Uses of augmented reality (AR) in various industries has been described in previous installments of “Augmented Reality” (Part 1, Part 2). In this installment, we will explore AR applications aimed at improving customer experiences in service operations. Whether creating new service options or improving delivery of existing services, AR has the potential to transform our interactions with service providers.
Front-office operations are mostly transparent due to customer participation. Customer presence is a key characteristic that differentiates services from the production of goods. Thus, technologies employed in service industries are often highly visible. This can be a blessing or a curse.
Though some AR enhancements for end users are in development (see Part 2), customers who purchase manufactured goods typically see only the final product. There is significant risk inherent in the use of augmented reality by service providers. If the AR system is difficult to use or unflattering in any way, the customer relationship may be damaged. If AR has supplanted person-to-person assistance, customers who do not favor the AR may feel especially alienated.
Consider a similar, related situation: automated telephone systems used in most customer service call centers often make it difficult, if not impossible, to speak to a person, even when none of the automated selections suit the customer’s needs. Most people find this incredibly frustrating, even offensive, and seek other alternatives. Technology that underperforms puts customer satisfaction at risk. This should not deter the pursuit of technology, however. Awareness of the criticality of thorough testing and open feedback loops is key.
The explosion of online shopping has threatened the relationships many retailers have worked to develop with customers. Without face-to-face interactions, these relationships are more difficult to establish and maintain. AR helps prevent customers from straying, allowing them to be “present” without visiting a physical location, if one even exists. For example, augmented reality has given rise to the “virtual makeover.”
A virtual makeover is achieved by uploading a photo of a customer to a retailer’s website or mobile app and choosing products to “try on.” Instead of seeing photos of the latest fashions worn by models – or mannequins – customers can see themselves in the newest styles. Likewise, eyeglasses, jewelry, or other accessories can be “tried on.” A new hairstyle or shade of makeup can also be “tested” by augmenting a customer’s face with the chosen details. A simulated image can then be provided to a stylist to reproduce the desired look. The use of AR prevents customers from feeling rushed or self-conscious, which they may feel in a salon or clothing store, if they find it difficult to decide on a new look. What begins as an attempt to sustain a weakening customer connection may actually strengthen it.
Customers can also subject their homes to a similar experience with a “virtual remodel.” Color and fabric samples or in-store displays will never provide the whole story. Now, paint, carpet, and furniture – even an entire kitchen – can be projected into the actual living space. Caveat emptor: AR can show you how a new couch will look in your living room, but it cannot tell you if it is comfortable or well-made; it may be wise to plan a trip to a showroom before making your final decision to purchase.
Several other applications of AR have been touched on in the first two parts of “Augmented Reality” where the lines between the service sector and other industries are not well-defined. For example, AR-generated product descriptions and operating or installation instructions blur the lines between manufacturers, retailers, and installers.
Tours of historical sites or unfamiliar cities have been discussed, directly and indirectly, throughout the series of posts on digital tools. The final enhancement to tours that we will discuss is self-guiding capability. Traditional tour groups are treated like herds, always kept in a tight group, so no one gets lost; there is little opportunity to indulge personal preferences. Adding directions along the tour path to the visual field allows visitors to pace their own tour, dependent only on their own interests. If a visitor is separated from the herd, the AR tour guide will display the path to follow, ensuring that all points of interest are visited without getting lost.
As mentioned in Part 2, equipment maintenance can be considered a service performed within manufacturing operations. In other contexts, this is usually called “field service;” hence its inclusion here. The uses of AR in field service can be numerous; it is dependent on the specific equipment and types of work to be performed. Simple examples include presenting the locations of all fasteners to ensure secure installation of a component, identifying all points of adjustment available to optimize equipment performance, and identifying common failure points, such as leaky connections, to accelerate basic troubleshooting.
A particularly powerful application of AR in field service is the ability to “port in” expertise as needed. If a technician identifies a problem that is beyond his/her expertise, the AR image can be displayed on a remote monitor. Combined with voice communication, a remote “expert” can guide the on-site technician through additional troubleshooting or repairs. Providing remote assistance minimizes travel requirements, making these “experts” more widely available to support multiple projects simultaneously.
The use of digital tools in training has become a recurring theme in this series of posts. Training with AR is somewhat unique in the service sector, however, as both customers and providers can benefit from it. Service providers use AR-assisted training, in similar fashion to manufacturers, to teach operators to properly perform a task or process. Service providers can also use AR to guide customers through a service experience or enable future self-service. If customers engage the system infrequently or it is easy to make mistakes, they may use the AR each and every time. Either way, it lightens the load on front-office personnel, allowing them to focus on value-added activities.
Advantages of AR in Service Operations
We will, again, summarize the preceding discussion by focusing on the benefits to be gained by service providers by employing augmented reality. The advantages are as diverse as the services that may be augmented; they include:
The advantages outlined above are, necessarily, somewhat generic. The unique and personal nature of services creates incredible potential for both service providers and customers to benefit from AR or other enhancements. The specific benefits, however, are difficult to project from a few examples to vastly different services. Defining and creating these benefits depends on creativity and insight into the service process and customer base.
As you look around your service business in search of improvement opportunities, feel free to contact JayWink Solutions for assistance or guidance. We can discuss various methods of augmenting your organization’s performance.
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Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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