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Posts Tagged ‘Service’

Interfaces of knowledge management (KM) systems can be applied to support and empower customer service via two key channels: (1) directly — used by customers (e.g., adjunct to self-service utilities, web-based or mobile app), or (2) indirectly — used by employees (customer service representatives [CSR]) to help them provide a better service to customers (e.g., more effective, timely, and accurate). These channels have some very different implications in form, scope and intensity of use of KM capacities.

The ‘library’ of a KM system should provide the customer with relevant background information that can help him or her make decisions (e.g., choosing between product attribute options, selecting among investment assets). The knowledge resource may also assist in completing technical tasks at one’s home or office (e.g., setting-up a software or device).  The content may include explanations on specific concepts or procedures, product reviews, and articles on related topics (e.g., an overview of a technology, medical condition, class of financial assets).

A crucial question is how the customer gets exposed to information relevant for the task at hand. General search queries often lead to many and spurious results requiring the customer to work hard to find and collate relevant information. The system has to do better than that in recommending truly useful information, to bring the user more precisely and quickly to a set of relevant knowledge sources. The customer may start by filling a short questionnaire that lets him specify his interests and goals. But as the customer accumulates more experience in using a KM portal and accessing some documents, the system can learn from his or her behaviour and update its recommendations. Alternatively, references to a KM resource may be embedded within a self-service facility (e.g., application for travel insurance) so that the system can refer the customer to supplementary information based on his or her progress in the service process (e.g., explanation of healthcare procedures in the country of destination, recommended features of coverage for the planned trip). As the system learns it may add a visual display of relevant statistics for guidance (e.g., distribution of options chosen by similar customers or in similar situations). Furthermore, a company can use its discretion to provide premium customers secured access to resources available only to its employees within the organisation.

Knowledge management portals for customers are not so common. References are more likely to be implicit, such as being embedded within the self-service platform of the company. More companies now provide an interface for interaction (chat) with an intelligent virtual agent (IVA) to get assistance. Such a robotic agent may give a brief answer and perhaps add a single resource for further reading; if the customer insists on asking a follow-up question, the agent may refer the customer to 1-3 more documents. Sometimes this kind of help is not sufficient and the customer has to make extra effort to drill more useful information from the IVA (a face wearing a smile to the customer is not always comforting). In more complex, sensitive and risk-prone domains, it is advisable to accompany the IVA with a portal that will display more resources in a coherent and viewer-friendly format, explicating what each resource would be most helpful for.

Having said that, there are circumstances in which the customer cannot manage on his own and needs to talk to a skilled person to resolve an issue. It may be because the customer encounters difficulties in fulfilling the task using the computer-based self-service tools or because the domain at issue is relatively complex and involves more significant personal implications (e.g., financial investment, insurance, medical conditions, sophisticated technological products). Researchers Shell and Buell of Harvard Business School suggest in a recent working paper [1] that having customers know that access to human contact is available to them for assistance, even without their taking advantage of it, can improve their feelings, particularly mitigating anxiety, and in turn recuperate their satisfaction and confidence in decisions they make during a self-service session; this will show especially in situations of heightened anxiety. Hence, making notice of access to human contact salient is essential.

Of course in some cases customers will choose to actually turn to a human agent for assistance and guidance; on many other occasions, however, merely knowing that human assistance is reachable may instill some more confidence and encourage the customer to continue independently to the extent that he or she can avoid calling for assistance (i.e., knowledge that human contact is available acts as a safety net). A company can offer human assistance from an agent by phone or chat (not an IVA/chatbot), yet as Shell and Buell propose, the company may also enable customers to get advice from customer-peers (though with more limited effect). Mitigating anxiety through offering human assistance as needed can help to reduce negative effects of customer anxiety on choice satisfaction and subsequently on trust in the company.

The utilisation of knowledge management portals by company’s CSRs aims to work at a different, professional level, to enable the CSRs address concerns and issues raised by customers in a more proficient and timely manner. For instance, it should save CSRs the time and effort of referring to a number of platforms (e.g., marketing, CRM, product) by bringing together different types of relevant and practical information onto one place from which the human agent can access it more easily and quickly. A KM portal display may integrate most recent history of interactions with the customer, relevant offers of products or service packages, or links to additional background articles (e.g., product profiles, technical materials). The KM portal may include essential customer information (e.g., identification and key flags) but it may not free the CSR completely from turning to a CRM system for more information (e.g., previous purchases); likewise, it may not free the CSR from turning to the billing system or a product database resource. The challenge of a KM system is to pull together those portions of information deemed most relevant and useful to the issue at stake from the broad knowledgebase of the company and lay them closer to the service agent (e.g., in a portal or dashboard display). An agent who listens to the ‘story’ told by the customer can give the KM system more clues to allow it to make the best recommendations. Information may be presented explicitly or as links to recommended documents and other external resources. This is expected to be part of the future mode of operation of contact centres, and it is already in motion.

It is important, nevertheless, to take into consideration the time a human service agent needs to review some of the information proposed in the KM portal, in relation to a customer’s enquiry during a live interaction with the customer. The CSR may have to trace, learn, judge and extract relevant information before delivering his or her insight, recommendation or solution to the customer, and all that within a few minutes. Some of the knowledge may be included, as suggested above, in resources like articles that the agent should access and read — think for instance of an article on a new travel insurance offer: the agent has to understand the terms before communicating it to the customer, and being able to answer questions. Three observations are in order on this matter:

  1. Human service agents (CSRs) should receive adequate training on choice, comprehension and evaluation of materials from the company’s knowledgebase, and also should be allocated paid “off-duty” time for reviewing new and updated content (e.g., products and service offers, technical support procedures) to reduce learning ‘time-breaks’ during customer interactions;
  2. The CSR agents should be ready and willing to learn and assimilate information they utilise as their own knowledge, together with experiences they accumulate, to be able to use that knowledge again with subsequent customers without having to process information from the KM portal every time and again — a KM system will be much less effective if CSRs rely heavily on what they see on the screen in every event, rather than using it as an aid and supporting tool;
  3. A key capacity of KM systems is to allow employees share among them experiences, lessons and information they have learned which proved pertinent to the service events they have been treating — by adding notes or updating a special forum, service agents can turn implicit knowledge into explicit knowledge that can help their colleagues in handling similar events in their own future customer encounters.

According to a research report by Aberdeen Group [2], companies that have a formal agent experience management programme gain a higher rate of annual increase in customer retention, above two times more than in other companies (12% versus 5%). These companies can also expect to benefit from about two times higher rates of year-over-year increases in revenues and customer satisfaction. At the same time, agent productivity is also likely to be better with a formal programme for supporting and enhancing the agent working experience (11% annual increase versus 7% in other companies without such a programme). Greater service agent satisfaction is linked to greater customer satisfaction; it requires that the agents feel they can do their work serving customers more easily and successfully with proper guidance and direction.

The Aberdeen report identifies three top factors influencing the agent experience. First, the prospect agent should bring to the job good technology knowledge and skills as well as strong communication skills to be fit for the job assigned. Second, the company should provide on its part the means in technology tools that will facilitate the ability of agents to perform their day-to-day tasks. A smart and effective knowledge management system that can quickly and pointedly lead agents to relevant information (e.g., instructive articles) should have a great role to play in improving the agent experience. Making agents spend extended valuable time seeking background knowledge and insights and delaying their handling of customer enquiries are key deterrents to agent productivity; it may be added that these impediments also are likely to lead to increased agent frustration. Nevertheless, side by side with the skills agents bring with them and the information and technology tools the company provides, agents should be given more autonomy while interacting with a customer (e.g., offer discounts, account credit, free shipping etc.). Aberdeen describes this third factor as providing agents the “sense of empowerment in addressing customer needs”. Employees-agents could be made to feel empowered when respecting their judgement in utilising knowledge resources and allowing them leeway in deciding how best to help the customers.

A knowledge management system incorporates knowledge resources with different types of information and technology tools to access that knowledge. The tools are expected to become powered more extensively by artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, to enable users to access relevant and practical information or knowledge more quickly and precisely. However, it should be appreciated that knowledge is most often what people make of information made available to them, and also the knowledge they can return and add to the system for the benefit of others. Whether the interface is used by any company’s service agents or the customers themselves (e.g., applying self-service facilities), the support and guidance of a KM system can enhance the service quality in important ways.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes: 

[1] “Mitigating the Negative Effects of Customer Anxiety Through Access to Human Contact”; Michelle A. Shell & Ryan W. Buell [2019]; Harvard Business School Working Paper 19-089 (unpublished paper).

[2] “Agent Experience Management: Customer Experience Begins with Your Agents”, Aberdeen Group [Omer Minkara], September 2017

 

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When going through a surgery, the surgery itself would almost unquestionably be the major and focal treatment of the patient during hospitalisation. However, there is an envelope of procedures, treatments and other activities that make up the experience of the patient at the hospital. Furthermore, pre-surgery and follow-up procedures can also be accounted for in the whole experience. Patient experience is receiving increasing attention and greater weight in managing healthcare systems in recent years, side by side with the clinical demands of medical care. Although we cannot fully equate the status of ‘patient’ with ‘customer’ because of the highly specialised aspects and requirements of the medical domain, there are many activities and moments of interaction in which it is fair and right to view the patient as a customer.

Healthcare services are not immune to the growing power of consumers and their higher expectations, as customers, that have become omnipresent in many fields of services and products. Consumers expect greater awareness of their needs and respecting their rights. Yet there are unique challenges in adopting a ‘customer-centric’ approach with medical patients because clinical considerations come first in the responsibilities of medical professionals.  It is a challenge, for instance, to convince doctors and nurses that improved patient experience is more than ‘nice but not necessary’ or that this is not ‘a luxury given their tight schedules’. Another challenge is balancing between the undoubted authority of medical doctors in their domains of clinical specialisations and the need of patients to be informed, assured and comforted about treatments they should receive. How a clinical treatment is communicated and delivered to a patient can influence considerably his or her experience in a positive way; moreover, there are many less critical procedures and interactions through which doctors, nurses and assisting care providers can further improve the patient experience.

A commonly accepted definition of patient experience developed by the Beryl Institute defines it as “The sum of all interactions, shaped by an organization’s culture, that influence patient perceptions across the continuum of care“. First, having a supporting culture is paramount to the successful assimilation of a patient experience approach. Second, there is a recognition among researchers and experts that patients’ experiences should be addressed through their perceptions reflecting what has happened to them (e.g., during clinical procedures, interactions with doctors); measures of satisfaction are inadequate because satisfaction is construed relative to individuals’ prior expectations, without informing what might have to be corrected. Third, steps along a whole journey or continuum of medical care of the patient should be accounted for (e.g., from hospital admission to discharge, covering care given within and outside the hospital walls). A customer-centred approach in the context of healthcare is recognised as Patient-Centred Care which focuses on improving patient experiences.

In a special report of the NHS Confederation (UK) on patient experience, the authors note the complexity of improving patient experience on top of striving to provide high-quality clinical care. In addition to the latter, it should be acknowledged that “Experience is also determined by the physical environment the patients are in and how they feel about the care they receive, including the way staff interact with them“. The report authors state punctually: “Improving the experience of all patients starts by treating each one of them individually to ensure they receive the right care, at the right time, in the right way for them” (boldface highlight added)[1].

Improvements in patient experience in a hospital ward (e.g., cardiology, orthopaedic) seem to happen in small steps, in small details; the staff may not fully appreciate their value to patients and their family relatives . Better experience may arise from greater awareness of the worries, concerns or inconveniences of patients by doctors, nurses and assisting caregivers. It may be achieved by listening to the patients and being more patient and soft with them. It is not an easy demand: the staff may have two or three dozens of patients to attend to in the ward, and yet the staff has a duty to help and make the hospital stay as easy as possible for each patient. One should not overlook the importance of an emotional touch, feelings shown by and with patients. Keeping a peaceful and calm atmosphere in the hospital ward also contributes to patients’ experience and prospects of healing. Doctors in particular can help to improve the patient experience by willing to explain and inform a patient (and family) in plain words and empathy about his or her condition and treatments required, especially upon request (i.e., respecting the right of a patient to be informed). Additionally, doctors should not leave patients out of decisions made about them, where the patient demonstrates interest and capacity in being involved.

Much of the conduct described above can be seen happening more frequently than say five or ten years ago. One may encounter specific members of staff who make an extra effort to help, talk with a patient a little longer, answer questions at the nurse counter or in the patient’s room, and they do it kindly and voluntarily. Yet there is also observable variability where some members of staff appear less committed to providing a better treatment to patients with dignity, compassion and respect; patient experience does not seem to concern those staff members. Efforts in hospitals to increase awareness and training of staff about forms of conduct that improve patient experience, and their value to patients, have to address remaining pockets of inconsistency.

We should also look at processes in administering care to patients as they may have further impact on patient experience in addition to the quality and safety of medical care. For example, it is greatly important to pass and share information about patients between nurses and doctors within a shift and between shifts. Understandably, medical staff may not be able to give a full detailed update about every patient in the brief during change of shifts. But even during a shift there may not be enough time to pass information between staff members (e.g., a change in treatment for a particular patient). It is therefore crucial that staff members update patient records in the computer information system regularly and consult the records frequently to make sure information is not lost, forgotten or missed by the next staff member attending to the same patient. It can matter, for instance, when the patient or family inform staff about medication the patient is taking regularly (or should avoid), or regarding any change ordered in medication administered during hospitalisation. More generally, it would help to avoid situations where staff members ask patients or family the same question several times. Failure to record and pass customer information is a problem well-known and documented in customer service, yet in this case shortcomings in passing patient information can have more critical consequences. Therefore, ensuring that information is available to administer the right treatment at the right time would improve the quality and safety of patient care and thereby his or her personal experience.

Improving patient care and experience by physicians relies on better understanding of patients’ needs which could be achieved by working on three key priorities: competency, teamwork, and compassion; being successful would help in driving loyalty of patients to physicians (James Merlino, MD, an expert advisor with Press Ganey Associates in an interview with Micah Solomon of Forbes, 11 May 2017). It sounds, nonetheless, that this trio of priorities is fundamental and could contribute in multiple settings to patient care by physicians with the mentioned benefit to individual physicians, their clinics or hospital wards (private or public). [Note: Merlino suggests also incorporating patient segmentation and nurturing caregiver engagement as requisites to improving patient experience.]

A study of patient interviews at Royal Bolton Hospital in the UK, cited by the NHS Confederation report, identified two themes that appear to relate to pivotal concerns of many patients: “no needless pain” and “no feelings of helplessness”; the researchers were able to sort interviews along these two leading themes and later held discussions with hospital staff on the issues raised in the interviews. In another example given, the report refers to relationships built with patients and their families, and among staff and executives: a data-driven methodology, Patient and Family Centred Care, developed at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center assesses different care pathways where each care pathway is studied and an ideal patient experience is outlined respectively. A project is developed in collaboration between professional staff and management to carry out these experience-oriented care plans.

As suggested above, a calm and pleasant atmosphere in the hospital ward can have a positive effect on patients’ feelings (e.g., soothing, relaxing). Contributors to the desirable atmosphere are the behaviour of medical and assisting (nursing) staff but not least also the design, furnishing and atmospherics of the physical environment in a hospital ward. Colours, windows and the sunlight they allow into rooms, warm materials (e.g., wood) and ergonomics, artwork hung on walls, and even pleasant odour should help in generating an atmosphere conducive to better healing (e.g., stronger improvement in the clinical condition of the patient, shorter hospital stay). In fact, research supports positive effects of the environment and ergonomics on healing of patients but also on staff sentiment and conduct (e.g., by reducing fatigue and stress).

According to a review of literature prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Siemens Healthineers (healthcare division), improved patient experience has been shown to have positive impact on clinical outcomes and care delivery for patients, financial outcomes for hospitals (efficiency, cost reduction), and morale and productivity of staff. The review further supports the importance of improving patient experience throughout the continuum of care: before, during, and after hospital admission; it should also engage patients, staff, system and interfaces inside the hospital and outside (e.g., pre-surgery and follow-up treatments and clinical examinations may be provided by the hospital and complemented in other clinics)[2].

Patients themselves also believe in the positive effect that better experience can have on their healing prospects. A consumer survey (2018) conducted by Beryl Institute found that 69% of consumers believe a good experience contributes to their healing / good health outcomes. It was also learned from consumers that being listened to, communicated to them in a way they can understand, and being treated with dignity and respect are the three most important factors to them influencing their (patient) experience.

Patient experience cannot be separated from the overall programme of care they receive in the hospital; it embodies all that happens to them, the treatments they receive and interactions they have with members of staff, and how they feel about it all. As healthcare professionals increasingly appreciate, it would be wrong to brush away this subjective and emotional viewpoint of patients on their experience in the hospital or see it as inferior to the clinical aspects of medical care. They go hand-in-hand, and as research has shown improved experience of patients is likely to have a positive impact on their clinical condition and healing prospects. A broad perspective on patient experience is nonetheless necessary, encompassing any components of care that are part of hospitalisation or tied to it; involving different types of staff (doctors and nurses, assisting caregivers, and administrative staff as well); and it could take a step forward and consider care given inside the hospital and outside it. Improvements in patient experience can already be discerned in the past decade; yet this is an area of continued work and effort where more can be done to create even better and more consistent patient experiences.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

[1] “Feeling Better? Improving Patient Experience in Hospital”, The NHS Cofederation, 2010

[2] “Improving Patient Experience”, Siements Healthineers Global, 13 June 2018 (Whitepaper)

 

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When evaluating a restaurant, the quality of food is not like other factors considered — it has a special status. The same goes quite as much for other food establishments like coffee-houses. The customers or patrons may trade-off several factors which include the food, service, venue, price and location, yet food quality usually gets a much greater weight than the other attributes, suggesting that the decision process is practically not fully compensatory. The quality of the food, its taste and how much we enjoy it, is a “pre-condition” to dining at a restaurant. However, the balance with other attributes is important; in some cases, failure on those other attributes can be detrimental to the willingness of consumers to return to a restaurant or a coffee-house.

  • Some coffee-houses effectively function as ‘coffee-restaurant’ establishments by serving meals of a variety of food items suitable for every time of day (from eggs, salads and toasts to soups, pasta, hamburger or chicken-breast schnitzel with supplements).

Suppose that Dina and Mark, a fictional couple, are dining at a restaurant and find the dishes served to them being well-prepared and they enjoy very much the food’s taste. However, they are very unhappy with the sluggish service they get and inappropriate answers of the waiter, and feel the atmosphere in the restaurant is not pleasant (e.g., too dark or too noisy). The experience of Dina and Mark can be greatly hampered by factors other than food. How superior should the food be for our diners to be ready to tolerate bad service or a place they do not feel comfortable to be in for an hour or two?

On the other hand, Dina and Mark would likely expect the food (e.g., a dish like ‘risotto ai funghi’ [with mushrooms]) to uphold to a certain gratifying standard (i.e., that the ingredients are genuine, the texture is right, and the dish is overall tasty). If the food is not perceived good enough and diners do not enjoy it, this takes out the point of considering dining at the restaurant altogether. But if the food is good though not so special or great, yet the patrons Dina and Mark feel the staff truly welcome them, treat them warmly and cater to sensitivities they may have, they could still be happy to dine at such a restaurant again, and again. When the food is already satisfactory, additional facets of the experience such as great service and a pleasing ambience can increase substantially the desirability of a restaurant or coffee-house as a place consumers would  like to patronize. We may be looking at a decision process where at first food is a non-compensatory criterion, yet above a certain perceived threshold the balance customers-patrons strike between food and other attributes of their experience becomes more intricate and complex.

Browsing reviews of restaurants that are shared on TripAdvisor’s traveller website can provide helpful clues on how customers-patrons relate to food and additional factors in their appraisals of their experiences at restaurants. Reviews were sampled of Italian and Asian restaurants in Tel-Aviv and London (members-reviewers may be city locals, national and international travellers — examples are quoted anonymously so that reviewers and the specific restaurants they review are not identified by name).

Reviewers most often open by referring to the food they have had at the restaurant; next they may give their assessment of the service they have received, design and atmosphere, price or value, and location of the restaurant. Thus, a review may start by appraising the food as good / great / delicious, and then stating that the service was good / nice / efficient. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for diners-reviewers to open with an assessment of the service they have received at the restaurant. There seems to be a greater propensity to open the review with service when it is superb, but also on the contrary when it is terrible. Occasionally a review will refer firstly to the atmosphere in the restaurant, which is formed by aspects such as interior design or décor, lighting, music and overall ambience. Atmosphere will appear first or at least early in the review particularly when it is superior or inferior.

Additionally, we can distinguish between reviews that are composed of a few short argument-like statements about the food, service and other attributes, and reviews that tell a story (i.e., a narrative-like review). There are diners-reviewers who go especially into detail of the dishes or items of food they, and possibly their companions, have ordered, and their opinion of the food. Yet reviewers may also describe how they were treated by the serving staff, particularly when they felt exceptionally welcome and cared for or annoyed and undesired. Reviews that have a narrative give a stronger impression of the course of dinner to the reader who can more easily visualize it.

It seems that when diners-reviewers say the food is ‘good‘, they do not throw it out of hand; they do mean that the food is truly good, fresh and tasty. This appraisal should be interpreted as a base threshold for being satisfied with the food. When the food is more than ‘good’, reviewers explicitly express it with adjectives like ‘great’, ‘delicious’, ‘fabulous’ or ‘amazing’. Conversely, descriptions of the food as ‘average’, ‘OK’, and moreover as ‘mediocre’, are certainly not compliments, more likely suggesting the food was barely satisfactory. Unless there was something else especially good about the experience in that restaurant like its service or venue, the reviewer would probably have little motivation to return.  Consider for example a reviewer who said about an Italian restaurant in Tel-Aviv: “The ONLY redeeming factor is, in my opinion, the ambience, which is really cozy and relaxed. Too bad they don’t serve food to match” (capitals in origin, rating: 2 ‘rings’ out of 5). Similarly, a reviewer of an Asian restaurant in London complimented it for its “friendly and attentive” waiting staff, but concluded: “So there were a lot of positives about this place, but I’m afraid the food just wasn’t good quality. It was very bland and boring” (rating: 2 ‘rings’). On the other hand, a review of an Asian restaurant in Tel-Aviv offers the opposite case wherein the reviewer states “AMAZING food, OUTRAGEOUS service” (title, capitals in origin), and ends with the conclusion “basically terrible service which was definitely the opposite of the wonderful tasty food we were served” — the rating for this restaurant experience: also 2 ‘rings’.

  • A prospective diner who looks for a restaurant to try for the first time may find the choice task confusing and daunting when reviews of the same restaurant are quite the opposite of each other in their content. Still, it usually does not take too long to realise the ratio of positive to negative reviews given to a restaurant, in addition to the chart of distribution of ratings it received.

Service appears as the second most important factor after food in a restaurant. Patrons want the waiting staff to be friendly and respectful (this of course is a two-way street), be attentive and not letting them feel forgotten, and to be flexible and kind enough to accommodate their personal sensitivities or preferences (e.g., less spicy, nuts-free, replace polenta with rice as supplement). Less pleasant or efficient service will not necessarily make diners-reviewers reject the restaurant if its food is excellent, but they could drop one grade off its rating (e.g., from 5 to 4). Inversely, when the diners-reviewers are happy with the quality and taste of food, then also meeting a warm and helpful waitress — or sitting in comfort in a beautifully designed venue — can make the whole experience so much better. Reviewers repeatedly emphasise when, on top of their pleasure of the food, they are impressed by a waiter or waitress who smiled to them, was friendly, attentive and helpful, and made them feel at home. A reviewer of an Italian restaurant in London explains why it is her favourite: “Quite simply, the food is absolutely gorgeous. Wonderful ingredients and very well cooked. But most of all the welcome that we received and service that we got from everyone is great” (rating: 5).

A particular aspect of service is the length of time a customer has to wait either to be seated at a table or while dining. Many restaurants take table reservations, but not all do. Not taking reservations is legitimate, but it is far less acceptable and even offensive when staff at a restaurant (including coffee-restaurants) run a waiting list at the doorstep and appear pleased with letting prospect customers gather and wait outside as if to show around how popular their establishment is; if you complain they may even hint at you how much they do not really need your patronage. Such past experience may have made a British reviewer visiting an Italian restaurant in Tel-Aviv be thankful when: “The staff were very pleasant and found us a seat on a very busy afternoon without behaving as if they were doing us an enormous favour”. In a different case, at an Asian restaurant in London, a reviewer commented: “Long wait to be seated, despite the place being half empty, as the servers were running around serving tables but not seating people”. Considerate restaurant proprietors may keep seats reserved for people waiting (e.g., next to the bar), and may even offer them a free drink if waiting is extended.

While at the table, diners dislike when waiters appear to forget them behind or somehow miss sight of them (e.g., waiting for menus, for taking order and bringing courses ordered, for the cheque). A reviewer in Tel-Aviv was critical pointedly of servers who “it seems lost interest”, and started chatting with their colleagues or playing on their phones. Waiting staff are expected to stand by, being ready to answer requests or voluntarily enquire if diners need anything. An American reviewer at another Italian restaurant in the city, coming “late one night”, appreciated that “my waitress made an effort to check on me regularly”. At an Italian restaurant in London, a reviewer noted that on arriving early for a meeting, “I was offered a newspaper to read while I waited which I thought a rather nice touch”; overall, he commended the service whereby “the staff proficiently and effortlessly ensured everyone felt special and were looked after”. Seemingly little touches matter!

In restaurants of fine cuisine it seems justified to wait patiently longer for an order (e.g., 20 minutes for a main course) as it could mean that the dish is freshly prepared with care for you in those very moments from start to finish [an advice received from my father]. In many ‘popular’ or casual restaurants, however, it would be much less the expectation, though it could depend on the type of food and how complicated it is perceived to prepare the dish. Furthermore, the sensitivity of customers-patrons to time spent could be subject to the occasion (e.g., meeting and dining leisurely in the evening vs. a pre-theatre dinner or a lunch break).

Reviews tend not to address directly the time until a dish ordered is served but more generally relate to the waiting time at any stage while being at the table. Some relevant references were traced in reviews of Asian restaurants in London: (a) A reviewer noted that “service can be slow” and “a bit hit and miss” (although the food and atmosphere were good); (b) Waiting for food was raised by a reviewer as an issue for concern: the waitresses seemed “understaffed” and having “stressed looking faces”, with the result that “We sat around with no food or drink for over 20 minutes before we could grab a waitresses’ attention” (the food was “fantastic” and the rating given could otherwise be 5 rather than 4 — the reviewer “would defiantly” return); (c) A reviewer who was overall happy with the friendly and efficient service and “freshly cooked and tasty delicious” food particularly remarked that the “food came quickly”.

The aesthetics of interior design of a restaurant or coffee-house can also have an impact on consumers’ attitude towards the place and on their behaviour. The style, materials, colours, surrounding decorations, furnishing, lighting etc. are instrumental in the way the design helps to create a certain atmosphere and mood (e.g., cold or warm; traditional or top-notch modern; quiet, ‘cool’ or energetic).

John Barnett and Anna Burles of ‘JB/AB Design’, a London-based agency specialising in design of coffee shops, offer six instructive guidelines on the ways design on different levels can contribute to brand experience. They start with creating a happening in the coffee shop (‘The shop is a stage’), followed by using appetizing imagery of food (‘customers eat with their eyes’); being authentic and relevant; persuasive visual merchandising; creative ambience; and giving customers good reasons to come and ‘gather around a table’ in  the coffee shop. Their recommendations sound mostly if not all adaptable to more types of food and drink establishments, including restaurants. In setting an authentic design, they advise to ‘say it like you mean it’ all round the shop : “The whole shop is a canvas for imagery and messaging that forms the basis of a conversation with your customers”.

Reviewers-diners talk less frequently of aspects of interior design and description of the space of the venue; broader references are made to atmosphere or ambience. In the case of an Italian restaurant in the Tel-Aviv area with an elegant modern design, three different reviewers noted it has “a very nice décor”, that it is “very spacious and modern”, and the “interior is beautiful, a lot of air”. A reviewer relating to an Italian restaurant in London wrote: “The décor seems a little dated, but there were some fun touches”. This reviewer also addressed music played in creating a pleasing atmosphere (“alternated nicely between Frank Sinatra and Luciano Pavarotti — perfect!”). A reviewer-diner mentioned earlier, who was impressed by the newspaper gesture, also said of that Italian restaurant: “The ambience was extremely relaxed and the décor is comfortable, plush and smart”. An Asian restaurant in Tel-Aviv was described by a reviewer as “pleasant, with very informal atmosphere, soft background music, and industrial/downtown décor”.

Some appraisals of design and atmosphere sound somewhat more reserved though still positive. For example, a reviewer said of a luxury Asian restaurant in London that it is “very dark inside, but somehow it is also very cooling place”. A reviewer in another luxury Asian restaurant was very impressed by a modern-futuristic design yet felt uncomfortable with it: “The place is playing with your perception, slightly disorienting with its colours and stairs and reflecting surfaces”. The reviewers quoted above were largely very happy with the food as well as the service. In just one case observed, a reviewer of an Asian restaurant in Tel-Aviv became very upset with the food and proclaimed “Sorry! But when we decide to go to the restaurant, we wish to have a good meal, NOT ONLY a trendy design” (capitals in origin, rating: 1). In this case the “rather nice designed place” could not compensate for a poor food experience. Customers-patrons welcome inspiring and modern designs, but the design must also feel pleasing to the eye and comfortable — be creative with designs but not be excessive.

A top priority for restaurants, and to a similar degree also for coffee-houses, remains taking the most care of the quality and taste of the food they serve. However, it is essential to also look after additional factors or facets that shape the customer’s experience such as service, design and atmosphere, price or value. The kind of service customers-patrons experience is especially a potential ‘game-changer’. Additionally, consumers may not be coming to a restaurant or coffee-house for its design but if it looks appealing the design and atmostphere can make the stay more comfortable and enoyable, and encourage patrons to stay longer, order more, and return. Food is a central pivot of customer appraisals, yet other facets of the experience can tilt it either way: spoil and even ruin the experience or instead support and enhance it.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

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‘Where do I find umbrellas?’ ‘How do I get to the shoe department?’ Questions like this are likely familiar to many consumers when visiting large department stores. Walking long pathways on a floor and moving between floors in a quest to find a needed product can be time-consuming and annoying. Signposts often are too general and lack useful instructions for direction. Mobile mapping applications (‘apps’) of indoors environments, an evolving technological development of the last five years, can make the shopping experience in large stores more smooth, convenient and enjoyable for consumers. A mapping app can be useful not only in department stores but also within large supermarkets, fashion, toys or DIY stores, to give just a few examples. Moreover, navigating in complex structures like shopping malls, airports, hospitals etc. may be made much easier with a mapping app.

Over the years large physical floor maps have been installed in some department stores (e.g., hung on the wall near a lift) — the problem is that the shopper has to try to keep in memory the route to pass to a desired destination. Signage of product directories placed in front of escalators may help the shopper to find on what floor a particular type of product (or a brand) is placed, but one may be left again to stroll a widespread floor until locating the product requested. Signs hung above aisles (e.g., in supermarkets) may not be seen until one approaches the relevant aisle. Some retailers and operators of shopping centres provide printed maps on cards or leaflets to guide their customers on the premises; the map is usually accompanied with index lists and codes for reference, and regions on the map diagram may be printed in different colours to facilitate navigation. Holding a map in the shopper’s hands can be a great relief. Holding a dynamic and interactive map displayed on the shopper’s mobile phone seems as an even greater step forward.

Mapping applications of enclosed environments aim to provide people with spatial information and tools similar to those that facilitate their navigation on roads and in the streets of cities. One can search for an address, a business or an institute, and the mapping utility will show the user its location on the map. Additionally, when used on a mobile device, smartphone or tablet, the application can show the way and follow the user until he or she gets to the destination. In-store, the ‘address’ would typically be a product. An in-store mapping app may show the shopper the location of the product in the store, and perhaps give instructions step-by-step how to get there, yet it will not necessarily be able to follow the user to the destination — an additional layer of technology, a physical infrastructure, is required to locate the shopper on the map and automatically “advance” the map on display as he or she walks in the store.

  • A web-based mapping utility of Heathrow Airport (London), for example, allows a prospect traveller to look for a starting point and a destination in any of the five terminals and their facilities and the online service will provide instructions in text and over the map diagram how to get there.

The GPS technology that usually allows the positioning of users on a map of an outdoors space, and follows the user until he or she gets to a destination, stops working when one enters an enclosed environment of a building. It is additionally not accurate enough to pinpoint the location of a person in a relatively small area, and especially is impractical in distinguishing between floors in the building. Therefore, this technology cannot be applied in mapping applications either in shopping centres or in-store. Alternative technologies have been tested and utilised for indoors mapping: more notable is Bluetooth technology applied with beacons, but there are other options in the field, including Wi-Fi and LED light bulbs for signalling and transmitting location information. Effective positioning of shoppers is said to require a dense network of devices (transmitters) throughout the store, oftentimes an expensive enterprise. Therefore, retailers appear to be more interested in implementing select functions of in-store mapping applications (e.g., orientation, promotions) but are less in a hurry to adopt also the capability of positioning shoppers on a map of the store.

A retailer can deliver via a mobile app promotional offers (e.g., digital coupons) to shoppers as well as updates on new products, services and events. A retail app may  include a bundle of services such as tools for mapping and managing a shopping list for the benefit of the customers. Some retailers already use a location functionality in their stores, independent of mapping, to improve the timing when offers are sent to shoppers during their visit, specific to their location in the store. But this functionality usually utilises fewer devices (e.g., beacons) than would be necessary for a full positioning capability. The mapping tools can produce several advantages: (1) deliver a helpful service to shoppers (e.g., using a shopping list with a map); (2) enhance navigation by location of the shopper on a dynamic map; (3) give a better incentive to shoppers to authorise an app to track their location in the store; (4) mount ‘flags’ of promotional offers for various products on the map near the relevant aisles or display shelves, particularly as the shopper approaches nearby (as a benchmark for illustration, think of information [icons & text] mounted on maps of Google or in an app like Waze).

The map is meant to provide first of all spatial information. Should mapping applications also be visuospatial, that is, display a visual image of the store’s appearance? It would be like making a virtual simulated tour of the store. The experience could be more entertaining (e.g., like gaming) but would it be more informative and useful? If the shopper is already in the store, he or she should not really need the enhanced display — it could be more confusing (screen and reality may interfere with each other) and time-consuming to navigate with such a display. The enhanced imagery display may be useful for planning a visit before entering the store, or perhaps for online shopping in a virtual store. Yet, once a shopper is at the physical store, a visuospatial display should be made an option as a matter of discretion by the shopper while the main display better be a map diagram that matches the actual layout and organisation of the store.

  • Mobile marketing company aisle411, which specialises also in indoors mapping for retail stores, created in co-operation with Google’s Project Tango a 3D imaged environment (“3D mapping”) of a supermarket store with features of augmented reality (e.g., product information. rewards and coupons). [BusinessWire.com, 25 June 2014, see video demonstration — note that the application is operating on a tablet mounted on the shopping cart]

A study published last year (Ertekin, Pryor & Pelton, Spring 2017) sought to identify perceptions, attitudes or personality traits that could motivate consumers to use mobile in-store mapping applications (*). The study focused on consumers from generations X (born in 1961-1979) and Y (born in 1980-1999 — adults likely to be familiar with and orientated to using computer technology and its applications). Actually 80% of the respondents in the sample were of generation Y. All respondents (n=258) had a device that can connect to the Internet (57% had a mapping application downloaded to their smartphone). The researchers considered factors regarding the use of technology of in-store mapping applications and how it would affect the shopping experience (30% of respondents reported trying an in-store mapping application before).

The degree of ease-of-use of an in-store mapping app was found to have a positive effect on intention (or ‘propensity’) to use it while shopping. Perceived ease-of-use was defined as the “degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would be free of effort” (e.g., easy to use, clear and understandable, flexible to interact with). Usefulness of the app pertains specifically to the act of shopping, helping to enhance the ‘job performance’ (effectiveness) of shopping with the map. As expected, perceived usefulness also had a positive effect on the intention to use such an app.

In addition to those functional or utilitarian benefits of the application, the researchers addressed the app’s ability to make the shopping experience emotionally more entertaining (particularly inducing excitement associated with novelty of the technology). Entertainment benefits (e.g., enjoyable learning about stores, fun, or merely a good pass time when bored) also strengthen the intention to use an in-store mapping app.

The willingness to use a mobile in-store mapping app is diminished by greater concern of consumers about sacrificing their security when using a network computing application (i.e., emphasis on protection from malicious software or stealing personal information). Conspicuously, however, reference to data security is only hinted and the sensitive matter of privacy is not properly covered, particularly the reluctance of consumers to let their moves being tracked. If the mapping app provides the user more perceived benefits of the types cited above, they may be less resistant to allow the retailer to track them.

A result that would probably be of interest to retailers shows that consumers who exhibit a stronger deal proneness are more intent on using an in-store mapping app. In other words, consumers who are more leaning towards buying on discounts and deals are more likely to be attracted to the mapping app in hope of finding there promotional offers, easy to locate in the store. Yet retailers should be careful about this finding because if they are too focused on delivering promotional offers through their apps, then they will get shoppers more interested in deals and reward points more frequently than other shoppers. In order to encourage shoppers to extend their in-store visits longer and make more unplanned purchases, promotional offers should be put forward on the app more closely in accordance with the store sections or aisles the shoppers access, when they pass through; where feasible, generate offers in association with products on a shopping list the shopper fills-in on the app (i.e., help a shopper find more easily the products on his or her list while adding products that are more likely to be perceived as complements to them).  Promotions are only one of the ways to encourage consumers to shop more, and that is true also for the ‘package’ offered in a retail mapping app.

The model analysed in this study did not provide support for a positive effect of being pressed in time on intention to use an in-store mapping app  (i.e., apps are not associated enough with saving time or those pressed in time are interested in the mapping app no more than others with more free time). It does not seem to give ground to a concern of retailers that such an app might allow shoppers to shorten their shopping trips, but as suggested above, if needed there are ways to circumvent such behaviour. The model also did not support the hypothesis that consumers who like to gather more market information (e.g., products, prices, innovations) and share their knowledge with others, to advise or actually influence them, are more inclined to use an in-store mapping app to accomplish their goals.

The study makes early steps in investigating consumer behaviour pertaining to using retail mapping apps. It confirms that functional as well as emotional benefits are drivers of consumer use of a mapping app in-store. But the investigation has to proceed to validate and refine those findings and conclusions. While the study targeted young consumers of relevant generations Y and X, the sample consisted of university students (hence probably also the vast majority of millennials). It may be sufficient for establishing relations of the tested factors to the use of mapping apps, but further research should go beyond a student population to cover consumers of these generations to validate the relations or effects. Additional analyses and models (beyond the regression model applied in this study) will have to examine effects more thoroughly or with greater scrutiny (e.g., causality, mediators). Furthermore, consumer disposition towards the mapping apps has to be examined through actual experience and behaviour, for example by letting shoppers perform their shopping ‘naturally’ with an app or by giving them specific tasks to perform with a mapping app in their shopping trip. The study of Ertekin, Pryor and Pelton would serve as an instructive and helpful starting point.

Consumers may utilise a mental map of a store site that they hold in memory to guide them through locations in the  store as in an auto-pilot mode. Mental maps are possible to construct, however, for stores that shoppers visit frequently enough or regularly. Digital mapping apps may change how consumers construct and utilise their own mental maps, stored in their long-term memory. People tend to favour digital information sources and rely less on their own memory. A shopper may need no more than a graph as a spatial model to perform his or her shopping job, or perhaps a more detailed mental model of a drawing similar to a map. Yet the extent to which people also use picture-like mental imageries of the site depends on how useful is the visual information for performing their task, because visual imagery requires greater resources. So visual imagery may be re-constructed more selectively as needed — think of ‘photos’ of specific locations of importance or interest to the shopper (e.g., shelf displays of ‘target’ products) pinned to the mental drawing at the relevant places. A conception like this may be emulated in the digital in-store maps of mobile applications.

Mobile in-store mapping applications present a significant, promising development in re-shaping consumer shopping experiences. It could play an important role in the future of retailing, but there is still ambiguity about the extent to which large retailers would choose to implement mapping features and capabilities, particularly the real-time positioning of shoppers inside a physical store. Mapping applications for retail indoors sites may impact, for example, the balance in preference of consumers between shopping online and offline (i.e., in brick-and-mortar stores).

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

(*) An Empirical Study of Consumer Motivations to Use In-Store Mapping Application; Selcuk Ertekin, Susie Pryor, & Lou E. Pelton, 2017; Marketing Management Journal, 27 (1), pp. 63-74.

 

 

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Transparency; reliability; trust: These key terms are rehearsed and highlighted many times in textbooks and business books, academic and trade articles about managing customer relationships. Holding up to them is based, for example, on being honest, truthful and fair when making product or service offers to customers and in any other dealings between a company and its customers. However, those concepts that are good in managerial and marketing theory are too often lost when it comes to practice.

In addition, experts, technology consultants and other advocates of digital marketing are praising the capacity gained by companies to know so much about the behaviour and personal characteristics of their customers. One of the great benefits of this customer knowledge is in enabling companies to construct offers that will closely fit the needs, preferences and consumption or usage habits of their customers. Again, a gap emerges between what companies are supposedly capable to do with digital technologies available to them, including information and tools, and what they actually do. More accurately,  oftentimes companies are not doing enough in utilising those technologies to the intended purpose of creating better fitting offerings and messages.

The present post is based on a true story of a troubling journey to acquire an iPhone from a mobile telecom service provider (it will be called here ‘WM’). But this post is not just about the case of a particular company. Similar forms of problematic conduct are likely to be encountered at competing mobile service providers as well as other telecom service companies such as TV (cable and satellite), telephony (voice and data) and Internet providers. Moreover, at least some of these types of flawed conduct will be familiar to the reader from interaction with service providers in other domains (e.g., banking and finance, credit cards, insurance, healthcare, travel and tourism). In essence, this conduct refers most typically to providers of contractual services, and particularly when services extend over months and years.

An upgrade of a customer’s mobile phone is often accompanied by a modification of his or her service package; it is justified especially when a large generation gap exists between the previous and the new model. Two-part and three-part tariff schemes have been common in mobile communication for many years, splitting the price of service between fixed and variable components. Usage possibilities and patterns have changed, however, with smartphones, pertaining in particular to the online flow of data and the use of mobile applications (‘apps’). Service packages more frequently combine bundles of included (‘pre-paid’) units — minutes (voice), messages (SMS), and data MBs/GBs (mobile websites and apps); the weight of variable cost (i.e., based on price per unit), drops vis-à-vis a fixed cost component.

Subscribed customers are encouraged to pre-commit to ever larger bundles or unit quotas, some of them could constantly be left unspent each month. At least in one category it is sensible for mobile service providers to ‘give away’ a large quantity of messages amid the expanded messaging by customers via free chatting apps (e.g., WhatsApp, Facebook’s Messenger). The marginal cost per unit of any kind could be much lower now for the mobile network companies to make it economic for them to offer larger bundles, and thus attract customers to their ‘great value’ plans (i.e., the customer gets lots of ‘free’ units). Albeit, if customers do not utilise large enough portions of their quotas, they could end up paying for units they never get to benefit from.

A service plan was offered with the new phone purchased, including 10GBs of data, 5000 minutes and 5000 messages per month. This volume signalled a dramatic increase from my previous consumption levels. No doubt the new smartphone could support a huge data volume not possible with the previous semi-smartphone model, but also a volume hard to imagine how it may be used. Nor was it perceivable how to use anything near 5000 SMS. That is the magic of large numbers — they can be fascinating and captivating, yet meaningless at least in a short to medium term. The sales representative at the store and service centre of WM promised that it will save up to 45% of my bill so far. With the service package I get also ‘marvellous high-fidelity’ wireless-Bluetooth earphones, supposedly as a bonus or gift. No other plan was suggested. The relation of the earphones to the discount was not explained. Protesting that I do not really need those earphones did not help. It was awkward, but then it seemed that the enlarged traffic volume, that one might learn how to take advantage of, with a reduction in monthly cost could be worth it. The value of the earphones was negligible to me (but apparently not to WM). That is probably where System 1 got the hold of me. When not feeling on solid ground, swapped with documentation, and distracted, one may fail to pose difficult, intelligent questions;  System 2 remains dormant or blocked. It was a combination of desire to believe the offer is good for me, and to trust the company that it will treat me fairly.

The secret behind the earphones was revealed in the next monthly bill. If paid in cash, their price was about $150 vis-à-vis $900 for the iPhone. I agreed to pay for the iPhone in 12 credit installments (adding  5% in cost). However, the additional and unexpected payment for the earphones was set to be spread over 36 months (+65%! added to price in cash). The discount on service was for 12 months. The payments for the earphones would “eat” much of the discount during the first year. Furthermore, they will drag for another 24 months while the cost of service package returns to its previous level, though of course with a much greater usage allowance. Lesson: Beware of ‘free gifts’ and make sure to get all the details (see more in the section below on contracts).

This has brought me promptly back to the service centre — the staff refused to take their earphones back and gave me another nice demonstration of their performance. However, with the help of a kind supervisor we agreed that payments for both iPhone and earphones will be changed to 6 instalments with no interest (see more in the section on execution).

The Bluetooth earphones may well be a good product and the representatives were right to offer it, but it is wrong to impose the earphones as a ‘bonus’ or incentive if the customer is not interested and declines the offer. Furthermore, at least one other package option should have been recommended that would be more aligned with previous usage in recent months. A smart system should know how to use past behaviour of the customer as a benchmark and propose a reasonable expansion of usage levels of minutes, messages and data. First, it would make the customer feel that the company knows him or her (e.g., needs and usage patterns) and is trying in accordance to provide the most suitable personalised solutions. Second, when the quota of units posits a sensible ‘ceiling’ to the customer it may serve as a goal or an aspiration level to gradually increase his or her usage towards it, and then upgrade the service plan. Otherwise, the customer may be just lost, having no appreciative reference for scaling one’s personal usage levels (perhaps that is the objective, to let customers with less self-control carry away, but that is beyond the scope of this story).

Signing contracts to purchase products or receive services is frequently a sensitive matter and a host of potential pain points. This happens because customers usually cannot fully or even adequately read the contract and comprehend it at the time of transaction, and they are not sufficiently encouraged to spend the time reading and asking questions. The contract for my smartphone included, for example, the terms of payment, basic support, terms of usage,  liability and warranty, etc.. On each desk at the store and service centre of WM stands a tablet in portrait position. Regularly, it displays ads for services and products. However, WM saves on paperwork and employs the screen also to display contracts that can be signed digitally (later sent by e-mail). Reading the contract from the screen is not very convenient and the customer also cannot control the display to the pace of his or her reading. One is quickly brought to the place for signing. The contract for the earphones was separate in origin from the iPhone’s (later corrected); when the representative came to it, he jumped to the signature position which incidentally fell at the top of the screen. When asked to see what comes before, he said this is simply to confirm that I accept the earphones. At that point I wanted to trust him and WM. This turned out to be a mistake. Lesson: Never agree to sign a contract on a screen without seeing the previous screen pages (as you should not do when signing a paper contract). The tablet screen may appear informal and friendly but the contract is binding.

  • In fact, by returning to the issue of service plans, the tablet already on the desk can be used cleverly for displaying service options to a customer while taking into account his or her personal usage patterns. That is, the company can show the customer what would be the cost implication of a proposed service plan given current usage levels, and how it may change if usage levels increase by X%.

On top of all, bad execution of proceedings can temper even actions taken in good faith. It may happen as a result of neglect, lacking proficiency by the staff (e.g., how to use the computer system), or flaws in computer software (e.g., poor execution of instructions). Here are two examples — no attempt is made to guess what has caused them:

As told above, the payment arrangement was changed with special managerial consent to six instalments with no interest, as an option in the contract allows, for both the iPhone and earphones. Unfortunately, a notice from the bank as well as the credit card monthly bill soon revealed that the whole amount was charged in a single payment. The trap is apparently in the phrasing of the contract (translated): “The sum of $$$ that will be charged in one payment (or up to six payments to the choice of the customer at the time of acquisition)”. The phrase ambiguously does not specify in how many (equal) payments, up to six, that (cash) price will be charged. This ambiguity has led to practically ignoring the content in parentheses and what was agreed accordingly. It is noted that a statement on an option of payment in instalments with interest explicitly indicates the number of payments and amount of each one. The phrasing of the first statement must similarly be fixed for that option to have any validity.

In the second case, the company left in place a monthly charge (~$6) for a quota of 70 SMS from my previous service package. Obviously, this number is negligible relative to the new allowance of 5000 SMS a month in the new service plan with the iPhone. They should have automatically removed this obsolete component together with other components from the older plan. The customer service representative at the call centre argued that I should have asked it to be cancelled. That is, instead of apologising for an honest mistake, and possibly reimbursing me for the past month, she made it look as if I may have wanted a non-significant addition of 70 SMS to 5000 SMS (>70:1 ratio). That was already infuriating because it made no sense at all. Lesson: Always check your bills carefully.

The customer journey to purchase an iPhone evolved into a kind of chain of pitfalls, acts of malpractice, and errors of unknown source or cause. It must be emphasised that the troubles are concerned with the envelope of services that enable using the iPhone and not the device itself. It is a story of failure of sales and service representatives to listen, a tendency to repeat answers regardless of the customer’s response (i.e., lack of sensitivity or rigidity forced from above), and possibly a skill problem in retrieving information and instructing their computer systems correctly. Where supervisors or managers do try to fix things, organisational and technological pitfalls may stand in their way. Nonetheless, the more disturbing moments of the experience surface when a customer feels an attempt to manipulate has been made (e.g., by diverting attention or hiding information). Being manipulated generally feels uneasy, because among other things it infringes on a consumer’s autonomy to make a decision in one’s own good, but it is all the more damaging when done just to serve the manipulator’s interest (e.g., make a sale)[*].

Companies and customers alike can help in minimising negative encounters that can spoil customer journeys. Consumers can be more vigilant, pay more attention to details, and ask questions when offers do not sound or look right. Yet in the real world consumers cannot avoid being off guard, erring in judgement, or being complacent — much of the time humans are driven by the intuitive and instinctive System 1 mode of thinking. Companies can make greater effort to ensure customers have the relevant information and comprehend it; be attentive to what customers ask or argue; and overall show respect to customers and refrain from egregiously exploiting their cognitive vulnerabilities — perhaps naïve, but not illegitimate to expect.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

[*] Further reading: “Fifty Shades of Manipulation”; Cass R. Sunstein , 2016; Journal of Marketing Behavior, 1 (3-4), pp. 213-244.

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‘Disruption’ has become a highly accepted concept in business and management, an event one can only expect to happen at some point in time, whether in production, marketing, distribution and retail, or in other functions of business. Disruptive innovation, mostly technological and digital, can be helpful in fixing market weaknesses due to lack of progress in methods and processes applied by ‘legacy’ companies; operational inefficiencies; and insufficient competition in a market. A disruptive innovator may also succeed by capturing consumer needs hidden or left ignored by existing complacent competitors. But disruptive innovation is not a magical cure; actually, it tends to be quite a radical form of cure. Innovations of this kind have the potential to destabilise a market, create disorder and confusion, and cause dysfunction if the transformation is spiralling out of control, a matter of real concern to all parties involved.

Disruptive innovations have been introduced in various industries or categories of products and services. It often occurs when a technological company imports a method or a tool developed in the hi-tech community into a specific product or service category, whose agents (e.g., providers, customers) are mostly unaccustomed and unready for. Yet the innovation can hit roots if it meets a large enough group of innovative or tech-orientated consumers who welcome the new solution (e.g., a way of acquiring or using a service). Thereafter, incumbent competitors find themselves obligated to adopt, if capable, similar or comparable methods or tools in their own operations. High-profile examples include: (a) Uber that expanded the concept of taxi-rides and ridesharing; (b) Airbnb that disrupted the field of hospitality and short-term lodging (‘home-sharing’ vs. hotels and guest houses); (c) Netflix that altered the habits of television viewing. Also, companies in a new sector of financial technology (‘fintech’) offer digital tools (mobile app-based) for consumers to manage their banking accounts, budgets and investments, challenging ‘legacy’ banks and financial service providers.

Certain technological innovations turn out, however, to be disruptive across-the-board. For instance, online social media networks and digital marketing methods (reliant on Big Data and analytic techniques) have been influencing dramatically how companies approach customers and interact with them in many product and service categories (beyond technological goods or information and communication technology services). Furthermore, developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics promise to introduce even more significant changes, from manufacturing to marketing and retail, and in the functioning of various products (e.g., smart home appliances and devices, the ‘upcoming’ driverless car).

Much damage may be caused if the innovative alternative solution is incomplete or the planning of its implementation is flawed. Overall, everyone should be prepared for a turbulent period of resistance, adjustment and adaptation that may extend until the ‘new-way-of-doing-things’ is assimilated in the market, or rejected. The story of an episode regarding taxi transportation at the international airport near Tel-Aviv exposes how wrongful introduction of a disruptive innovation in this service domain can lead to blunder and service failure. Mistakes made because of flawed planning in a highly sensitive process of market transformation may turn the disruption into a mess-up instead of improvement of the service.

The management of the Israel Airport Authority (IAA) launched earlier this year (2017) a new bid for taxi service operators to ride passengers into and from Tel-Aviv (Ben-Gurion) International Airport. In the end of May the 10-year permit of the primary taxi company licensed to provide service in terminals at the airport expired; the IAA wanted to open the service to competition in expectation that it will lead to fare reduction and perhaps other improvements (e.g., availability, time keeping of taxi journeys).

  • The competition is concentrated in fact on picking-up passengers from the airport; if prohibited, taxi cars will have to return empty after dropping off their former passengers at the flight departure terminal. A primary taxi company was given the advantage.
  • Note: Shuttle or minibus service providers are allowed in addition to take passengers  to more distant cities like Jerusalem and Haifa.

Only two companies responded and participated in the bid: the incumbent service provider (“Hadar-Lod”) and the mobile app company Gett that mediates taxi service. The veteran taxi company has been riding passengers to and from the airport for 40 years. It has definitely developed proficiency in riding air travellers over the years but there were also misgivings about its practices, linked to its status as mostly an exclusive taxi service for individual passengers (alone, family and friends). A few years ago the Ministry of Transport intervened by publishing and issuing a calculator of recommended fares to help passengers ensure they pay fair prices.

Gett (originally GetTaxi, founded in 2010) is managing a network connecting subscribed taxi drivers with passengers through its mobile app. The company is now operating in over 100 cities in four countries (Israel, United States, United Kingdom, Russia). The location-based app facilitates matching between a passenger and a driver, from service ordering, through journey planning and pricing, and concluding with payment via Gett. Unlike Uber, Gett is working only with professional licensed taxi drivers and is not involved in supporting informal ridesharing journeys by unauthorised drivers (e.g., UberPop). The app of Gett is focused on benefits of convenience of ordering (no street hailing, no phone call), efficiency of matching through the network, and of course promising a lower journey cost.

Still, the company hires its subscribed taxi drivers but is not their employer — they divide the fare income between them to the will of Gett. The company is commending itself on its website for higher pay to drivers, in-app tips and 24/7 live support, motivated by the idea that if Gett treats drivers better, they will reciprocate by treating their riders better. However, the arrangement has repeatedly emerged as a source of friction. Gett has changed its name, removing ‘Taxi’ from the title, to allow for extending its brand into a variety of delivery services (e.g., food, parcels) to domestic and business clients.

  • Taxi cars of member drivers in Gett’s network are marked by a label with its logo on the car’s side. Taxi drivers that belong also to a traditional local taxi company (‘station’) may carry its small flag on top of the taxi. However, in recent months taxi cars can been seen more frequently in Tel-Aviv area carrying only a flag of Gett.

The absence of more traditional taxi companies from the bid could be the first sign of a problem. Those companies may have found it not worthwhile for them to commit to provide regular service at the airport. But as a replacement, Gett is not truly a ‘physical’ taxi company and has unique characteristics. It leaves the operation of taxi service by Gett open to much ambiguity. Drivers subscribed with Gett can ‘double’ by riding passengers either via Gett’s app or with a standard taxi meter installed in the car. Are traditional taxi companies ‘hiding’ behind drivers also associated with Gett? But if Gett had the permit, would it allow drivers in its network to take passengers also without its app? (i.e., leave money on the table from such journeys.) Yet, Gett’s drivers have to choose in advance in what periods they act as standard taxi drivers or as taxi drivers riding passengers on call from Gett’s app. This situation could lead to confusion: under what ‘hat’ are the drivers allowed to get in and out of the airport and at what time are they allowed to choose what type of passenger-customer to ride.

Furthermore, the service could be binding and unfairly restrictive for passengers who are not subscribed customers of Gett, especially when arriving from abroad. There could be several reasons for passengers to find themselves in an inferior position: Passengers may not have a mobile phone that supports software applications; they may not feel comfortable and skilled in using mobile apps; or passengers may not be confident in paying through a mobile app (e.g., prefer to pay taxis in cash). It may be hard to believe but such people do exist in our societies in different walks of life. It is also known that smartphone users are selective in the number and sources of apps they are willing to upload to their devices. It could be futile to try to force consumers to upload a particular app, but it would be especially unfair to require users to upload an app of Gett so they can be driven away from the airport. The IAA should have not allowed from start an outcome in which a company of the type of Gett becomes a single provider of taxi service at the airport, primarily for riding returning residents or visiting tourists (the latter may not even be aware of Gett beforehand). The ‘disruption’ would have actually become a distortion of service, leaving customers either with no substitute or with confusion and frustration.

But something else, awkward enough, happened. The two companies reached an agreement to bid a joint offer in which they committed to lower fares by 31% on average from the current price level. It is unclear who initiated the move, yet it is reasonable that Gett was about to offer a much lower price for taxi rides affordable by its model and platform, and probably the management of the Hadar-Lod taxi company was alerted and in order to secure its stay in business felt compelled to match such an offer or simply join hands with Gett. The drivers belonging to Hadar-Lod thought otherwise and started at the end of May a spontaneous strike. The two bidders tried to reach a new agreement but eventually the veteran company had to retreat. One cannot be certain that drivers with Gett would have co-operated — the new price level may have been affordable for Gett but not necessarily worth the ride for the drivers. Apparently, the recommended official price was already or about to go down 7%, and with the further reduction committed in the bid offer, the taxi fare would drop on average by 38%. One would have to work many more hours to fill the gap. The cut was too deep — it may have worked well for the companies and their management but could never work for the drivers. (Note: An explanation from a taxi driver with Gett helped to describe the situation above.)

  • Having taxis from both companies in service would have provided some remedy with a transportation solution for every type of customer-passenger. But a certain mechanism and a person to supervise would be needed to keep order on the taxi platform. For instance, travellers subscribed with Gett may schedule their ride while in the luggage hall, and there would be Gett taxis waiting ready to pick them up. One would have to make sure there are enough taxi cars available for the other passengers.

That bid is now cancelled. The IAA declared that it would soon publish a new bid, and until its results are known, any licensed taxi driver can arrive and leave the airport with passengers as long as they register with the IAA. Are the official recommended prices still in place? Who will regulate the operation and watch that taxi drivers respect consumer rights of their passengers? Who will supervise in particular the allocation of passengers to authorised taxis at the arrival terminal (i.e., dispatching)? Answers will have to be found on ground. It is no surprise that the new situation has been received with apprehension by consumers-travellers and taxi drivers alike.

Consumers will have to learn from experience or relatives and friends what are acceptable price ranges for rides into and from the airport, and form anew their references for a fair price and the highest (reservation) price they are willing to pay. They may also set a low price level under which the reduced price may be suspected as “too good to be true”. A discounted price by a single driver to attract passengers, which deviates too much from a ‘normal’ price, should alarm the customer-passenger that something could be wrong with the service, or else there is a logical reason for the reduction. For example, the taxi driver may suggest ridesharing a few arriving passengers to a common destination area in Tel-Aviv — some passengers may be happy to accept, but the terms must be stated in advance. It is unclear how long the interim period will last, but the notions about pricing described above may remain valid even afterwards in a new service regime.

Making changes like adding competition, and especially by involving a disruptive innovation in the service domain, can improve matters. However, the process must be handled with care and watched over to avoid the system from derailing during the transformation. In this case, the IAA could and should have planned and managed the bid and implementation of its plausible outcomes more wisely. At this time, there must be at least one traditional taxi service operator allowed in addition to an innovative service mediated by a company like Gett at the airport, and rules have to be set and respected. Rushing into any drastic and innovative transformation of service will not do good for its chances of success, just invoke confusion and resentment — sufficient time and support must be given for the customers-passengers and taxi drivers to accommodate and adapt to the new service settings at the international airport.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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The digital transformation of customer service in retail banking is changing the depth and form of relationships of banks with their customers. The increasing shift to direct digital self-service channels re-shapes how consumers interact with retail banks. As explained in the first part of this article, the effects of this transformation can be seen and felt at physical bank branches and away from the branches through remote online channels (including web-based service platforms and mobile apps). Furthermore, ‘customer service’ practically entails the customers’ operations of regular account maintenance but also their acquisition of various banking services and financial products (e.g., deposits, loans, equity and bonds). Hence the digital transformation is affecting broadly and simultaneously retail banking service as well as marketing to customers.

The focus of the first part of the article was a review of the ways in which the five main banks in Israel approach the digital transformation in the domain of retail banking, and especially how the banks choose to balance between the digital and human modes of interaction and service in their relations with customers. It considered the observed forms and methods of implementing their approaches and discussed their implications regarding the digital-human balance. Particular attention was awarded nonetheless to the effects that digital channels of interaction may have on the premises of retail bank branches — their organisation, interior design, and functions.

The approach taken by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot may be seen as surprising to digital advocates because it is ‘going against the stream’, yet it is tapping on some sensitive nerves of  consumers. The advertising campaign of the bank — carrying the title “On the things really important, there is no substitute to humanity” — commits not to sacrifice contact with human bank representatives in the sake of digital self-service. This is a promise of reassurance for many bank customers who still do not feel comfortable and confident with over reliance on supposedly self-sufficient digital channels. But a question remains to address: Does the campaign stand on a solid strategic ground? One would want to know if there is substantive managerial commitment behind the campaign and a plan to execute it.

A declaration of the bank on its latest strategic plan offers an affirmative answer. According to a press release published by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot in November 2016, the strategic plan for the years  2017-2021 stands on three legs: (a) intensifying the focus on business sectors and expanding activities directed to them; (b) sustaining and solidifying the bank’s stature as a leader in the retail domain; and (c) being a central operator of financial assets in banking (22 Nov. ’16, origin in Hebrew). Regarding the second goal on retail that is of our interest here, the bank specifically qualifies its goal as “providing personal and human service supported by innovative technology”. In this statement the bank emphasises the order of priority between ‘personal and human service’ and technology, whereof the role of the latter is to facilitate and enhance customer service. As explained by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, the strategy is on the one hand service-driven and on the other hand aimed at reducing prices by applying a unique and advanced technological platform (i.e., the platform’s purpose is increasing efficiency in operating and delivering customer service).

The strategic statement clarifies that the bank is not about to put its technologies ahead of its customers, how it treats and serves them. It maintains that the role of the digital technologies is to increase efficiencies (e.g., saving time, facilitating processes) and not to replace human service. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot is not shy on utilising customer-facing digital tools and facilities for interface and information processing, but it does so as a supplement to human service. Already six years ago the bank initiated a ‘hybrid banking’ programme designed to smooth communication between a customer and his or her ‘personal banker’ at the branch via phone, e-mail or SMS services (they called it ‘an ideal combination between personal and digital’). Lately the bank has recognized a need to highlight the connection between ‘personal’ and ‘human’ as contra to the increasing reliance on digital service channels in other banks. The intention declared by the bank to increase its number of branches also asserts that it does not intend to make itself more distant from customers and less physically accessible to them. It is perhaps not a ground-breaking attitude yet it offers stability, credibility, and confidence in bankers to be there in person for the customers.

However, there are still certain aspects the bank can further develop: For instance, applying digital technology is not just about efficiencies and prices, especially when utilised in direct customer-facing services; how customers experience the digital service is highly important (e.g., it should be visually fluent, easy-to-use, effective). Digital self-service should not claim to improve customer service overall by replacing human service, but it can contribute to improved customer service as a whole. The strategy statement is not clear about the experience of customers when applying digital technologies. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot should also clarify how web-based and mobile app elements of its platform are integrated in its overall view of personal-human and digital customer service (e.g., enabling chats with human bank assistants and not with virtual assistants [chatbots]). Additionally, as suggested in Part 1, the bank can develop its own service model for combining digital self-service stations with human assistance and guidance within a branch.

Let us now take a brief look at the strategy in other Israeli banks:

Bank HaPoalim is seeking to reflect flexibility in its balance between human and digital banking. The bank’s Head of Retail Division said in October 2016: “we are not requiring the customers to choose between human and technological, instead providing them with a right combination between the two” (press release, 26 Oct. ’16, origin in Hebrew). The declared strategy of the bank is offering human, personal and technological banking. However, other expressions used by the bank suggest that the balance is weighed more heavily to the side of technology. For example, the bank uses  ambiguous terminology such as “more advanced and human technology“; its real priority or emphasis is revealed in the impressive expression “digital empowerment of the customers”. The new services the bank is taking special pride in, as presented in the press release, are a ‘virtual branch’ in a mobile app and human guidance in its new ‘Poalim Digital’ branches on how to use an iPad for banking services.

The senior bank executive is not insensitive to consumer concerns about the use of advanced technologies — he recognises that some customers perceive them as threatening, creating an emotional distance, and lacking in personal touch. Yet the bank appears to be pushing too hard to impose technologies that many customers may not be ready for yet, and implicitly pushes its human bankers to the sideline. Bank HaPoalim is trying to strike a difficult balance between the technological (digital) and human factors by attempting to be ‘human as well as personal as well as technological’ altogether.

In Bank Leumi digital banking (‘Leumi Digital’) is put at the centre, as manifest in its website-based platform, information ‘kiosks’ in physical branches, and its mobile app. More recently the bank added its ‘virtual assistant’ chat utility for customers to seek assistance in using the online and mobile account applications. In its strategy statement, Bank Leumi refers to “organizational and technological capabilities, efficient and innovative” (origin in Hebrew). It also commits to upgrading its service model and value propositions as part of a customer-centered culture. However. the bank does not make specific reference to integration between ‘technological’ and ‘human’ in its relations with (domestic) customers. As commented in Part 1, the mix between digital and human modes of service seems to be incomplete, as if working in separate compartments (‘silos’) of service.

The vision of Bank Leumi is accordingly to “lead initiating and innovative banking for the customer”. Overall, the key words most salient in the vision and strategy statements of the bank are technology, efficiency and innovation. There is no specific mentioning of the human factor. Bank Leumi must be credited for its consistent and prolonged support for providing banking services through direct channels that free customers from arriving to the branches. In the late 1990s this bank was a pioneer in Israel in establishing a ‘direct bank’ based on its telephony call centre. Later on a website was added. Whereas the initial entity was cancelled, the foundation was laid out, tried and proven for further development and assimilation in the main service operations of the bank. Advanced digital technologies, as they are better known these days, could come only natural to this bank. The next challenge of Bank Leumi would be to streamline its connections between human and digital modes of interaction and service to customers both in physical and virtual/remote domains. Admittedly, the suggestion made here may be contrary to the leading view at the bank; however, customer service should feel seamless and unified, not  like living in two different worlds of ‘digital banking’ and ‘human banking’.

Bank Discount is actually delivering a very clear message about the place it reserves for ‘humanity’ in its approach to customer service. Its actions on transition to digital banking seem to be more mild compared with the two leading banks. The strategic plan of the bank for 2015-2019 states: “We at Bank Discount have set before our eyes the experience of personal, human and professional service for all our customers. We believe that we should integrate humanity with professionalism, and to that aim we direct our actions every day” (launched in 2014, origin in Hebrew). The words are very positive: the bank is truly seeing the customer at the centre, not the technology, and the way to serve customers better is to do it professionally (possibly the bank’s sought competitive advantage).

Bank Discount is doing whatever is necessary to utilise up-to-date technologies in banking but not as proactively and forcefully as in Bank HaPoalim or Bank Leumi. Its direct banking operations include the TeleBank call centre, a web-based platform and a mobile app for account management; it also offers a personalised information app My Finance (providing market data etc.) and has recently introduced a ‘virtual assistant’ utility. Bank Discount may still be required to be more explicit about its view on the digital front, but foremost it can further clarify its approach to integrating digital and human modes of service and balancing between them.

Bank Benleumi is going along, combining traditional and digital banking facilities and utilities. Unfortunately, however, the bank does not disclose much information about its strategic plans, views or priorities. Hence it is difficult to tell where the bank is heading in implementing digital banking services nor how they would be balanced vis-à-vis human banking modes of interaction and service.

In its profile (Hebrew) Bank Benleumi states that it is “acting to increase its hold in the retail sector” with reference to its acquisitions of two smaller banks (and their branch networks) aimed at particular segments, and completing the merger of an upscale private banking business as a division within the bank. It also lists the general types of banking services and advanced digital channels that are seen as vital to strengthening its hold in the retail sector. As other banks it delivers direct digital banking services through a web-based platform and a mobile app, information ‘kiosks’ and a SMS update service; Bank Benleumi was early to launch a ‘virtual assistant’ utility (named ‘Fibi’ after the ‘mother’ holding company). Yet the bank remains vague about the nature of customer experience one can expect in future at the bank in its branches and in virtual digital domains, and specifically what place a digital-human balance will take in customer relationships.

Banks need to plan and configure carefully how to tie together the different advisory and operational (transactional) services they provide to their customers in human and digital modes of interaction, especially so when performed in the premises of a physical branch. These modes should not be just combined but integrated and complementary. It should be done both cleverly and sensitively.

A digital-reliant branch should prove what advantages it avails customers to patron such a branch as opposed to conducting their operations on the website or a mobile app: for example, it could be more convenient to work on devices and screens at the digital branch, offer value-added functionalities, be easier to find information or to complete successfully the required banking tasks. Nevertheless, a mixed human-digital branch can provide an important additional advantage: a customer who has just finished to search independently for product information on a work-station or watch an instructional video at the branch, can right away turn to one of the professional (human) advisors to clarify remaining issues and perform relevant actions with the help of the banker-advisor. That is an essential implication of a ‘digical’ (digital + physical) approach to retail banking (Baxter and Rigby, 2014).

It is not suggested in any way that branches of the future in every bank should look and function all alike. However, each retail bank can use a core model of a ‘mixed’ digital-and-human branch and adjust its design in every aspect according to a degree of balance its management sees fit and desirable between the digital and human modes of interaction and service, assigning more weight to the digital factor or the human factor. Moreover, a bank may choose its preferred balance in a typical branch, balance the human and digital factors across a few branch formats, and not least co-ordinate between services provided in a branch and away from the branch. Banks will undoubtedly find they have a lot of flexibility and room for creativity in setting the appropriate and differentiated strategy for each of them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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