julia Cupman asks: Is there anybody out there who doesn’t want it faster, better and cheaper?

The problem is that there is a tension between these improvements. Is it possible to have something better as well as cheaper and faster? It seems that we can. Food is in our supermarkets faster and cheaper than ever before and in the main it is fresh and tasty. Clothes, cars and computers are all faster, better and cheaper. And once consumers become accustomed to these improvements, they want more.

Faster is, of course, an important offering to many customers in business. They want speedy delivery, they want the instant resolution of problems, they want 24 hour support etc. These used to be the means by which a company could differentiate itself, but as one company offers it and others follow suit, in no time at all they become the norm.

I am now working out of B2B International’s New York office and it has hit me how important the faster, better, cheaper mantra is in the States. American businesses work at an impressive speed. Their days start early and are highly structured. BlackBerries are ubiquitous and it is not unusual to receive instantaneous replies to e-mails sent as early as 7am or as late as 11pm – at the weekend as well as on weekdays.

Technology does not only act as a conduit to improved productivity however. Many companies believe that technology can replace employees and cut costs, plus generate more revenue through increased, automated efficiency. This is evident with the growing number of self-service check-outs, online transactions and automated phone systems. In wanting faster, better, cheaper, we are guilty of favouring technology over human interaction. In many years to come, will there reach a stage when we have no human contact throughout the day, when everything will be managed and automated from our homes?

I wonder how much faster business can become. We were all impressed at how computers and mobile phones enabled us to be more productive, and most of us never expected to be able to speed up even more with technologies allowing immediate access to e-mails and the internet too. So what is around the corner to feed our insatiable desire to go faster? And more to the point, do we actually want to go faster, given the saying that “speed kills” and the possible implications this may have on business?

Indeed speed may be attractive, but if businesses focus too much on becoming faster, this may be to the detriment of quality and service. For instance, Starbucks attempted to speed up customer service by introducing a high-tech hand-held ordering system to reduce congestion at the counter. Using a techno gadget, staff would take orders from customers and wirelessly beam each customer’s order through to the espresso bar. Although the high-tech ordering system improved the speed of service, customers did not appreciate the mechanised ordering process, claiming it was impersonal and blackened the overall experience.

As so many of us strive to serve our customers according to the bigger, faster, better paradigm, it would nevertheless seem that there is some truth in the adage ”the best things in life come to those who wait”.

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