Archive for September, 2016


What Were They Thinking?

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Have you ever encountered a situation that made you stop and ask out loud, “What were they thinking?” It seems almost a daily occurrence to me, and probably to a lot of you as well. While it’s a rhetorical question, the answer usually takes the form of “they weren’t thinking at all”, but I came across one that merits a completely different answer.

As many of you may know, it’s possible to access your Social Security information online using a very handy web portal called “My Social Security” at Once you’ve registered yourself on the portal, you can check your reported income history, get an estimate of how much your benefit payments will be when you retire, get answers to questions about your account, and more. I used the site a few months ago as I was trying to get a handle on my financial situation and do some planning for the future after my working days are over, and I highly recommend everyone go out and visit it periodically, if nothing more than to see how much you’ve made over your working career.

I received an interesting e-mail from the Social Security Administration (SSA) a couple of days ago. It seems since the last time I used their website they had implemented a “multifactor authentication” system in response to a Presidential executive order calling for more security to protect online financial information. The way it works is, first you add a cell phone number to your account profile; then, any time you want to log in after that you first enter your username and password, then they send a one-time code by text message to your cell phone, which you also enter on the site before it finally lets you see your account information. The idea is by having a separate code sent to your cell phone, it makes the login process extra secure.

At first blush this sounds like a great idea; after all, who wants the bad guys to be able to see your financial records? But, what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate into good results. And that’s what the e-mail was all about: it was announcing they were removing this new system and going back to the old method of logging in. The reason they were doing that was because, in the six weeks since they implemented the new system, they learned that it had “inconvenienced or restricted access to some of our account holders.” In other words, they made it so secure that not only did it keep the bad guys from getting in, it prevented some of their customers from getting in too. They’re working on another solution that they hope to have in place sometime in the next six months.

So what went wrong with their great idea?

They failed to keep their focus on the most important element of their business – the customer. The customer is the heart of any company, large or small; without customers, a business won’t survive. Granted SSA is a government agency and the website is not intended to support a conventional business model, but it still provides a valuable service to the people who visit it, and I’m sure SSA would want to have as many of their customers using it as possible to reduce the volume of calls they receive in their call centers requesting the same information.

While they did not elaborate on the exact reasons for rolling back their solution, my best guess is they assumed everyone who uses the site also owns a cell phone. While it’s true that cell phones are well entrenched in today’s society, they’re still not as commonplace as you might think. Older segments of the population (which would likely make up a large part of SSA’s intended customer base for the website) either can’t afford a cell phone or choose not to own one. By implementing a security system that requires those customers to purchase something they either cannot afford or have little need for, SSA created an environment that’s closed, uninviting, and somewhat hostile – in short, the exact opposite of what’s needed to attract and retain customers.

Now, how could they have avoided this problem?

Instead of blindly working to fulfill an order and assuming everyone had access to the same technology they did, SSA should have looked more closely at the customers who would be using it. It wouldn’t have taken much time or effort to put themselves in the shoes of their parents or grandparents and see what difficulties they might have had. By not doing so, they committed valuable resources to create a product that didn’t serve their customer’s needs, which we all know can be fatal to a business. Had they taken a little extra time up front to understand their customers, they would not be facing the prospect today of redesigning or possibly scrapping their entire solution and starting over. They also would not have to use additional resources to bring back the customers they’re certain to have put off in the process.

Sure, it takes longer to implement changes that way, but by spending a little more time up front the end result will be better suited to serving the customer – and that’s the whole point of being in business, isn’t it?