What's in your database?

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If you work for a small or medium business, someone in your office needs to buy things.   Paperclips, computers, mailing envelopes, office furniture, etc.   If you work for a small or medium research lab, someone in your office needs to buy these same things, but someone also needs to buy more unusual stuff.   Twenty pounds of modeling clay.   A Sony Aibo.  Make that two.   Lots of different types of video encoding software and hardware.  Stuff like that.

At our research lab, I am often the person who does the actual purchasing of the strange items.   If I’m buying a computer from HP, I expect the process to be pretty straightforward.   If I’m buying industrial laser elements from Bob’s House-o’-Lasers, I expect complications.  Reality is often the other way around.  Since I’ve been doing this since the mid 1990’s, I’ve seen how technology has often made it easier and sometimes much harder to buy things, use things, and deal with problems.   I’m going to describe a few examples in this and later posts.  Just a warning that my bias is somewhat anti-technology – I joke that I’m a neo-luddite.

A few years back, we were supporting one of our sister organizations.  They had an old Japanese language version of database software that was called Prophet or Oracle or Augur or something like that.   Let’s call it Augur.   We wanted to better understand some of the pressing issues, and also to better understand how the software worked, so we decided to buy several single-server copies of their database software.  This was going to be a $2000 order or so.  A small order, but if the IT team gets used to and likes a piece of software, it tends to get installed and used for more things.

I don’t like talking to salespeople very much, so I was pleased that they had an online store.   I entered my order for five copies, filled in all the crazy fields, and submitted my order.   It gave me an error message indicating that I wasn’t authorized to buy Augur software.   All of their online help didn’t help much.

I called their sales number, assuming that customer support wasn’t quite the right number, since I wasn’t quite a customer yet.   The nice person on the other end told me that for an order like this, they couldn’t sell to me directly and that I should use the online store.   I explained that I tried.   So they transferred me to pre-sales support.  Okay.   I explained again.   They transferred me to customer support.   I explained again.  After a bit of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) database searching on their end, they identified the problem.   It seems that about ten years prior, someone at my company had downloaded a trial version of the database software.   In order to do so, they had to identify themselves as the Site Administrator.   Their delphic online store database required that all further purchases (even though there wasn’t an initial purchase) be made by or be authorized by the Site Administrator.   Who had departed for other pastures long ago.

Hooray!  Problem found.   So how did we solve it?   We didn’t.   They couldn’t sell their product at such a small scale over the phone.  I had to use the online store.  The store wouldn’t let me.   They couldn’t change our Site Administrator.   Only the Site Administrator could do that using their password, which could only be changed by knowing the old password.   A bit of mail forwarding allowed me to get the emails asking for approval of the purchase, which I didn’t have the password to do.

I gave up.   Never did buy the software.   Could I do so now?   Probably.   I’m sure that if I called, they now could make me be the Site Administrator.  Or there would be an easy “I forgot my password” link.  Or maybe I just got the wrong customer service person, who didn’t know how to solve this problem and if I had called again I’d get what I needed.

So was this a customer service problem?  Yes.  Was this a software problem?  Yes.   Did they just not care about a $2000 order?   Probably.   Did a a database company lose a sale because of a web page / database issue?  Yes.  Do I tell people never to buy that company’s database products unless they have to?  You bet.  Since I have written a few papers about databases, it may even be the case that some people listen to me.

Nah.

I wonder what other strange items are stored in CRM databases?  What do companies “remember” about your company, your phone number, your email address, and your street address that come from long ago and maybe don’t have anything to do with you?    I have a few more stories of databases that don’t forget, plus other unintended consequences of technology, but I’ll save them for later posts.

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