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Jan Chipchase: Smart Service Design Needs A New Language For Anonymity

In customer service, acknowledging an important client used to be a sign of respect. But the new definition of quality may involve discretion, writes frog’s Jan Chipchase.

I encountered a nice touch on a business-trip stay at the URBN Hotel Shanghai, where on arrival, the receptionist declined to take my credit card for a deposit. In doing so, she was essentially saying, "Your credit is good." I’m an occasional guest there, and frog’s Shanghai studio sends a fair number of folks to stay there, too—but the familiarity and recognition was still a momentary, pleasant surprise.

Recognizing the customer with a "Welcome back Ms. —" is one of the basics of service design; it acknowledges who we are and reinforces our "right" to be in that (private) space. In the context of an upscale environment, it gently massages the ego. The check-in process for hotels is fairly formulaic: You show your passport and credit card, the first of which is legally required, at least in China; the other is dependent on the company should it turn out your credit is not good. Waiving the need for a credit card is a small step. After all, if an establishment immediately recognizes you when you enter, it should have your (most likely valid) credit card on file.

The recognition process today is often a two-stage affair: The first task dredges up an identifier of who you are, and the second delivers recognition of that bit of identification. The less the first task is noticed, the more natural or magical or caring it seems. Looking at a name on a credit card and saying, "Hello, Mr. Chipchase," does not cut it. It’s not seamless and gracefully choreographed. The U.S. immigration official who handles your passport annotates the anything-to-declare form, then smoothly gives the customs official a heads-up to pull you aside. The receptionists at the ANA First lounge in Tokyo’s Narita Airport greet you on arrival and call through to staff in the lounge who are then able to greet you by name. (Yeah, I know, more travel examples.)

The URBN Hotel Shanghai.
In a world of strangers, the act of recognizing who you are has value. But increasingly, that personalized greeting is becoming commoditized, from customized spam messages, to automated birthday greetings, to the spread of retail chains, with their habit of shouting your name when your order is ready. Increasingly, this trend toward the value of commoditized recognition will be supplemented by facial recognition software. When everyone is known by name, the value of being known shifts to the extremes. In the context of that moment in the URBN Hotel, having the receptionist refuse to take and copy my passport—in addition to her not taking my credit card—would have increased the hotel’s commitment to our relationship. It would have been a truly personal touch, putting the hotel legally on the line. It would have become "our secret." To explore the other extreme: In what transaction contexts do we currently appreciate anonymity—or even pseudo-anonymity—and are we willing to pay for it? There are moments in the hotel service industry when knowing who you are is key, and moments when discretion (an implicit agreement that what you do will remain anonymous) is equally if not more valued ("What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas"). It might include what you had for breakfast, whom you invited into your room for an hour or two, or what you left behind in the hotel room because you didn’t want to take it home. The social cues for signaling that someone is known are well-established and highly evolved. Meanwhile, the cues (and social literacy around those cues) to signal anonymity are set to become far more nuanced. In a world where people are known by default, I want you to know that I don’t know you.

[Image: photomak/Shutterstock]