A Revolutionary Tale

In many of my recent talks, I’ve been telling a story about the impact of the microprocessor revolution on a specific business transaction. I believe this story paints a picture of the benefits in how we personally interact with the world and how businesses operate that can come from a technology revolution. I believe the mobility revolution is having the same kinds of impact – and will even more as it continues to unfold.

Let me share the story here:

If you’re old enough, think back to 1979 and imagine buying gas and paying for it with a credit card.

The first “a-ha” difference you’ll remember is that you might not have pumped your own gas, but that’s not the focus of my story. It really starts when it comes time to pay and you need to walk into the dark little office with your credit card. The attendant takes your card, grabs this brick like device, slaps your card down in it, puts in a paper form (in triplicate, with two carbon sheets in between) and (ka-chunka, ka-chunka) manually makes an imprint of your card. He fills in the amount of the sale and has you sign. He gives you one copy (and maybe the carbons, if you’re worried about someone stealing your credit card number), and you’re on your way.

Having taken that mental time travel, it’s now easy for you to understand the huge improvement in the customer experience that came from microprocessors being built into the gas pumps. Today, we “pay at the pump” and are immediately on our way as soon as our tank is full. I’m sure you can remember, like I can, after first experiencing “pay at the pump”, driving into a gas station, realizing that they didn’t have pay at the pump, and driving off to find a station that did. The customer experience improvement was so great that it changed consumer behavior and forced virtually all gas stations to follow suit. In short, the microprocessor revolution changed the rules of competition in this industry.

But, I’ve only told you a third of the story so far.

The second part of the story begins when the customer walks out of the office. The gas station attendant takes the two remaining copies of the credit card transaction and files them away. Sometime within the next week, the gas station owner/manager will bundle up all the bank copies of those transactions and send them off to their merchant bank for processing and payment. About a week later, those payments would be credited to the station’s account.

Today, the electronic transaction dramatically accelerates the payment cycle, radically changing the cash flow cycle for the small business owner and enabling her to think differently about her business.

The third part of the story begins when those credit card transactions arrived at the processing center. The merchant bank would have rooms full of clerks, trying to decipher the greasy fingered handwriting of thousands of 16 year old gas station attendants from across the country, and entering the data into mainframe-based systems.

The microprocessor revolution radically changed the core processes, systems, and organizational structures around which this credit card processing business operated. The automated systems radically changed the risk profile of the business (does anyone remember the books full of printed lists of canceled credit cards?) and, of course, the cash flow and transaction volumes accelerated dramatically. With the automation enabled by the microprocessor came significant increases in credit card use, not only at gas stations, but everywhere people spent money.

So, one simple transaction, impacted by a technology revolution, dramatically improves our personal interaction with the world, improves the cash flow for a small business owner, and redefines an entire industry.

Look around your industry for the opportunities to drive the same level (or greater) impact of the mobility revolution. What do you see?

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