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Why Technical Debt Leads to Poor Customer Experience

Just the other day, our kitchen table finally gave up the good fight and one leg fell off.

This wasn’t totally unexpected. The table is heavily used daily by our whole family. My future jungle gym QA’er kids seemed determined to test its structural integrity.

Over the last several months, I’ve made several small fixes to the table. I tightened some bolts, added a little glue and told the kids to ask for something to be passed instead of crawling across the table to grab it.

But what it really needed was for me to remove the legs, add some reinforced strapping and re-glue the whole base. Now the table can’t be saved. It must be replaced. For now, the chairs just sit there, tucked into an imaginary table.

Most people have felt similar effects when they’ve said to themselves, “I’ll do a quick fix now and come back later to do it right”.

And then you keep putting band-aids on band-aids to keep things working until the whole thing collapses.

In the end, the total time to apply all the band-aids and fix the original problem ends up taking more time than it would have taken to do it properly the first time. What was once a nice family dinner has turned into people eating at the counter or in the living room.

Retailers face this same problem.

Shoppers demand a seamless customer experience, but many retailers lack the ability to deliver on it. Their collection of outdated, patched together technology solutions make it impossible and adds to their technical debt.

What is Technical Debt?

Technical debt is the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer.

First coined in the early 1990s, the term “technical debt,” at its most basic in the tech space, is the idea that sub-optimal coding leaves behind artifacts that will most likely require reworking at a future time.

In simple terms, it’s a temporary fix using glue and tape to hold a table together instead of holistically fixing it right the first time.

It’s a multifaceted challenge that permeates throughout the technology industry, but the concept is not unique to technology.

It is usually associated with rapid development to meet a deadline. It it can also occur from under-skilled developers unknowingly writing code that will not be able to stand up to future requirements and demands.

The nefarious aspect of technical debt is that it’s not easily observable externally. Like “interest” on financial debt, it continues to compound the longer it goes “unpaid”.

The back end technology shapes the overall customer experience. That’s why technical debt can get in the way of a seamless customer experience.

Technical Debt and Loyalty Programs

For a retailer, considering implementing a loyalty program is a huge challenge. Loyalty programs require an intense amount of development work to establish.

It’s a non-trivial lift to build, manage and maintain a comprehensive loyalty program.

Since most retailers aren’t familiar with the challenges associated with a subscription payment processing, there can be a large learning curve. They add pieces of the program based on immediate needs that arise rather than looking at the sum of the parts. That can easily add technical debt.

There is a tremendous amount of infrastructure that goes into building, managing and constantly optimizing a premium loyalty program. IT, Creative, Marketing, Accounting and Customer Service departments need to be fully involved. Everyone has to be on the same page to ensure a seamless experience for the customer.

A loyalty program is a massive touchpoint for your brand, so the experience needs to be consistent whether a customer is using a loyalty program benefit online or returning an item in-store.

That’s why it’s critical that a retailer’s technology stack is built with a unified approach rather than simply reacting to customer expectations with one-off, siloed fixes.

Technical debt isn’t inherently bad. But like the financial debt analogy, if not properly managed, it can weigh heavily on an entire business – not just the IT department.

There are many good reasons why a company may choose to take on some technical debt. The key is to make sure that the business continues to prioritize addressing the technical debt.

This can look like blocking out a set percentage of IT resources to constantly work through the backlog of technical debt items, or creating whole projects dedicated to chipping away at the list.

But whatever you do, just don’t ignore it.

Even if you’re not knowingly taking on technical debt, if there is new development work occurring, then technical debt is, in fact, occurring.

How do You Deal with Technical Debt?

Our team takes a multi pronged approach to wrangling our technical debt.

During a retrospective we’ll isolate any high priority tasks and assign them to one of the next two sprints. We add lower priority items to the general backlog. We’ll pull them into sprints as resources become available.

Finally, two or three times a year, we’ll go through the backlog and create a clean-up project. We’ll go through and tackle the backlog items that we weren’t able to slot into a sprint.

In our weekly prioritization meeting, we report on the size of the backlog. That way, the rest of the organization is aware of the “interest” we’re accruing. This allows to get buy-in from the business for our clean-up projects.

Retailers Need to pay off Technical Debt

In college I had a coach who, smack in the middle of a hard workout, when we were trying to rest those few seconds between reps, used to say, “Pay me now or pay me later. But it will be much worse later once the lactic acid has really set in.”

Deal with your technical debt up front, or deal with it after the fact; whatever you do, just don’t forget to address it. Your business can’t maintain growth unless handling technical debt is integrated into your SDLC.

Retailers that can pay off their technical debt will stand out from the competition. They can offer their customers the seamless experience they expect no matter which channel they’re using.

The biggest cost for those that ignore their debt is lost customers due to a frustrating brand experience is the biggest cost for retailers that ignore their technical debt.

Derek Sasaki

Derek, EVP, IT Operations, drives our engineering, development and support teams as well as ensures our infrastructure and compliance efforts remain cutting edge. When he's not building Clarus into the tech hot spot of Hartford, he can usually be found spending time with his family and their flock of chickens, taking care of his 250-year-old home or in his photo studio.

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