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James Hilton, co-founder and chief creative officer of ideas and innovation company AKQA, considers how brands can bring service into the digital world – and what love’s got to do with it…

9 min read

We all know what hospitality feels like in the physical world; it’s a joy when we are bathed in it courtesy of our favourite store or restaurant. But what of digital hospitality? How can such an emotion be brought to life through a service or experience, and how can the physical and the digital work together to give people truly memorable, repeatable experiences?

But first a joke. A really old joke, but it still makes me laugh. Flying with Mac Airways: the cashiers, flight attendants and pilots all look the same, talk the same, and act the same. When you ask them questions about the flight, they reply that you don’t want to know, don’t need to know, and would you please return to your seat and watch the movie.

Flying with Windows Airlines: the terminal is neat and clean, the attendants courteous, the pilots capable. The fleet of Lear jets the carrier operates is immense. Your jet takes off without a hitch, pushes above the clouds and, at 20,000 feet, explodes without warning.

The reason it still makes me laugh is that, even after the decades since the joke came out, it’s still relevant. I don’t mean that Mac and Windows are as they were; they have both obviously improved exponentially. But the idea of digital hospitality and levels of service are still so seemingly random in their proliferation or at the very least at odds with our expectations of where they should be.

Why is it that some get it so right and some so tragically wrong? It seems there should be little excuse given that great examples of customer experience and hospitality are everywhere from travelling to Amsterdam on a Thalys train or solving a problem with Dyson customer support to buying a shirt from Mr Porter. Or even queuing up at Daddy Donkey’s burrito caravan. 

What’s noticeable here is that these examples cover a huge range of businesses and products. Although some are luxury and some are what you might consider basic, they all provide the elusive “premium” experience, simply because they are so much better than the norm. Brands are in the service industry: they exist to serve people. You’d be forgiven for thinking it the other way round at times. And whether they produce tech products or toilet paper, whether they are huge international companies or small bespoke businesses, they still provide that service to the public, and as such need to be ready to deal with that interface.

The key word here is “service”. What does this mean to you? Service, at its most fundamental, is treating people how we would wish to be treated ourselves. It is the simple transaction of setting someone’s expectations and meeting them or, better still, exceeding them. This is after all the basic premise of human interaction, on any level.

Be it from you to your significant other, to your parents, to your work colleagues, to your boss, to the cabbie, the sales assistant or the gas company. 

It’s all the same relationship dynamic, which requires trust to function successfully. This dynamic doesn’t, or rather shouldn’t, suddenly change as soon as the humans step behind a brand. In fact it becomes even more important to ensure that these simple, universally understood communication protocols are adhered too. 

Great ideas and products don’t come from self-interest. They come from love

The problem is, as soon as people become a brand, the relationship is often the first thing to suffer. Why? What changes? In a word: love.

Think back to an exceptional experience, online or offline, where the service has been impeccable, where you came away smiling or at least with a feeling of satisfaction. It is because those you were dealing with – the interface, human or otherwise – were providing that service because they truly believed in it and they loved what they were doing. This comes across as authenticity.

If we see that care and attention have been spent, if we see the love in the work, the app, the meal, the registration process (I’m not kidding), then we feel its authentic nature. Let’s look at those words for a moment. Feel. Authentic. Love. These are human emotions that drive our decisions and form our opinions of the world and the people we meet. They are also the key to our relationships, successful or otherwise, with brands.

Many companies think they understand this. They demonstrate that they understand this as these words crop up again and again in their branding manuals. And therein lies the problem. “Feel” is not a tick box. “Authentic” is not a tone of voice. “Love” is not a metric. They are instead the intangible products of a business born of passion. A passion to do better. To solve problems for their audience. To remove friction and clutter from processes and systems.

This passion is created and sustained by the people in the organisation who work there because they love what they do, no matter what role they play. When that passion is successfully passed on to employees and products, the audience feels it, and so products and messages will have greater resonance. It is unsuccessful when that passion is turned into process: a reverse alchemy then occurs that removes the soul of authenticity.

Here’s a quick service story. We’ve all got them I know: the rude sales assistant, the bad app, suicide-inducing voice recognition systems; they are the mainstay of status updates and tweets the world over. So, like it or not, here’s mine.

I use Hailo, the London black cab booking app, and it has cost me a small fortune. Not because it’s bad. Because it’s easy. It appeals to the lazy part of me. It really appeals to my phobia (no other word for it) about public transport. And so I use it. All the time. If ease were a drug, Hailo would be the kingpin of pushers.

Hailo was created by cab drivers. It’s completely voluntary for them to join, there are no tie-ins; they just pay a small percentage of each fare acquired through the Hailo system. And it immediately divides cabbies into two camps: those who understand the power of the app, who see its benefit, who like personalised service and who understand things have changed. They know my name before I get in, I know their name; we both know we can rate each other after the journey. And then there are those who don’t. 

I think I can make the generalisation through experience that Hailo drivers tend to be more courteous, take greater care of their vehicles and are generally more accommodating than their off-app colleagues. I’ve been in a Hailo cab where the driver has put soft scatter cushions on the back seats. I have never seen that before. I asked him why and he said: “Well, it’s nice isn’t it?” Yes. Yes, it is nice. The flip side of this is a cab I jumped in the other day at Paddington to take me home. The interior of the cab was shabby, the ride far too fast to be safe and the driver was without doubt the rudest I have ever met. So much so that I complained to the Carriage Office.

Now I know these are the two extremes on the graph of black cab service, but what I’m discovering through anecdotal experience is that, on the whole, Hailo drivers care more. Why? Both drivers “do” the same thing. They both have the same tools. Presumably they both have the Knowledge. So why the difference in service?

It’s that “love” word again. From all the conversations I’ve had with hundreds of cab drivers, Hailo or not, Hailo seems to attract drivers who love their work, rather than it simply being a job to make money. Obviously this isn’t particularly scientific; I’m only going on my experiences, but I’ve found that others appear to come to a similar conclusion.

Passion is created and sustained by the people in the organisation who work there because they love what they do, no matter what role they play

Hailo, a digital property, has made the actual human experience more, well, human. It has brought the driver and the passenger closer together. It’s given them both “incentive” to make the experience pleasant, mainly through the removal of anonymity, but also with the ability to “rate” each other. The system encourages and rewards good behaviour, not through the insincerity of material gain, but through the practice of sharing a common goal: to have a nice journey.

This resonates with individuals who like the idea of being hospitable to their guests, passengers, customers and clients because it’s better for business and I think, more importantly, it makes them feel good. This in turn resonates with the guest, and is passed on in kind by way of a good rating, a tip, repeat business and a fresh perspective on a jaded service.

What can other businesses learn from the Hailo story? How can they appropriate and combine the idea of hospitality and great experiences so that the physical and digital worlds they inhabit amplify each other positively, and create something wondrous for people? Put simply: they must adopt a generous spirit and be driven to make life better for their customers. To do unto strangers as they would do unto their closest friends.

The word hospitality derives from the ancient Greek words philos and xenos, meaning dear and foreign respectively. These literally translate into “loving strangers”. This is the core of what it means to be hospitable and within hospitality are other sentiments: respect, care, safety, honesty and sincerity. These are, I believe, central to the success or failure of any interface, conversation or transaction between a brand and its audience.

When crafted with care, rigour and (another old phrase) honourable purpose, technology can be the most powerful facilitator and amplifier of those experiences. As we see with Hailo, it has completely rejuvenated and positively disrupted a business that desperately required re-contextualising.

It’s not rocket science, it’s just hard. It’s inconvenient to make the transition from saying you’re authentic to being authentic. It takes time and effort to create experiences that bring people delight. And it takes commitment and principals to find the right people for your business. But it is the only way forward. Because great ideas and products don’t come from self-interest. They come from love.

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