Is This Human Being Necessary?

By Paul B. Brown  |  Posted 02-05-2005

Best Face Forward: Why Companies Must Improve Their Service Interfaces With Customers
By Jeffrey F. Rayport and Bernard J. Jaworski
Harvard Business School Press, December 2004
272 pages, $29.95

The change has been so gradual, yet so pervasive—a vending machine selling movie tickets here, computerized kiosks dispensing border passes over there—that it's hard to realize that the number of times you deal solely with a human being during a service transaction has been steadily declining.

But authors Rayport and Jaworski have noticed, and they think every service company has much to gain in the marketplace by managing all this technology effectively. (And by inference, there is a huge market in selling this kind of technology.)

As Rayport and Jaworski, both ex-business school professors, point out, two huge technology trends—ubiquitous networks and smart devices—have changed the delivery of all kinds of services dramatically.

Networks have eliminated the problem of geography—a call center anywhere in the world can handle questions about your credit card. Meanwhile, voice recognition software reduces the need for employees to be part of the service transaction. As the authors, now Monitor Group consultants, observe: "Networks enable displacement of service roles and functions, and devices enable their automation."

As a result, the authors contend, every organization involved in selling to consumers must ask itself three questions. Each question begins the same way: Is the interaction with consumers working as well as it should? Or would it be better if:

• People replaced machines, or machines replaced people?

• More technology was added to assist the people handling the transaction, or people were added to supplement machines?

• We introduced more ways to interact with customers during the transaction, or fewer?

Despite a long-winded history of service technologies, the authors eventually get around to showing how managers can answer these questions. And they also provide a detailed case study of QVC Inc., the home-shopping channel, which they contend has mastered the technology-service interface brilliantly.

Working your way through their arguments isn't easy. The writing frequently combines the worst of business school prose with consultantese. ("We define a service interface as a front-office element of operations that mediates interfaces and relationships between a company and its customers.") And they're not above hyperbole. ("Where competition is overwhelmingly intense, and where products and services become commodities overnight, the only lasting competitive advantage will derive from superior interface capability.")

Still, they manage to do two things well. First, they underscore the need for companies that sell to consumers to think systematically about how they use technology to increase efficiency without alienating the very customers to whom they are trying to sell. Second, they have—albeit inadvertently—given technology companies a checklist they can use to help tailor their hardware and software offerings to companies that sell directly to consumers.

Paul B. Brown is the author of numerous nonfiction books, including Publishing Confidential, published by Amacom.