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Linda and the Red Lean Mean Invoicing Machine, or how to lose customers by not thinking

A while ago one of my crew needed a new laptop and instead of ordering it online (as I would normally do), I stopped at this well-known German, red-branded consumer electronics store that has stores all across Europe - and as I pass it on my way home every day, I thought this would be easier and faster than going to their website.

(This article was originally posted at LinkedIn Pulse)

We have a business account with their e-commerce shop and we have ordered many items with them before. The online ordering experience has always been quite pleasant and the fulfilment/delivery was really good - but I wanted to buy it in the store, so I immediately had the item.

Their physical store setup is a bit chaotic at first glance, but after a while you get to understand its layout, so I was able to find the stuff I needed quickly. I had bought at their brick store before so I knew the drill:

  • you get a purchase voucher, your stuff is put into a plastic, transparent container and brought to the checkout;

  • you go there with the voucher;

  • you pay;

  • you receive a payment receipt;

  • you receive your stuff;

  • then you walk to the customer support desk, where you receive an actual invoice, in return for your payment receipt.

Quite a few steps, but it works and is quite fast - from the plastic container to the point you walk out the store it takes about 10 minutes (depending on the queue at the checkout of course).

So this time, it went all fine up to the point that I walked to the customer support desk to get my invoice. The lady behind the desk told me they have a new self-service machine. "It's there in the corner", she said.

"OK", I said, as I prepared myself to work on the invoicing-distributor, which looked like a vending machine and a bit like a jukebox from the fifties. It was huge and red with an amazingly large digital display, and it looked terrifying with ultra-capital fonts, shouting slogans at me that made me doubt myself, asking me if I was mad or not. It must be a fast, efficient and super modern device, so I even got a bit excited to get my hands on it.

Then the fun started. I have to tell you that we have been a customer with them for at least 5 years, based on that I assumed that my company must be registered somewhere in their core systems: the company's name, VAT-number, addresses and maybe even purchasing preferences are stored (which they are not, I am pretty sure about that now). The self-service invoice distribution process went like this:

  1. First screen: “Hi, do you want an invoice? It is super simple if you use me!” (Hey, cool, yes, let's do this!)

  2. Second screen; “Please scan your purchase receipt.” (Scanned it.)

  3. Third screen: “Who are you? Please enter your VAT ID so we can look you up!” My VAT number is also on the payment receipt. Did you not just scan that? But here you go - entering the VAT#.

  4. Fourth screen: “Perfect, we found you! Is this you? (My company name is shown)” Yep, hurrah! So cool, that's me! Confirm.

  5. Fifth screen: “Great, then please add all the necessary information to get an invoice.” (An extensive form is shown on the display where I am asked to fill out all of my data except the company name and VAT number.) Guys, serious? You told me you would look it up, right? But... OK, let's do this.

  6. Sixth screen (after pushing the “Save” button of screen 5): “Oops, sorry, something has gone wrong, we cannot validate your entries.” Huh, so you validate it against... what? You mean you already had my data? So why did you have me entering it? I started to feel a bit worried and frustrated - and there was a huge queue building up behind me (they had only one lean mean invoicing machine, so behind me, at least 15 people were getting ready for their jukebox experience).

  7. Seventh screen -> See screen 1. Like, “That's it bud, feel stupid now.”

After this, I got more than just frustrated. I had just spent about EUR 1,000 on a new laptop and I felt I was treated like a stupid person, I felt ashamed that I and the jukebox could not be friends, and as if I was not important for Big Red.

The only thing I could do was to get back to the customer support desk and try to get an invoice by kindly asking for one. At that point, I really could not care less about how they would do that; I wanted to leave this area of shame as soon as possible and go home, as I also had a pile of other things to do that day.

“Hi there, I and Red did not really match, it did not work out so well... Can you please help me to get an invoice? Here is the purchase receipt.”

The lady at the desk looked at me as if I came from Jupiter and an interesting nervous tick in her face got activated because of my question. She put down her pen, leaned back with her arms crossed and asked me:

“But did you try the self-service box? Since a week, we do not create invoices manually anymore, you should use the machine over there.”

After this, my cheeks started to feel warm and my head started to hurt. In difficult, emotional situations I always try to remain calm, factual and constructive, but at that moment in time I sensed I would not succeed at it.

“I just tried that. It took me 10 minutes, the queue built up behind me and it didn't work. Look at that guy who is trying it right now! He has problems too! I am not silly or stupid and I can perfectly work with digital devices, I tell you, I have to do that a lot in my job, and I dare say that machine sucks!”

“I am sorry, Sir, but you will have to try again, I cannot help you, it is our new policy.”

“Are you kidding me? Just make me a manual invoice, you have done that for me before, I remember that very well! It must be as easy as scanning the payment receipt, linking that to my customer ID and pushing the print button, isn't it? You have all my data already.”

“Hahaha, it takes much more than that, Sir, and that is exactly the reason why we have put Red in place, to make our work more efficient and that, in the end, will make you happier about doing business with us too.”

“OK, I want to talk to your boss, right now. I refuse to get back to the machine and I want to talk about how unimportant you make me feel right now. As I understand this is also annoying for you, so I'd like to discuss this with the person responsible.”

“I cannot do that, Sir, the policy is what it is and talking with my boss will not help you further.”


This had a remarkable effect. All of a sudden, the lady at the counter sensed how ridicules this situation had become. I felt like being in a Monty Python movie and expressed my helplessness through sheer rage.

She grabbed my purchase ticket, scanned the barcode and typed something into her system. Then she asked me the VAT ID of the company. I smiled, she smiled back, and for the second time that day, I spelled the digits to her. She typed again into the system and after a couple of seconds, the printer on her desk started to make a sound and spat out a nice invoice.

I took it and said “Thanks a lot, Linda,” as that was her name, reading it from her personnel badge on her jacket.

“You’re welcome,” she said, “but please, next time, do not get so personal with me.” I replied: “I will not, if, next time, you treat me as a person.”

I walked out of the store, got in my car, opened Spotify on my dashboard and just clicked the suggestion it had for me that day. It was spot on: Frank Zappa's The torture never stops.


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