That middle ground, to me, is where the best cost-to-benefit ratio  becomes apparent.

That middle ground, to me, is where the best cost-to-benefit ratio
becomes apparent.

By Dan Vedda

I’ve been thinking about the way I use technology in my business. Although the benefits are obvious and well documented, I don’t believe just any use is an automatic gain. It’s a balancing act: We need to be progressive and technologically adoptive while still retaining our core values and focus on the customer. In some ways, these efforts pull in opposite directions, but they can also complement each other. The challenge, of course, is deciding the mix and direction of new additions—and when to pull the trigger.

Although I’ll never claim to sit on the bleeding edge of technology, I’m no Luddite, either. I have steadily occupied the middle ground, waiting for a pattern to emerge in each new trend, from Web sites to social media to payment systems. It’s helped me avoid paying big bucks for new stuff before I understood its place in our business. Certainly, it has put me behind the earliest adopters, but, in most cases, their business goals are different from mine. I knew from the beginning, for example, that a big eCommerce site wouldn’t be right for us. I want to make eye contact with my customers. That’s neither right nor wrong—it’s just me. But scrambling for cashflow, as so many businesses do, I also understand that I’ll get money faster if I make it convenient to pay. So, even without a full eCommerce solution, I still added a way to pay rental bills online.

I’ve also found ways to speed our cashflow using check-scanning technology, and just added PayPal’s card scanner on my phone to get the money into use instantaneously. Once again, I feel I’ve taken the middle ground: I find that some people are already using it (I even know of a local garage sale that took all its payments using Square’s version, for example), some are thinking about it and some are completely unaware of it. I’m neither at the forefront nor lagging behind the pack.

That middle ground, to me, is where the best cost-to-benefit ratio becomes apparent. Early adopters have paid the high prices, worked out the bugs and a frontrunner has usually emerged when several competitors vie for the market. Economy of scale kicks in and hardware and service prices moderate or even drop dramatically. The tipping point for me will always be cost and ease of adoption. I know the benefits, and I’m certainly not averse to poking my head under the hood a bit and getting things going. But I resist grabbing any gadget just because it’s cool, and I’m adamant that the more of my time spent making things work or maintaining systems, the less compelling the benefit. The check scanner was free and simple to set up and use. It costs us $60 a month for the service. But, it extends our deposit day to 8:00pm instead of 6:00pm, and so many checks come in after the bank closes that it has been a game changer. As checks fade more, I’ll reassess the value, but it’s working for us now. PayPal’s solution was free, competitive with our credit card processing rates when all the “extras” are taken into account and, again, simple to set up and use. Most importantly, the money is spendable within seconds.

Is there technology I still want? Of course. But, either we can’t afford it or it would take all my time to surf the learning curve needed to apply it. I’m willing to wait until affordable solutions are available. Burned once buying technology that I didn’t fully understand, I jumped off that merry-go-round for good.

One reason I balk at expending too much energy on technology is that I believe, at our core, we’re a people industry, and it’s too easy for technology to demand our attention. Layers of technology can distance us from our customers, instead of making it easier to serve them. We all complain about convoluted voicemail trees, Web sites that are counterintuitive, automated replies and other evidence that “labor saving” actually means “service cheapening.” So do our customers, and they really appreciate the “human touch” with us.

Every bit of technology we use has to show its worth on that scale. How does this hardware, procedure or service make us better at serving our customers? Are we saving time by communicating less, or are we saving time to communicate more? Does this new app, widget or gadget simply please my inner geek, or does it better engage our customer and, ultimately, help him or her to make music?

It’s so easy for any of us—and some of our customers—to turn into tweaks. We appreciate the new effect, mouthpiece, microphone or whatever new and better item hits the store. We want knobs to 11, audiophile sound and instant gratification. Although there’s nothing wrong with that, the vast majority of mainstream consumers are too unaware to care. They would rather have their shopping experience, their music making and their ongoing relationship with us be simple, direct and reassuringly human.

I think that’s the one thing smaller businesses have going for them at this time. Although most of us don’t have the time and resources to launch an IT department, actually helping the customer trumps the tech. We are seeing so many people who want to play music, particularly in non-traditional categories. Many of those who want a high-tech experience are doing it at home using the Web to buy and learn. The people coming into our stores want to talk to a person who will help them.

There’s plenty of room for technology to aid this process, but it should amplify our efforts rather than substitute for them. I’d rather spend $100 on brochures than $100 on Facebook ads. The former allows me to hand my message directly to a person who has asked for it and is engaged with me; the latter is an annoyance that appears for a few seconds in front of a person engaged with their “friends.” I’d rather make a person’s dream come true than become their Internet-annoyance nightmare.

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