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How Schlotzsky’s kiosks challenge stale thinking about the modern customer.

More than ever, the models of the past are insufficient to understand the present, let alone navigate into the future.

Stale thinking, unwaveringly tied to the past continues to stifle opportunities for improving modern life. It’s nothing new to those of us who remember our Luddite history. Still, it’s disconcerting for anyone trying, excitedly, to create value in the modern world. Two recent incidents highlight this dilemma perfectly.

The first involves American Airlines. Last week they sent my fellow passengers and me to four gates in three terminals in less than an hour.  Even their monitors couldn’t keep up. I took pictures of two monitors showing the flight at two different gates within 100 feet of each other. When I told a gate agent that the people were confused and so were the computers, her reply was, “Not possible.”

So I handed her my smartphone, with the photos showing the screens barely 100 feet apart.


It was an example of what I call disbelief thinking. The gate agent couldn’t possibly believe the computers were confused. Computers are always right. As a disbelief thinker, the gate agent had trouble accepting something that contradicted her beliefs about how the system worked. Her framework for navigating her job had been fixed during her initial training. When something went wrong, her initial reaction was to disbelieve eye-witness accounts. Even when presented with empirical data, she wasn’t pleased that her system had failed.

Disbelief dislikes interruptions.

Meanwhile, I’d been tweeting the play-by-play to American Airlines. Their degree of disbelief thinking was slightly lessthan the gate agent’s. Yet their solution turned out to be weaker still. They offered condolences. Rather than intervene to solve the problem, admittedly a slightly unjustified expectation for a Twitter-service person, their apology was nonetheless other example of disbelief thinking. They didn’t believe I’d really be so upset as to have a long-term impact on selecting them in the future. My flight should board soon was all they needed to say.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

In fact, I tweeted them my beliefs. I noted that even if the pilots union gets their demands, it will ultimately be worthless, because these shenanigans were pushing customers into the arms of other carriers. Customers won’t believe that such inconveniences are justified; Even a former pilot for American on my flight was sufficiently miffed at the confusion at the gates. Perhaps the pilots themselves don’t believe that customers will be angry enough to choose other carriers in the future. That disbelief makes it possible for them to not only take the risk, but risk the futures of every other worker and shareholder at American Airlines.

It’s not only whether the pilots union is right or not. It’s about whether their model of thinking is sufficient to interpret the modern world. Many of the customers, especially the Generation X and Y travelers on my flight didn’t sympathize at all with the union. That’s because the modern customer doesn’t have to. We solve problems by downloading another app and resolving our inconveniences. No big deal. Modern customers believe the modern world should fix things, not stand still. We can’t understand why the ATM can’t remember our language preference. We understand less why the airline can’t tell us the correct gate after four tries.

We might say that the pilot’s union mentality has become as foreign to the modern customer’s thinking as placing a collect call from the pay phone.

The point is that the thinking models we use need to keep up with the conditions of the day. Interpreting the modern airline industry as if it’s 1970 is a flawed vision of the customer, who has multiple choices for every routes, priced about the same. His loyalty isn’t held by points or status levels any more. Like all customers, his convenience and personal experience matters far more. When he can’t get it from one vendor, he switches easily to another.

This holds true for many industries. Today’s problems won’t be solved through the lenses of yesterday’s models. It’s not merely applying them better, either. It’s about understanding that certain models no longer apply to the current circumstances. It’s why trying to fix the 21st century global recession with a 20th century stimulus model has failed governments around the world. The Lexus isn’t built by American farmers any more.

At first, I wasn’t going to write about this, because I see holdout thinking all the time. My next flight was on another carrier, anyway, so I might have let it pass. Until, that is, I experienced the second incident.

Arriving early for my flight home yesterday, I decided to grab some food. There is a Schlotzsky’s in the Austin airport. They make great sandwiches. As I approached the counter, I was nicely surprised. Schlotzkys has installed kiosks to let customers place their own orders. Anyone who has ever struggled with surly airport cashiers knows what a good idea the kiosk is.

Schlotzsky’s has prepared itself for a future. They understand that consumer choice and control comes first. From Home Depot to the supermarket to the Apple cashier-less checkout, we want an easy experience. When I saw the Schlotzsky’s kiosks, I was thrilled.

Out loud, I said, “How cool, kiosks! Very innovative!”

Which prompted a voice to my left to say, “Yeah, I wonder how many jobs they got rid of with these things?” Ah, the voice of disbelief thinking!

I turned and said, “Probably less than they created in the factories that design, build, ship, install and maintain the kiosks.”

To which I received a blank stare and a curled lip from the fellow standing there.

A fellow dressed, as you might have guessed, in a pilot’s uniform.