Counter service is going the way of the Dodo

The Dodo.

The good old counter that we stand in front of to deal with our favorite companies is probably going away. It should. Counter service has been a staple of retail business for many, many years, but new technology and new thinking about customer service are ushering in a new vendor/customer dynamic that does not involve a big piece of furniture in between the two.

At the Apple Store

I went out to buy a phone a couple of days ago, and I met this new counter-less dynamic twice. First, at the Apple store, a friendly representative met me at the door and we casually walked into the store while I explained to him what I wanted. As we stood by the big table where all the iPhones are, he pulled out his own iPhone and checked the inventory to see if they had the phone I wanted. They did, he put in a request for one, and another Apple employee walked up with it a couple of minutes later.

Using an iPhone, a special sleeve, and Verifone's Payware Mobile app, a small business owner can swipe credit cards anywhere.

Then my credit card came out, he slid it through a card reader that was built into the side of his iPhone case, and the deal was pretty much done. It was a completely different experience than standing at a counter.

Smartphone card readers are becoming more common and available. Square has sold thousands of its little white card reader that you plug into your phone. A matching app running on the phone is used to run the charge and get sign-off by the customer. Card-reading phone cases like the one the Apple rep used are now widely available to businesses small and large, from the likes of Swipe ItInnerfence and Verifone.

At the Verizon Store

Then I went over to the Verizon store to buy service for the iPhone I bought, and something very similar happened. A Verizon rep met me at the door with a tablet. She logged me in, along with the info about what I wanted, and soon another rep was there to help me. I stood on the floor with that rep for awhile, showing him the phone I bought, and discussing my service plan options. However, we had to take our places in front of and behind the counter to do the actual activation, payment, etc.

Hotels catching on

A few hotels around the world have discovered that checking in a guest using a tablet in the lobby is a far better experience than the front desk check-in. Think about the experience of checking into a hotel. A uniformed person behind a counter stands there and demands information of you, then, if all their demands are met, they decide what room to put you in. It’s not a fun experience, especially if you are tired after a long day and just want to get to your room, and especially if you have to wait in line.

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 smaller—like I’m 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 it’s just two people standing there, the whole dynamic changes. To me it feels like a more collaborative effort--like it’s me and the rep teaming up to get me what I need.

And what if a problem does come up? While it’s true that there’s no counter there to provide a buffer, I’d 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.

USA Today
The waiting is the hardest part.

I expect that Verizon will, someday, develop the backend systems and apps that will let a store rep sell a phone, provision service, transfer numbers, and sign customers up for service contracts all via a tablet PC.

This, however, is often a slow and expensive process for large companies. The developers that build the front-end mobile apps needed to access the back-end systems are not cheap, they do not always stick to their original price quote, and they don’t always deliver a working solution on time.

Small businesses may get off a little easier by hiring a single developer to build such an app, or perhaps access an off-the-shelf app.

Great expectations

I'm convinced that companies will spend the time and money needed to get rid of the counter. Because if Verizon doesn’t evolve its customer service methods away from the not-very-effective norms of the last century, then AT&T or Sprint or T-Mobile will.

Or, people might begin experiencing what I did a couple days ago. I went to the Apple Store and had a good (counter-less) experience, then found myself hoping for a similar experience down the street at the Verizon store. As counter-less service becomes more common, that hope may become an expectation that I carry with me to the hardware store, the grocery store and the car rental place, too.

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