Sometimes, implications are hidden by the glowing success of certain new technologies. This is exactly what is happening with the current smartphones, or I would better say AppPhones. A trend opened by Apple in 2007 when the first iPhone was launched, ever since then most of the companies providing end customer services through smartphones are choosing to do it over native applications that are downloaded from their respective application store.
So far nothing wrong with this, actually from an end user perspective I am personally a great fan of this way of delivering contents and services, as they can provide an incredible user experience as well as providing full integration with the smartphone features like the camera, in-built GPS, compass and whatever will come in the next generations, with NFC chips already knocking on the door.
A bit of history
It is, however, when you look at the evolution of technology in the last few decades that you find this trend quite curious, as it implies effectively going against some of the basic principles we have been enacting for long years.
Think about traditional systems up to the 80’s where client-server computing used to be the rule. No middleware systems in between, and full blown applications (with exceptions like mainframes accessed through emulators) installed in end users computers.
The web comes in the 90’s, and soon browser-based, thin client computing is understood to be the way to go. Numerous advantages, like eliminating the error-prone processes of software distribution and patching the distributed applications. Looked very good and actually was (and still is) the rule up to nowadays. Except for mobile applications.
Back for good, sometimes
Back to client-server architectures, albeit in most of the cases a middleware will be paving the way between the client application and the back end systems, but client-server, anyway. It must be said, though, that the traditional burdens of distributed computing have been brilliantly solved by the companies ruling the mobile platform industry, with simplified application download, update, install and uninstall processes that eliminate nearly all the issues while maintaining all the advantages of native applications in terms of responsiveness and user experience. So brilliant is the concept of an Application Store or Marketplace, that I bet we will be seeing more applications for this concept outside the mobile ecosystem.
So back for good, I would say, in this case.
Back to square one, in others
Another traditional battle, specially since the early days of the web, has been standardization. Not only a problem for users who had the freedom to choose their browser of choice, but also for developers which had to write, test and maintain
code for many different browsers which did their own interpretations of the existing standards. This had improved in the last years though through greater standardization, so now we could talk about tuned versions of the same development rather than multiplied developments for different browsers.
Now think about mobile applications from this perspective, and here is where I see clearly a return to the beginning. Multiple platforms, with no grounds in common and even different programming languages, means that a company developing an application for Apple, Android and RIM devices, needs effectively to write 3 different applications. Of course design and some coding frameworks will surely be reused, but most of the work needs to be redone. Promising frameworks are out there to help bridge this gap, however, it looks that in this case we are back to square one.
When finding your place in the market maybe you are differentiating by price, or by having a niche product. Some other companies would like to be recognized as leaders in Customer Service. I really like these kind of companies, as I think it is really difficult to achieve excellence in customer service. If you combine this with the size of a large, global business, then the task acquires a completely new dimension. Not only you need to design and deliver an outstanding service to your customers, but you also need to do it consistently in any location and interaction point. It is all about how your customers perceive your company, and in the premier league of customer service, no flaws are allowed, anytime, anywhere.
The material and human side
Creating a high quality customer experience is a serious business. And complex, very complex. After you look at all the material aspects of your customer service, which will depend on the industry, you will probably realize that the most important, and difficult piece to achieve is the human bit. If you are a Bank, no matter how good your Internet Banking Technology is, or how fancy your latest mobile app looks like, how well you have designed your branches or how finely tuned your call routing strategies and scripts are in your call center, the human part can spoil the whole experience, or the other way around. Standardizing the material aspects of your customer experience might look challenging, specially if you have a global scale business, but, what about the human side?. How do you ensure that the people that face the moment of truth with your customers deliver exactly the same experience?.
There are very few companies that have achieved this, and there is one for which I feel particular admiration. First, for the quality of their service, and the human side of it. Second for the consistency they have achieved in a global scale. It is Singapore Airlines.
Airline customer service
If you think about what is customer service in an airline, it is really a complex topic, involving many material aspects, and a crucial human part. In the last few years I have traveled half a million kilometers, mostly between Spain and Singapore, and using mainly BA, Qantas and Singapore Airlines. After some hours on board (and half a million kilometers is a few of them) you start to appreciate the difference. Some differences are subtle, others much more obvious. Both BA and Qantas have nice business class products in their long haul fleet, specially Qantas after the introduction of the A380 on the route. The seats are comfortable and the service is quite nice to, but here start the differences when you introduce SQ in the equation. Their service is clearly outstanding and in a different league when you compare it to the other two carriers.
There are subtle differences like the cabin design and ambiance, or the nice orchids in the lavatories, but it really becomes serious when it gets to the food and the way it is presented. No tray food. Delicious food carefully presented in Givenchy tableware, and fine wines served on full size fine glassware by the same firm.
But above all the material aspects which define the great service onboard SQ flights, it is clearly their cabin crew and personnel that really set the difference. Some would say it is part of the Asian culture for customer service, and I would agree only partly. It is also a fantastic job of customer service standardization. No matter whether you board an SQ plane in Singapore, London or Barcelona, the way the crew address you, the way the Satay is served and the way the crew genuinely care about you throughout the flight is exactly the same.
Walk down the air bridge towards the aircraft door and you will start sensing the particular fragrance of all SQ planes -yes, they all smell the same- while you are welcomed by a couple of members of the crew and you already feel a bit home.
Standardized vs personalized
So now we have an outstanding customer service that is also consistent across the all the touchpoints. But wouldn’t this feel a bit cold and non-personal for the customer?. They seem to have also taken care of this. No matter how standardized the onboard service is, but they still manage to make you feel special and truly cared of whilst onboard. It is all about YOU. The amazing thing is that there are hundreds of thousands of YOUs every day on dozens of SQ aircraft across the world, and all of them feel special and unique.
Clearly there is a very interesting lesson to be learnt from other industries isn’t it?. Imagine you could deliver this service in this consistent manner across your whole enterprise, whilst still making your customers feel unique?.