Is your business 'appy? 3 examples of apps revolutionising customer service

Sam Miranda

The app is an increasingly pervasive business tool - creating new consumer touch-points and accessibility, cementing brand loyalty and turning the smartphone into a payment terminal. But what does it mean for process when apps replace people? PEX Network taps into this debate by looking at three examples of apps revolutionising customer service.

Meet customer A - the early adopter, the app evangelist smitten by automation, simplification, and a future on his fingertips. He is one of the 70% of airline customers that a Smarter Travel survey reveals wants more self-service throughout his journey.

Meet customer B – a bit of a technophobe, dismissive of e-wallets and e-tickets as disruptive fads, and a traditionalist when it comes to customer service. Only face to face interaction will do.

Ever since the arrival of the first app in 2007, catering for both customer archetypes has been a challenge for not just the travel sector, but retail, banking and telecommunications amongst others. However, as the generational tides turn, organisations are starting to see the cost-saving benefits of meeting customer A’s demands. Empowered, self-servicing customers means fewer personnel. Fewer personnel mean reduced overheads.

A 2012 report by Global Mobile Statistics reveals the pervasiveness of the app craze - smartphone apps were downloaded 11 billion times worldwide last year. In America alone, 70% of 73 million smartphone users have downloaded at least one app - but are they content?

The reaction amongst PEX members is mixed. Al Adelgren, Value Engineering Manager at ECC, praises the convenience of apps in the "happy path" scenario, except when things don’t go according to script. He cites the example of a phone app that stored all his flight information, but failed to process the new itinerary when his transfer was delayed. A human agent stepped in to relay the updated details. As Terence Burton, CEO of the Center for Excellence in Operations testifies, apps "assume a single version of the truth and complete unity in the interpretation of information," meaning they are no substitute for human responsiveness and intuition when things go wrong.

So where do you stand on the role of apps in shaping customer service? These three examples provide some food for thought.

#1: Apple's EasyPay for instore shopping

An easier bite of the Apple

Apple’s introduction of EasyPay in November 2011 heralded a new era of simplified shopping. Integrated with the Apple Store mobile app for iOS devices, the app uses the built-in camera to scan products and allow customers to pay for them with the credit card linked to their Apple ID account. After confirming the transaction, the customer is presented with an on-screen receipt. The concept reached British and Japanese shores in June 2012.

The system combines the romance of the brick and mortar experience with the seamless functionality of online checkouts, eliminating waiting times for the customer, and to a lesser extent, Apple’s need to provide live customer service.

Of course, the service is only available on iPhones, which is consistent with Apple’s original doctrine of hegemony through exclusivity. But that’s not the primary concern, as a larceny case brought against New-York teenager Eric Shine for his trip to an Apple store in August 2012 reveals.

Shine was apprehended by an undercover store manager for leaving the store with a pair of Bose headphones without clearing the final checkout screen. An Apple employee handed over a bag to Shine - the sign of a legitimate purchase - without asking to see the on-screen receipt. Does the buck stop with Shine, or should Apple shoulder some of the blame for forgetting to ask for proof of purchase?

The EasyPay system presents a security conundrum for Apple. It relies on a fundamental level of honesty for customers to complete their purchases, and presumably some kind of technical, mistake proof system beyond the employee checking the on-screen receipt to prevent people like Shine walking away. It's also at risk of ostracising loyal customers if they make a genuine mistake.

#2: Loan app signals the dawn of paperless banking

Bureaucracy free banking

The commoditisation of financial goods and services seems to be ushering in a new era of bureaucracy free banking.

User-friendly initiatives such as those undertaken by Chicago based First Financial Credit Union involve an app that lets users customers sign loan documents via the mobile device's touch screen, eliminating the tedious trip to the bank. CEO Patrick Bassler said the union processed 287 loans in November 2012 - more than double the monthly average - without any employee engagement.

Meanwhile American Express is developing innovative ways of engaging its customers. It's new app features expenditure forecasts, receipt management, loyalty tracking and an investment advice forum.

#3: American Airlines app is like an online suitcase

Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away

United Airlines' travel app looks to compensate for customer pet peeves such as baggage restrictions by offering a "wallet" for convenient access to flight information. Key features include a check-in and mobile boarding pass, seat maps which allow for easy upgrading, and mileage account details to keep tabs on loyalty rewards.

Since the merger of United Airlines with Continental, however, airline apps and kiosk systems have been plagued by coding issues. Both companies boasted functional platforms before the merger, but the new system falls short in the quality assurance stakes.

Al Adelgren describes: "During one trip I checked in online at home and printed boarding passes day before flight. I arrived at airport, then used kiosk to check in luggage. During the 24 hours that transpired, the system cancelled my flight and re-ticketed me to the next day which would have meant missing meetings I was to facilitate. My seats were gone on both flights, given to standby passengers."

Fortunately, customer service agents were on hand to make up for the worrying lack of app-titude at altitude.