retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Technology is a wonderful thing. Like many of you, I can’t imagine how I’d go back to a time without all my wonderful tools from my smart phone to Google, Facebook or a GPS. (It was a couple of weeks ago that I was bemoaning the existence of baseball stadiums without all the latest in scoreboard amenities.)

Yet every now and again we get a reminder that technology is only as smart as its users. And when that happens we need to share the story because like it or not, the human brain is pretty wonderful too and sometimes I fear we forget that. It pays to remember that relying too blindly on technological marvels isn’t always a good thing.

Allow me to explain why I had this epiphany. A recent speech had me driving from the Fort Walton Beach Airport in the Florida panhandle to a nearby gulf resort in Destin. Part of the trip is across the really panoramic Mid-Bay Bridge. It’s a two-lane bridge crossing a good amount of water, which luckily never bothers me.

One highway department sign along the way, however, did give me pause.

If you’ve ever seen the original movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, you remember the scene where Chevy Chase drives onto a clearly closed road, but insists it must be fine because closed roads (in the movie’s case, a bridge is out) always have a huge sign warning you of trouble. In Florida I saw such a sign. It wasn’t because the bridge was out, but rather it’s the drivers who are out.

The sign’s warning was simple: Your GPS is wrong! Yikes!

Now there are times I have been on a beautiful road while my GPS yells at me because it believes I have somehow driven into the middle of a field. Apparently it happens when a road is new and the signals haven’t somehow adjusted. More likely it’s because I don’t have a package that regularly updates the GPS. Besides, I like making that GPS lady with the soothing voice just a little crazy.

Well, in Florida those fabulous little guidance units are telling people to turn where they should not. In fact, they are calling for a turn where there is no bridge. Even though we shared a chuckle as we talked about this, the bridge toll taker reminded me that the entire thing isn’t a laughing matter. There haven’t been any accidents, but drivers are getting stunningly confused and are exiting the highway without realizing the bridge is clearly marked and straight ahead of them. They are so convinced the GPS is correct that they ignore the obvious signals that should be reaching their brains.

One episode of “The Office” played out this same scenario when Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott. turned exactly where the GPS suggested and right into a lake. It’s hard to believe that in real life people make the same mistakes, but sadly they do and the drivers end up on the nightly news. Like Chevy Chase they miss the big sign and like Michael Scott they turn where they shouldn’t.

So why does this matter? It reminds us that we need to get our brains engaged and not let the technology do all the work. Many of us think about this when we consider the rising power of Generation Y. Clearly these folks are the most technologically capable among us, but we fear that they may not muster the ability to make eye contact, sustain a conversation longer than 140 characters or do anything without guidance of their circle of friends. I’m pretty convinced they’ll manage just fine, but we can and must help.

For instance, I recently did a favor for a young person and was frankly put off that I never once heard the words “thank you.” To be fair, the person posted a “thank you” to me on Facebook, but that didn’t feel the same. Even though the thanks were more public, I was kind of irritated. I wanted to hear “thank you” in person, not stumble across it on Facebook.

So just as the younger generation needs to teach us about how to improve our use of technology - and they do - we need to teach them people skills, or how to count change without an automatic cash register or even how to read a map. Because there are going to be power outages and there are going to be times a GPS is wrong and, most of all, there are customers who still want eye contact, a smile and an audible “thank you.”

And if we need to give them a harsher lesson in this, well, there’s a bridge in Florida…

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .

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