Part 1: The toaster oven.
Recently, my daughters and I purchased a toaster oven as a a Mother's Day gift for my wife. (Yes, not very exciting - but we love this toaster oven.) We began the purchase process by researching online using Google. Ever since, the ads appearing on my screen are of toaster ovens. Google, I appreciate that you are trying to help me, but I don't need another toaster oven!
Internet activist Eli Pariser outlines this problem in The Filter Bubble. According to Pariser, the algorithms used by Google and Facebook to personalize search reduce the information available to us. Instead of opening our world to a broader range of information, they define us by an increasingly more limited bubble of information. The ads appearing when I browse online work the same way. They are tailored to my browsing history. Unfortunately, they are showing me what I wanted to see, which is not necessarily what I want to see now. They are predicting my preferences and behavior based upon my past rather than what I would logically want to do next.
If Google were really smart, they would change their approach and think about the logical next step in my journey. Assuming I will purchase a toaster oven and will then be using it, what I really need are ads selling me bread for toast. Thinking through the next steps of a process are a sign of smart, thoughtful and intuitive service. Understanding service as a continuum of before/during/after and anticipating a user's future needs provides more opportunities to engage consumers and improve service experience.
Part 2: Thinking through Before, During and After
A luxury brand that understands service as a continuum of before, during and after is the Ritz Carlton. During a recent stay in Tysons Corner, Virginia, they did two things that showed they understood what we would do before arriving, during our stay and after we left the property.
First, they broke the mold of standard checkout times. Instead of the customary noon checkout, they used a different model based upon a 24-hour time frame. Our checkout was personalized to our stay, scheduled for 24 hours after we checked in. This displayed an empathic model that understood our need to get away for a day. It removed all stress prior to our arrival by eliminating the standardized morning departure and the ticking countdown of the time available in between. This is a fundamental shift in perspective away from an internal operational point of view based on the need to efficiently clean and turn over rooms to a guest-centered point of view of why one wants to “get away” in the first place. It enabled us to RELAX before arriving, during our drive and during our stay. Most importantly, this conveyed VALUE to us as a guest. We paid for and received an experience of A DAY. It also kept us on the property longer, increasing the opportunities to engage us more (and increase our spending.)
Upon departure, they closed the service experience by thinking through our journey home. As the valet brought our car to the entry, he opened the doors and gave each of us a cold bottle of water (in Ritz Carlton branded bottles) for the long ride home. They accompanied us from door to door.
Both of these small acts made a big impression on us.
However, our stay was unfortunately not as seamless as the above examples would suggest. There was a major disconnect between our interactions BEFORE arriving on property in the reservation stage and the delivery of the service at Check-in. Throughout the reservation process, I had multiple discussions with reservation agents in which I stated that there would be 4 of us staying in the room: my wife and I and our 2 daughters. When we arrived, we were given a room with one king-sized bed and a roll-away twin bed. How does the number of occupants (4) not translate into a corresponding accommodation of beds (3)? After explaining the problem, they moved us to a room with a sleeper sofa to accommodate both of our daughters. This seemed like an improvement until housekeeping provided only one pillow when they made the bed. Once again we were back to accommodations for 3. How can an organization that skillfully handled the more complex emotional and temporal understanding of our stay stumble over the simpler logistics of correlating between the number of guests and beds?
Like our experience with Google, what was missing was an understanding of what comes after the reservation process is completed. When 4 guests arrive, they will expect 4 pillows. Our information needed to follow us as the service unfolded, triggering intuitive responses from housekeeping and other operational areas to anticipate what would logically happen next.
Toraya, a Japanese confectionary since the 16th Century, understands the value of this kind of smart, intuitive service.
Part 3: The Delight of Smart Service
In March, we were in Tokyo and became obsessed with Toraya confectionary. My wife and I decided to purchase several sweets to give as gifts to friends and family back home. It was a rainy afternoon when we purchased our gifts and we had a complicated order of different sized packages. The young woman who helped us provided the typical high level of attentive service for which Japan is famous . . . and then she went beyond our expectations. She intuitively addressed our future needs without any prompting from us. By doing so, she made a strong impression on us and converted us into loyal brand ambassadors (this blog post is a perfect example of this.)
As she packaged our purchases, she thought through the next steps in our process and extended the service journey into this future state. She asked herself, "What does this purchase mean to them? Where will they be going after this purchase is completed?" and "What will they do next with these gifts?"
First, she considered that a purchase (any purchase) is important and valuable to the purchaser. Gifts, especially, represent personal relationships and their associated emotions and they have significant meaning for the purchaser. Knowing that it was raining and the water would damage our shopping bag, she carefully wrapped it in a perfectly fitted protective plastic sleeve. This was just an ordinary thing for her to do, but for us it showed an extraordinary level of care. The message was clear: “This purchase is special, and it needs to remain special after you leave the store.”
Extending the service further into the future, she then thought through our experience at the time of giving the gifts. Here is where her actions became a simple act of service brilliance. There were 3 packages, each with a different number of treats inside. Knowing that we would be confused at a later date when giving the gifts, she devised a visual code to communicate the difference between the packages so we would not have to disturb or mark the wrapping. She carefully folded down the top of each gift bag to create packages of different heights, reflecting the number of pieces contained inside. Each package visually communicated the size of the gift, making it easy to differentiate them. Before placing the individual packages into the shopping bag, she carefully explained what she had done. With little effort, she created an infrastructure at the time of purchase to insure the future gift-giving experience would be pleasurable. She extended the duration of the service to include events outside the domain of the immediate purchase.
The value of thinking through service as a continuum of before, during and after is that you extend the service experience beyond the limited confines of the immediate interaction. Each time we gave one of the gifts, we were still in some way engaged with our sales person at Toraya. This is significant. Time together is about building relationships. Extending the service to encompass time before and after extends the time together and the opportunity to provide more value and make a lasting impression.