No matter how grown-up any of us is or feels, we are all vulnerable inside, and seek reassurance and refuge from worry. How can businesses up their game on engineering positive feelings and avoiding bad experiences? Maybe we can glean some insight from how airlines treat their most precious cargo, children travelling alone.
Seeing my younger daughter off at the airport today here in Gran Canaria has prompted some thoughts about the future of business that I would like to share.
A conspiracy among many cast members on the stage of my life has resulted in a rather complex family situation. My elder daughter attends a posh boarding school in Scotland, which is unquestionably a superb wheeze to deal with a revolting teenager. The younger one is still with mummy in Vilnius, where a puppy now substitutes for big sister. I am here on holiday with my ex-boyfriend, who is an adopted fairy godfather to my young ladies. I am reliably told that many other people have even more elaborate entanglements, an effort I can only admire and envy.
To get Kid 2 back to Partner 1 involves the use of the Unaccompanied Minor (UM) service of an airline, in this case Scandinavian Airlines. As is my habitnowadays, the customer journey of passing through an airport is one I pay close attention to.
I shall be brief in covering the two separate check-in areas with poor signage as to which to go to; the missing destination sign over our counter; the very long check-in queue meaning we are last to check-in; the need to then hurry over to another desk to fill in the UM forms; the tediously slow wait as the lady phones up to confirm the flight details; and the embarrassment of having forgotten how to use a pen to scrawl the details of me and mummy on the carbon-copy form; then the dash back to re-collect her passport; and the wait to fill in yet another form to get me through security as an accompanying but non-flying adult. Those are mere details of context.
What really matters is to look at the experience through our classic three lenses: logos (what makes sense?), pathos (how will it feel?), and ethos (what is right?). Let’s take them in turn.
(Logos) Because of the hand-offs and manual processes, I can see how there is an error on her form, with her Lithuanian name spelt in a distinctly Spanish way. My children have been travelling as UMs once or twice a year for many years. What is noticeable is the effort spent in temporarily constructing a UM identity that is immediately disposed of and lost at the end of the journey.
(Pathos) The slowness of the process and the rapidly advancing moment when the plane is due to depart provoked plenty of anxiety in my daughter. By the time we got to security there was a minor meltdown of my accompanied minor: too many things to take out of bags, put through the X-ray, and reassemble back together. A ten second daddy hug restored some daughterly calm.
(Ethos) At the gate UMs are last to board. The agent beckons for her to come forward, I give one last hug and kiss. Then the gate agent looked me in the eye – “I am taking care of your daughter now” and also waved me goodbye as he took her down the gangway, a few of my loose heartstrings invisibly flapping along behind. A very positive feeling of safety and reassurance, one too often missing from commercial life.
It’s a human thing: he is likely a father too, and empathises with my sadness at saying goodbye to my sweet-natured and pretty child. And in that moment, I realised that we are all needing reassurance that everything will be OK, and we will be looked after if anything goes wrong.
Businesses need to grasp that we are ending the Information Technology era, and entering a new one of Human Technology. It is a new Age of Empathy, where the future of commerce is care. The 1990s was about e-commerce and the Web, whereas the 2020s will be e-care and the “Well” (with appropriate hat tip to its ancestor). Hypertext will give way to hypersense, as we move from a symbolic to a sensual paradigm.
Today, customer care is seen as something that happens in the post-delivery “service and support”; in future, it will be built into the product design and dynamic process assembly. As I get to the airport I will receive a message telling me where to park, another which part of the terminal to go to, a direction to take my child straight to the ticketing desk before the check-in queue.
Those who are most needy get the most care. For an unaccompanied minor on a plane today, they get served food even on flights where food is charged. You simply can’t leave a kid go hungry and thirsty because they don’t have a credit card or the right currency. In future, the systems we use will have to predict who is at risk of a bad experience, and flex to accommodate their needs better.
This means taking a much more humanistic view of the customer and their journey, and making predictive assessments of the logos, pathos and ethosaspects of our trajectory through business processes.
With aircraft, people are not self-loading cargo; they have feelings and deserve respect. In telecoms networks, it is a common mistake to anthropomorphise packets as packages. Yet every one of them is the result of some acts of intentionality by a human. They are being carried for a purpose. Failure to achieve timely delivery can and will have an emotional and ethical impact, however slight or sizeable.
The need to forecast feelings calls for a new kind of business… well, not “intelligence”, but maybe “gut” or “heart”. Take for example a company like IBM that has proven adept at reinventing themselves.
Their machine learning marketing moniker is “Watson”, the latest “international business machine”. It is male and eminently logical, reflecting its Conan Doyle literary allusion. However, that is out of keeping with the “Age of Empathy”.
What IBM needs is a (Florence) Nightingale, dedicated to unselfish care of the needy (ethos) and offer attention and touch (pathos), rather than batch processing flesh wounds (logos). This requires new ontologies, fresh insights, and radical innovation in data privacy and mining.
The “Oracle of the Age of Empathy” probably has not yet been founded. This is a new kind of relational database, one anchored in human relationships, not object ones. Whoever does so will become deservedly wealthy and famous. Because ultimately, deep inside, every one of us is a vulnerable UM seeking care on the journey of life.
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