One hallmark of an excellent meal is that you barely notice the service. Plates are delivered and glasses replenished with the minimum of fuss. You can savour the flavours and enjoy your conversation without interruption.
Digital technology is already enabling firms to upgrade customer service. Customer interaction is more proactive and more personalised. For example, Nespresso anticipate when I am running out of coffee capsules (based on my consumption patterns) and suggest an order. Retailers mine customer data to offer further purchases (e.g., those families buying diapers are more likely to buy beer).
Going forward, we might expect services to become ‘invisible’. For example, your car might automatically purchase insurance for you as you drive each mile, rendering the insurer invisible. Your fridge could automatically order top-up supplies from a grocer without your intervention. Your bank could automatically update your details when you move house.
Such ‘invisible’ service would bring both benefits and threats for companies. On the positive side, customers may be prepared to pay extra for convenience and may be less likely to switch. On the flip side, invisibility brings the threat of disintermediation and brand erosion.
Firms wishing to realise the benefits of ‘invisible service’ whilst avoiding the threats should consider these cornerstones:
1. Fully understand the context. A good waiter will wait for a natural break in conversation before replenishing glasses. Companies should maximise the use of internal and external (e.g., social media) data to create a real time picture of customer needs and interrupt only when appropriate. The best online retailers already time e-mails to coincide with the time when you are most likely to be reading them.
2. Be present at ‘moments of truth’. A waiter really comes into his own when taking the order. Companies should ensure that moments of truth (e.g. decision to purchase) are clearly associated with the brand, and are personalised as needed.
3. Aim for invisibility with lower value interactions. Dirty plates can be removed without a customer noticing. Similarly top up purchases or administrative changes should be automated as far as possible, and executed without customer knowledge if possible.
4. Seek permission up front. The best waiters will ask your permission up front to keep bringing bottles of water (or wine), without OK’ing expenditure each time. Companies need to seek permission to provide further service without asking for clearance each time. Amazon does this with ‘turn on one click ordering’ for example.
In summary, the best service can be invisible, but only if its routine, contextualised and permissioned.