You Can Check Out Any Time You Like.

The Future of….Service In An Online World
– by Tamara Lohan, Co-Founder & CTO, Mr & Mrs Smith

Ten years from now, I am woken by the closest possible approximation of natural light gently illuminating my room until I find myself fully alert, sleep cycle complete, at the time I had specified before I drifted off.

The bathroom mirror shows me my diary as I brush my teeth, gives me the morning’s headlines and updates me on what my friends and family have been up to.

My wardrobe informs me of the weather that day (forecasting has become a lot more accurate in the last decade) and reminds me I’ve a formal engagement at lunch, so I know to dress appropriately.

I take what I need for breakfast from the fridge – always well stocked as each temperature zone is calibrated to reorder when supplies run low.

By the time I have made it outside, I am ready for a coffee – I send a message to the shop on the corner as I leave the house so there’s a latte – made to match my personal taste – waiting for me to pick up. I don’t pay for it; the facial recognition process that I don’t even notice happening as I walk out of the shop ensures it is debited from my account.

My car (metallic blue today, I decide), is waiting outside for me. The touch of my hand opens the door and I get in. Because it has access to my diary I don’t even need to tell it where to go (that’s so 2020) so I sip my coffee and start work straight away as I’m driven to the day’s first appointment…

The future I have in mind saves me time and is tailored to my tastes. Good tech frees up the time we once devoted to the cog-stopping mess of life admin, to managing logistics and dealing with hassle, so we can concentrate on what is most important and fulfilling to us: useful work, enriching leisure, family.

Tech can make our lives easier, helping us work smarter and relax better.

I’m frustrated when people say things like ‘technology moves too fast’ or ‘I can’t keep up with technology’. It’s bad technology that moves too fast. It’s bad technology that leaves you behind. The good tech is the stuff you don’t notice because there’s nothing wrong with it: it’s frictionless.

But there’s still a long way to go before my future becomes a reality. We still need people – the human touch – and I believe we always will, for three reasons:

1. To enhance technology when it falls short
2. To fix technology when it goes wrong
3. To fulfil a fundamental need for human contact

For example, technology can’t quite compete with people when it comes to booking travel yet. Sure, it can handle the process itself, but when it comes to anything more complicated than a one-night stay in Paris, I’ll always go to a human expert. (Not least because booking technology has not yet solved the family conundrum – how to automate the selection of interconnecting bedrooms.)

When I’m planning a holiday, I appreciate an efficient booking system, but I also value the experience of talking to someone who has first-hand destination experience, who has taken the time to get to know me and my foibles – the destinations I enjoy, the hotels – even the type of rooms – I like. This is one area where the power of an ongoing human relationship provides the icing on the cake. And there are plenty more.

The process of check-in may not really need a human – machines can read cards, provide keys, direct you to a room – but the experience of welcome demands one. That smile as you walk in, that genial small talk, the person who picks up your bags and answers your questions, that inimitable human warmth – these are what sets the tone of your stay.

Some of the things I find most frustrating about daily life are caused by the distance between what technology is trying to do and its success at achieving it.

Bad tech is bad service.

Shopping online, banking online, booking travel online – when the systems work, these are fast, efficient and beneficial time-savers, but when something goes wrong – when a glitch loses my order, takes payment twice or otherwise messes things up, there’d better be a human available to put things right.

I need to know who to call; I need them to answer instantly, and I need them to listen. No byzantine menu options; no ‘dial 3 for customer service’, and certainly no automated entreaties to go back online to fix my problem – that’s what got me here in the first place.

And I’m not the only one: the backlash against automation and the yearning for a human voice has inspired online services like gethuman.com, which shows people how to get straight to real-life customer service – a largely manual solution to a technological frustration.

There is currently no tech solution that can understand the nuances of a discontent better than a human and, even if they can’t fix it right away, the feeling of being understood and listened to by an actual person can do wonders for assuaging frustration.

Tech can sometimes fix a problem, but it can never calm you down without even doing anything to resolve it. People, through the miracle of emotional communication, can.

There are some problems that tech can’t fix at all, of course – especially in the travel business. Some of the complaints we’ve had at Mr & Mrs Smith would stop any computerised system in its tracks.

Technology can’t help a customer who has been kept awake by a barking dog or ‘too much noise from the gay pool party’ in Mykonos, and just try explaining to a machine how to deal with someone who wants to move hotel in the middle of the night because theirs ‘is clearly haunted’.

For every thing that is long overdue a technological solution (why do traffic wardens still exist when the tech that could allow us to pay to park automatically wherever we may be has already been invented? Why does my supermarket shopping still need someone to scan it when the basket or trolley could do the job? Why on Earth do I still need to carry business cards?), there are others that should never get one.

Even if my vision of the future comes to pass, there are some things that will always need people.

Technology can drive cars and make bookings and keep schedules and handle purchases, but personally, I will always want a human to plan my holiday, to address my complaints, to make music and give massages and host welcomes and tell stories. And – perhaps most importantly for me – to make coffee. (I’ll trust an app to place my order and take my money, but only a person knows to turn that grinder dial a notch further when the weather’s humid.)

I’m a tech evangelist. But I’m also a realist.

Technology can make our experiences better, but it’s people that make them perfect.

– with thanks to the author, Tamara Lohan, Co-Founder & CTO at Mr & Mrs Smith

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