In a recent blog I wrote about improving the Corporate pocket phone directory and challenging the status quo. That isn’t the only story from my 1992-1998 stint leading the Network Services group, which the phone systems group was a part. Here are a couple of my favorite phone stories.
In those days phones had a paper insert between the five left-side and five right-side sets of programmable buttons. Each button was defined a function, for example “Call Forward”, a direct dial extension for a frequent contact or other purposes. The practice had been to use a typewriter to create these inserts and cut them out to fit. But then this thing called a laser printer appeared on the scene and could be programmed to print all sorts of fonts and sizes. So I created a mainframe program that would accept ten phrases and print out large, high-quality inserts. Not always accepting of change, my folks thought I was loony and didn’t understand why I would bother. At least until the senior executives commented that they loved these new inserts because they could see them without putting on their reading glasses. It’s a great lesson in seeing a situation through your customer’s eyes instead of your own.
I inherited a large closet full of unused phones, mostly phones without the small display that could tell you who was calling you, a useful feature to make sure you answer your boss’s call but ignore the pesky salesperson. The display phones were more expensive, so the previous phone system replacement tried to keep costs down by limiting the number of people that got the nicer phone. That backfired as IT buckled to reason and pressure (mostly pressure) and purchased more display phones to replace those destined for the aforementioned closet. The phone system needed another upgrade in the mid-1990’s and I was determined to learn from past mistakes. So I simply decreed that the new system would have two phone options, a normal-size, beige display phone and a larger, beige display phone for customer service and administrative assistants. The response, from my voice folks, was adamant in that I just didn’t understand my customers. They wanted, no, demanded choices, many models and colors to choose from. Executives expected to color coordinate their phone with their office furnishings. I would be forced into the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” cornucopia of choice. But, typical of me, I insisted that I knew my customer also. First they all wanted display phones, so when they would see their two choices, they would be thrilled they wouldn’t have to argue again for a display phone. The executives, in my opinion, were largely men that wore blue suits, white shirts and ties their wives picked out for them and would accept the color-neutral beige phone without a second thought. So we setup the two choices in a conference room and invited everyone in the building to come see the choices and make their decision. The result? Happy customers, much to the surprise of the IT group. If you ask what people what they want, they will come up with lots of choices. When you give them two to choose from, they will happily make that choice also. Another lesson learned. Sometimes is just better not to give people too much choice.
Phone systems are engineered, not designed, that’s very clear to me, even to this day. I have my phone number taped to my phone. An engineer would think that’s stupid, I should know my own phone number. A designer would walk around, see numbers taped to lots of phones and add that feature to the phone’s display. The designer would also have a color graphics display, not the not-quite-black on a not-quite-white background text-only display I put up with. Sadly, I think these are the same engineers that build remote controls for TV sets. It took a design-driven company to give us the phone we truly wanted, even if we didn’t know that we did. Can you imagine what the smartphone would have looked like if engineers created it? Like a really big flip phone. Thanks, Apple, for saving us from that fate.