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Counter service is going the way of the Dodo

Mark Sullivan | April 5, 2013
Businesses are beginning to use mobile devices and apps to remove the large piece of furniture between service reps and customers.

One company, called OpenWays, makes hotel room door locks that can be opened by the guest using an app that runs on their smartphone. The phone communicates with the lock using Near Field Communication (NFC) radio signal. The lock checks in with the hotel reservation system to verify that the guest has reserved the room properly, and if he has, it opens.

So a hotel could easily allow a guest to make a reservation and select a room and even pay for it online without even talking to a human being. The OpenWays system would take care of the authentication when the guest arrived.

The psychology of counter service

But this is very new technology, and very few hotels use it. The counter service method is still the rule in hotels and in many other businesses from dry cleaners to auto repair shops. Counter service is such a long-standing staple in business, that people rarely question it. It is very functional--for the business. For me, the consumer, it simply puts up a barrier, and can create a me versus them feeling, especially if any problems come up in the transaction that require negotiation or some kind of conflict resolution.

Some companies not only put a counter between me and them and elevate the floor behind the counter to make me feel even more smallerlike Im dragging my sorry behind up to this powerful company with my annoying, petty little petition for this trifle or that.

When the counter is removed and its just two people standing there, the whole dynamic changes. To me it feels like a more collaborative effort--like its me and the rep teaming up to get me what I need.

And what if a problem does come up? While its true that theres no counter there to provide a buffer, Id argue that the disagreement would not escalate nearly as quickly without the counter. I might be less inclined to yell at someone who I thought was treating me unfairly if I was just standing right there on an equal footing with them.

The removal of the counter might take away the otherness we perceive in the person/company standing on the other side. And it might help the customer service rep put himself inside my shoes, or at least very near them.

Paradigm shifts are expensive

Businesses are just now figuring all this out, and I expect the trend to grow until many of the counters we are used to start going away.

In the scenario mentioned above, Verizon was able to start a counter-less transaction with me, but unable to finish it. That was because the company has not yet made its billing and service activation databases available on mobile platforms like phones and tablets. The Apple Store rep, by contrast, was able to immediately access inventory, billing and transaction data on his iPhone.

 

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