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Smart vs. hard work

We recently celebrated a family event and my daughter and her boyfriend paid a visit from Europe to attend. During our conversations it was revealed that her boyfriend is temporarily working with her in her part-time job at a local customer survey call center where she does surveys by telephone. The pay is not great but she is a university student and the money she earns as a minimum wage employee goes towards her lifestyle. She was particularly excited about the fact that her boyfriend has recently experienced great success in inducing people to commit to an extended interview by phone of their purchasing habits, interests etc. He told me that while he seems pretty successful he suspects he just had a lucky streak and that ultimately it is very hard work with a relatively low yield in the long term. Basically he seemed to think his early success is a fluke.

The call center staffers are measured by the speed with which they are able to conclude the initial interview and the ability to close the first part interview with a commitment to do a longer part which is referred to as a “complete”. The higher your complete ratio the more likely you are to be promoted or given a better compensation grade. The complete questionnaire can run for dozens of questions and engage the representative with an interviewee for up to 30 – 45 minutes. Some of us have a high tolerance for non social phone calls but there are those amongst us (myself included) who really find these kinds of uses of the telephone intrusive, annoying and frustrating. We go to great pains to get ourselves on the “DO NOT CALL” register or to unsubscribe from annoying polls.

 I thought about this concept for a while and considered what constitutes a good example of a questionnaire or poll that is too long. Many of us will have been introduced to surveys early on in our lives. A survey may be something as simple as shows of hands in the classroom, a popularity vote, the extent of our applause, the click of a mouse button or a response on a scale of 1 to X or a sentiment from strongly like/approve to strongly dislike/disapprove. In a world filled with fence sitters the 5 point grading scale naturally endures the most abuse around the 3 mark and hence we get our familiar standard distribution curve – if I had my way I would probably vote 3 on almost everything. I discussed the usefulness of these long questionnaires with my daughter and her boyfriend and we collectively (by majority vote) agreed that for the most part, as the questions drone on, the less useful or less honest the answers are. My daughter even told me that in one instance a thirty minute survey dragged on for almost an hour because the interviewee on the line was so chatty. The worst I was told was when you get to a 95% complete stage and the respondent tells you they have to go, because they have something they need to go do or attend to. The investment in time and energy has been discarded by click on the line and you’re back to the next number prospect on the random number dialler.

Processing transactional or master data in an SAP system can be similar, how many of us have seen the familiar “connection reset by peer” dialog while in the middle of some massive processing screen. The server 500 errors are equally frustrating when you are trying to check out a shopping cart or trying to do some electronic banking transaction error. Quite apart from the cryptic and confusing error messages you have no real way to recover the event and unfortunately all your efforts have been relegated to the proverbial bit bucket. For SAP GUI users in particular this can be particularly frustrating. Some transactions support hundreds of lines of entry data and in some cases this can be entered line after line before the commit statement is issued. When the GUI fails, all your work is lost.

Those of us who have been burnt enough times know to save frequently but sometimes we simply don’t remember to do it. The Microsoft Office suite for example, can be configured to do interim saves on working documents, perhaps out of experience in the past with application crashes but perhaps also because there has been increasing personal frustration amongst developers with an inability to properly recover a document or spreadsheet or presentation that bombs just as you elect to email or print it without having saved it.

Sometimes these dramatic moments are completely unavoidable. There may be a power failure or the wireless network fails or you run out of laptop battery. The list of possible causes is seemingly endless. One of the things that I have noticed to be an absolute boon to back-office users who work in SAP, is the ability to leverage Microsoft Excel spreadsheets in increasingly interesting ways to stage data prior to entry into SAP. Though we might like to think that the world is becoming less reliant on paper, the reality is that there is still an awful lot of paper being generated in the world for the purposes of doing business. The paper:transactions ratio may have improved but there are still a great many pieces of paper in circulation and still many businesses that rely on paper generation to get paid and to bill customers. For those of you interested in some simple ideas, take at the Australian  Resource Smart Victoria for some really simple ideas. These bits of paper may be supported by electronic information but more often than not, they need to be sorted, collated, aggregated and cross cast into neat little Microsoft Excel packages that are then ready for entry into SAP.

Since you have already staged your SAP data in Microsoft Excel, the idea of now transcribing the same data into a data entry screen in SAP seems pretty ludicrous in this day and age, yet many businesses still do it. Worse, they may be forcing you to do it! If you are a consultant, you are probably rolling your eyes right now thinking about how you are doing a manual offline timesheet or expense report in Excel and then copying and pasting that data into a form in the SAP GUI and then ‘fixing’ the data when it doesn’t quite work. These kinds of scenarios are quickly improved with simple automation techniques. A high volume of repetitive SAP data processing is an easy quick win candidate for applying Microsoft Office to SAP desktop integration tools. By mapping the fields in the SAP transaction consistently with the data in your Microsoft Excel spreadsheet you can remove the tedious chore of having to maintain data repetitively in two locations (Microsoft Excel and SAP) and avoid the risk of transcription errors.

Some SAP GUI transactions go a long way in helping to clone existing data for use with a new item but sometimes this cloning process makes more headaches and one would be better off doing the transactional event from the standpoint of a completely empty record. Do you remember for example, to touch all the tabs when creating a material in MM01 based on another material?

Returning to my initial story, of course there is a breakpoint in anything, a point at which people will draw the line between doing the minimum, doing the optimal and doing the maximum. We’re taught early on in life that working smarter is better than working harder and accordingly, if my reward is a $25 gift card for answering 50 questions on my buying preferences I might decide that the cost-benefit is not justified, getting $25 of free money in your leisure time is a pretty sweet deal, that’s perhaps an example of being smart. If you’re a consultant you will know that time IS money and that even at today’s rates less than a dollar a minute is not necessarily a terrible rate. If you could spend your entire working day, 5 days a week just answering survey questions then maybe you would consider it a great opportunity. This scenario is not necessarily very smart, in fact, it may be downright hard! You’d quickly develop a sore ear, a hatred for thephone and an oversupply of gift cards but then again, you’d also come away knowing that you’re helping to improve the lot of someone else, some poor student working at a call center looking to supplement her income by getting more “completes” and working hard to try and be smart!  

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