“Smart” Gas Pumps Get Stupid

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by Mike on 12/10/2012

in Cold Hard Cash, Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity, Perpetual Beta : Release

No one ever said his deathbed, “I’d wish I spent more time interacting with gas pumps.” But in the attempt to make those pumps more interactive, more entertaining, and most of all, more profitable, it seems this is exactly what gas stations are trying to do—make every interaction I have with a gas pump longer, slower, more complicated, and more frustrating.

Decades ago, gas pumps pumped gas and nothing else—you’d have to go inside to pay, even if you paid with a card. Then the pay-at-the-pump era began, gas pumps began their slow, steady decline into the monstrosities we see today—obstacles, rather than catalysts, to customer satisfaction.

When I pull up to a gas station on my way in to work, I want one thing and one thing only—a quick refueling. But sometime in the last couple of years, gas stations have decided I want to linger at the gas pump, watch a little TV, and savor the moment, as if they were Starbucks and I didn’t have to get to work on time.

Not long ago, I could go from driver’s seat to flowing gas in a matter of seconds. Get out, lift the handle, swipe the card, select a grade, and then the enjoy odor of sweet petrochemicals flowing into my tank—all in around 15-20 seconds. But gas pumps have changed. They have color screens. Multiple options. Layers of security. And very, very slow reaction times. Now I’m lucky if I can get the pump to even recognize the fact that I’ve swiped my card in the first thirty seconds. Then I have to run through the gauntlet of security codes—a necessary evil—discount codes, car wash offers, and so on.

And then there’s the Weather Channel. I’m not kidding—this morning, for the first time ever, my local gas station was showing live TV on the gas pump. Because, you know, I want to hang out.

Now, I get the need for security. And I understand the economic need for the car-wash upsell. But each complexity in the transaction adds another delay, in part because the pumps are so slow to respond. And god forbid you hit the wrong button on the touchscreen—the Cancel/Restate cycle takes longer than the act of filling the tank. There’s got to be a better way.

A better way?

The essential elements of this transaction are payment, product selection, and receipt option. As for payment, that part legitimately takes the most time up front, so start that first: swipe the card, assume it’s credit—or debit, whichever—unless the customer expressly touches the button saying it’s not. Input should result in immediate feedback—no spending several seconds wondering if the keypad is malfunctioning. Make it easy to cancel an individual card—ooops, swiped the personal card instead of the business card—instead of the whole transaction. And then, while waiting for payment authorization, multitask.

What to do while waiting for payment authorization

Now is the time to ask about car washes, and discount cards, and any other miscellanea. The pump should even state, “While we’re waiting for payment approval, would you like…?” And screen response should be instant—most especially if you’re streaming live TV through the pump. What, you can tell me the weather in Peoria, but you can’t tell if I pressed the “No receipt” button?

It is painfully obvious that the makes of these pump systems have spent not nearly enough time studying the way people use these pumps, and the way they want to use these pumps. A little, maybe—hence the “No Receipt” option—but nothing in the last several years tells me that anyone is paying attention to what customers want at gas pumps—fast, simple transactions so they can get their gas and get to where they’re going.

No Weather Channel required.

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