De-Blackboxing Customer Experience Management: The Next Age of Corporate Sociotechnical Development

Introduction:

The Customer Experience Management (CEM) industry has grown tremendously in the past few years. According to a 2014 Gartner study, 89% of companies surveyed expect to compete mostly on customer experience by 2016, up from 36% in 2010 (Sorofman). Companies now recognize that customer experience is an undeniable market differentiator and are investing lots of time and money to create and manage these experiences. John Cooperstein, market analyst for Forrester Research, notes that an obsession with serving and empathizing with customers offer the best chance at competitive advantage at a time when few other corporate investments are significant market differentiators. This paper takes this notion and examines how current theories in technology and design can help inform organizations on the best strategies to deliver superior customer experiences. The next two sections provide a brief history of the CEM industry and analyze how we arrived at this phase of corporate sociotechnical priority. Then, discussions of modularity, mental models, combinatoriality and design theory shape the argument that succeeding in CEM requires diligent attention to the customer’s empowerment through information transparency. The paper then concludes by asserting that a commitment to transparency will produce tangible business value and is essential to maintaining a competitive edge in the new digital world.

History

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, corporate priorities and strategies frequently shifted. As new technologies and regulations invaded the marketplace, corporations were forced to endure great change. Not all companies succeeded though; many failed to adjust to new policies or consumer preferences and swiftly disappeared. Emerging infrastructures, systems or machines often proclaim the ability to revolutionize the world’s market, transform global connectivity and extend profits. The automobile, the telephone and the Internet, for instance, all share the classification of being catalysts for significant business adjustments. New innovations, regulations, policies and consumer preferences have taken the corporate world on a technological rollercoaster. Each technical transformation, though, has been an essential step in the journey to arrive at the digital, customer-centric world that we live in today. A 2011 Forrester report, “Competitive Strategy in the Age of the Consumer,” details the journey to this new world (Cooperstein). It is summarized below in order to provide context for this paper.


THE AGE OF MANUFACTURING

Artisanal goods once dominated our economy. From kitchenware to toys, products were laboriously crafted one by one and then distributed locally. Production costs were high as resources were acquired in smaller, ad-hoc batches and artists had to wear many hats within their business (marketer, craftsman, salesman, etc.). In the early 20th century, Henry Ford’s assembly line, among other innovations, revolutionized manufacturing and replaced dependence on small artisanal shops. These new technologies facilitated mass production by allowing workers to work in parallel instead of serially on a single component at a time.

As these innovations saturated the industry in the mid-20th century, organizations were able to leverage economies of scale to decrease production time and costs. Organizations that took advantage of the scale economies swiftly dominated their respective industries, pushing out the artisan shops that could no longer compete on cost. This revolution in production led to the construction of massive factories around the country and the rest of the industrialized world which provided centers for efficient manufacturing. Cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati became industrial hubs creating both goods and jobs (Bowen). These cities emerged as the nodes in a not yet connected network for product distribution.

THE DISTRIBUTION AGE

By 1960, the time and the cost to travel between cities had decreased dramatically due to strengthened transportation and communication infrastructures. Burgeoning transportation networks and deregulation of trade connected the nodes of the manufacturing network and propelled distribution globally. Goods could be transported across the country in hours or days instead of weeks. As the geographic reach of manufactured goods expanded, local markets suddenly became international markets. While cost cutting measures defined the manufacturing age, the distribution age featured large consumer markets which yielded elevated corporate revenues.

THE INFORMATION AGE

Ideas and research around computing circulated the academic and research arenas early in the 20th century but they took off in earnest in the final third of the century when components and tools could reach large volumes of hobbyists (Timeline of Computer History). By the 1990s, both computers and the Internet had invaded the country, beaming information through imperceptible networks faster than most could fathom. The new networks allowed individuals to coordinate and collaborate without being physically together. Additionally, the growth in individual computing power empowered machines and systems to automate formerly manual processes, optimize logistics and design better supply chains strategies. These advancements led companies to develop leaner operational tactics and, in doing so, maximize profits from their wide consumer markets.

THE AGE OF THE CONSUMER

By approximately 2005, the Internet had pervaded not only homes but mobile devices and had tethered us to a global network of experiences, statistics and musings. The power of the pen is exaggerated on the Internet since the audience is exponentially larger and the footprint of a written piece is nearly permanent. One unwelcome Yelp review can destroy the loyalty of current customers and discourage prospective ones from shopping there at all. The power of these reviews as a positive and negative marketing tool is not lost on vendors; some have even sued customers for defamation from unsavory reviews (Pasha). In order to handle these now public challenges, customer experience management programs are emerging at companies of all sizes. Companies as broad as Walmart or as specific as Zappos.com are investing in CEM solutions. Organizations are repositioning themselves to be customer-centric and, by doing so, are reclaiming the brand-consumer relationship that was lost during the shift from artisanal to mass-produced consumer goods. Research and anecdotes argue that CEM is a worthwhile investment. Cultivating personal relationships with customers will reap more customer loyalty than simply providing satisfactory, unmemorable experiences (Story, Hess). Strong loyalties and positive experiences quickly breed additional spending and revenue.


WHAT’S NEXT?

Each phase of corporate sociotechnical development has led to advancements in technology that have exponentially increased the pace of future developments. From the date ranges for each era that Cooperstein outlines in his report, it appears that the progression of eras follows a half-life principle, in which the amount of time it takes to transition to another differentiator is half the length of the previous era:

Figure 1. Timeline of Eras

Figure 1. Timeline of Eras

Following this pattern, we can project that the Age of the Customer will fade and transition to a new phase within the next few years. In The Nature of Technology, Brian Arthur describes the framework for technological and industrial evolution as combinatorial (Arthur). Each new era of corporate sociotechnical development is a direct descendant of previous eras, combining features, developments and priorities of the previous ones. Without the automobile, for example, efficient national distribution was not conceivable. Given this heredity, we should expect that the next era will allow organizations to build on previous technologies and corporate differentiators. This paper argues that such combinatoriality will yield an environment in which customers leverage the massive amounts of information available to them in order to make more informed purchasing decisions about where their products come from and how they are produced. The companies that can cater to this environment will be the most successful in the coming years.

The current corporate era is consumed with delivering positive experiences from brands to customers in order to lure loyalty. Positive experiences need not only be achieved through service interactions, though. With wise use of technological assets, organizations can build a brand-customer dynamic that is centered on transparency. Transparency, traditionally defined as the ability to shine light through a substance, is used here to describe a company’s commitment to revealing internal information to customers for the purpose of customer education and empowerment. In the upcoming era, the most successful brands will allow customers to dictate their own experiences through the distribution of transparent and truthful information. This kind of relationship will inspire the customer’s trust; loyalty and satisfaction will be byproducts instead of all consuming targets. In 2015, manufacturing, distribution and information efficiencies are corporate table stakes. Customer experience will soon join that group. Looking ahead, it is customer empowerment through information access that will be the next great asset and differentiator.

Modularity of the Customer Service Process

To the customer, customer service sounds like an endless phone menu and looks like a long line at the help desk. The complex corporate dependencies and limitations that dictate the experience are invisible to the customer. D.L Parnas proposes that in an ideal modular design, each team “is most effective if shielded from, rather than exposed to the details of [the] construction of system parts other than [its] own,” suggesting that the entire infrastructure is best suited if each team only knows the information that is relevant to it (Brooks). This standard makes sense for internal operations as superfluous information can become distractions to an efficient operation. However, the customer is an external player in this network. His or her experiences are the sum of different departments and teams. Treating the customer like another internal module destined for the same limited knowledge access is an unfair extension of the paradigm. Customers are the external systems integrators and knowledge managers of the separate internal organizational modules. Their experiences are the seamless integration of many functions and departments. Exposing the appropriate type and amount of information to them will ease the often painful customer service experience.

Front line and operational staff take the greatest burden of customer-facing interactions. Irate and aggravated customers explode in their faces when they receive an undesirable answer or solution. Seldom is the customer complimentary. These associates are the interface for the entire organization. Lidwell’s Universal Design Principles describe technical interfaces as best designed “to hide their internal complexity” and to lack control over any specific module (Lidwell). They are simply a means for interaction. Associates are often blamed for policies and mandates but, as with any technical interface, they are just a tool to communicate information from distinct organizational groups and do not have authority over most customer impacting decisions or policies.

Every department (module) within an organization affects and shapes the customer-agent interaction both directly or indirectly. For example, imagine a customer calls a reservations hotline inquiring about the availability of a hotel room. The agent uses a software system which shows her the available rooms. These systems are dependent on the IT departments for system performance and the supply chain teams for maintaining record of proper inventory. This system was selected by the executive team and the financial team after receiving a good price and a convincing pitch from the vendor’s marketing and sales representatives. When the system was implemented earlier in the year, the education department hosted training sessions so agents could learn how to use it. The list could go on. If any one of these departments neglects to do its job or makes a different decision, the ability of the agent to provide accurate information in an efficient manner to the customer may be jeopardized. Additionally, the design of the system itself also affects the associate’s efficiency. Too many menus or deep click paths slow the ability to return data for the customer. The dependencies are even deeper for other circumstances. Sales teams may determine pricing and upsell strategies while requiring certain margins. Marketing teams dictate messaging. Legal teams may restrict certain activities for risk mitigation. Each team is a “distinct [part] of a larger system” having its own needs, priorities and standards that directly affect its decisions and relationships with other departments (Baldwin, Clark). They are separate units that must function succinctly as a single unit. If these teams cannot or will not communicate with each other, the entire system will fall apart, much like the lesson underscored in the parable of the watchmakers (Langlois).

The customer does not see the needs, priorities or standards of the corporation. He or she is simply confronted with an unsatisfactory solution without the education to understand why it is not more desirable. This blackbox of customer service triggers misunderstandings and frustrations. Brusoni and Prencipe (2001) explain that accumulated internal knowledge of a decomposable system “enables systems integrators to better understand the behavior of the components” in their environment. In other words, since customers serve as external systems administrators, they are best served by understanding the dependencies that affect their experiences. However, there are few platforms to help them sew the seams between different modular components.

The advent of the Age of the Customer recognized the poison that could be created and spread from both systemic and isolated customer frustrations. One bad experience can quickly be broadcast to millions around the world, swiftly destroying a brand image and market. In order to combat this problem, corporations are shifting priorities toward providing positive, happy and memorable experiences for customers even in the face of unsavory resolutions. Research from Michael McCollough and Sundar Bharadwaj even proved that positive recoveries from previous customer service flubs can result in higher customer satisfaction than had the experience gone well initially, a phenomenon called the “recovery paradox” (Michel, Meuter). This shift toward prioritization of the customer’s role in the brand-customer relationship has stimulated the growth of the customer experience management industry and customer experience departments. These teams are designed to be the interdisciplinary glue that unifies all of the departmental modules. They complement customers as the internal system integrators by pursuing large scale solutions strategies for integrated knowledge management and information dissemination. Ultimately, the CEM professional’s role is to “‘compose’ what they have ‘decomposed’” making a complicated system seem clear and integrated to customers (Brusoni, Prencipe). By reassigning the majority of this role from the customer to a dedicated internal team, organizations remove the burden from the customer and can improve the customer-brand relationship.

Customer Experience Management (CEM) is a key priority for nearly half of organizations, according to a Harvard Business Review study of 400+ executives (Lessons from the Leading Edge). The “Lessons from the Leading Edge” study also explains that those organizations that do invest in CEM outperform their peers in several key business metrics including profitability, market share and customer retention rate. However, like the dependencies that fuel unsatisfactory customer service resolutions mentioned above, many customer service efforts are invisible to consumers and cannot reap the benefits that visible ones invariably do.

The 2014 Tempkin Customer Service Ratings ranked Comcast, Highmark (Blue Cross Blue Shield) and Verizon among the ten worst customer service providers last year (Tempkin). Each of these organizations, though, is making significant investments into customer experience management. BCBS of Michigan recently won an award from the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) for innovation (BCBSM). Comcast is making strategic hires to invest in improving their customer experience program (Huddleston). Verizon uses both Clarabridge and Medallia, two major vendors in the CEM space, for their analytics (Clarabridge, Medallia). Most customers, though, have no idea about these efforts. Without understanding the company’s efforts and investments to improve the customer experience, it may appear that feedback and concerns are falling on deaf ears.

The customer experience (CX) industry is both solving and adding to corporate modularity. Internally, CX teams resolve modularity by simplifying complexity. They receive information from different groups and present it in a coordinated fashion to both internal and external stakeholders (Baldwin, Clark). These teams are often gatekeepers for high volumes of customer feedback data and work with different departments to help them understand customer needs and priorities. In this way, they exemplify the notion of “information hiding,” coined by D.L. Parnas, in which modules only know the functions that are essential to their roles (Parnas). They can decrease interdependencies by ensuring that teams only receive the information that is essential to their roles. Externally, though, CX teams simply add additional corporate dependencies and standards that could potentially impede a positive customer experience. This paradox must constantly be juggled to ensure that CX teams are the solution not the barrier to customer experience success.

The Need for a Mental Model

The deep modularity of an organization is a key aspect of a customer’s experience. Invisible modules can sometimes be the most injurious to the customer’s understanding of processes and limitations. While it is obviously not appropriate to share certain proprietary or confidential functions with the customer, standards in design suggest that exposing certain key modules to the customer has strong advantages. Providing customers with a mental model of the complicated service experience allows them to understand their position and priority in the network (Lidwell).

In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman explains how failing to use products correctly is not the user’s fault; it is the fault of the design and the designer. Design, as he says, is a communication channel between the designer and the user. Any design “must convey the essence of a device’s operation; the way it works; the possible actions that can be taken; and, through feedback, just what it is doing at any particular moment” (Norman). In order to accomplish these tasks, a device must offer an appropriate conceptual model to the user or participant. Norman also emphasizes that when a device lacks a strong conceptual model, the user will be “forced to make up [his] own, and the ones [he makes] up are apt to be wrong.” Although Norman is describing devices and appliances such as stoves and doors, his reasoning extends to organizations as well. Customers are blind to most corporate operations. They make assumptions about how processes work, why policies exist and probable outcomes of negative situations. Without providing an appropriate conceptual model of how they fit in to the actor-network (or consumer-brand) relationship, it is unreasonable to expect them to be understanding and sympathetic. Keeping customers blind increases the likelihood of misunderstandings, low satisfaction and negative reviews.

According to Lidwell’s Universal Principles of Design, there are two types of mental models: systems models and interaction models. Systems models help users understand how systems work; interaction models help users interact with systems (Lidwell). Both types of mental model are essential to understanding a customer experience. For example, customers can better level set their expectations of when a package will arrive when they understand the steps involved in the shipping process (systems model). They also are more efficient in resolving their issues when they understand the various functionalities on a company website (interaction model). Together, these mental models provide customers with a more complete picture of their role in the complex network. By developing a strategy to provide customers a window into its inner-workings, “a company can show it [is abiding by] a sound process” and, in doing so, “can avoid asking customers to have faith in a black box” (Kirby). Well-developed strategies and platforms for transparency help to de-blackbox the customer experience for the customer. This effort increases trust in the processes that they are inevitably a part of. These strategies need not be overly revealing and should employ “information hiding” for non-essential functions. They should provide just the right amount of context and feedback to reassure the customer that the supporting systems are working to provide them the best possible experience. Not every experience needs to be perfect but empowering a customer to understand why it might not be is a powerful tool to build confidence and trust.

Technical Mediation of Transparency

Media function as the interfaces to the “co-operating agencies, networks of meaning [and] social structures” of an institution (Irvine). The medium that an organization chooses to deliver information about their systems and their personnel is significant. In line with McLuhan’s famous proclamation, “the medium is the message,” the choice of a platform makes a big statement about intent for communication and about desired customers (McLuhan). Developing a solution for the Amazon Fire phone, for example, is like speaking to an empty room since it had a very low adoption rate and has since been pulled from the market (Goldstein). Information format is equally critical. A press release or a static website is no longer the appropriate medium for delivery of time sensitive customer facing information. Given customers’ demands for accurate and up to date information on the go, many companies would benefit from solutions designed for mobile apps or the mobile web. Better yet, organizations with dynamic information should leverage platforms like Twitter which afford the capability to publish quickly and proactively reach customers on their own turf.

As discussed in the section above on organizational modularity, a customer’s experiences touch many departments within an organization. Every department has their own internal systems and their own data which are typically independent of each other. Delivering a solution for transparency that contains all relevant information for the customer requires consolidation of existing systems into a new platform. However, internal data displays are often meaningless to an outsider, so these systems also require remediation or transformation before they can be leveraged in a consolidated solution.

As recently as a decade or two ago, this vision of technically mediated transparency was illusory. Mechanisms to present information outside of the corporate walls to customers were extremely limited. Before the Internet was in nearly every American home, the fastest way to share information was through unidirectional media such as phone, radio or television. These technologies, while revolutionary in their own right, were hardly satisfactory for distributing complex information to thousands or even millions of customers simultaneous. With the exception of television, the available channels were completely auditory. Television had a visual element but images were fleeting and could not be paused for deeper examination. The Internet became the missing link in building more suitable solutions. Today’s web based applications such as social media platforms present an unprecedented opportunity to present an aggregated view of content in which the customer is in control of information access – not the publisher. These tools afford organizations the ability to scale information distribution efficiently and to do so on platforms that are already embedded in their customers’ lives.

Consider a mapping application. Behind the scenes, the data reflecting the position of the vehicle is represented by coordinates. However, these strings of alphanumeric characters are meaningless to most users. Instead, mapping applications like Google Maps or Waze remediate the data into a graphical form that is more immediately meaningful to the user.

Figure 2. Remediation of alphanumeric coordinates to a graphical map display (Google Maps Coordinates)

Figure 2. Remediation of alphanumeric coordinates to a graphical map display (Google Maps Coordinates)

Current technologies and design paradigms provide infinite opportunities for recombination of data and remediation of other systems. GPS, news feeds, cameras and video recording, voice transcription, payment technologies, object-character recognition and QR technology are just a few of the technical options for unmasking complex internal systems. The remediation of different systems should seek to present content in such a way as to make the medium nearly invisible. By “ignoring or denying the presence of the medium,” a system can create a natural symbiosis between the viewer and the information (Bolter, Gusin). When translated to the CEM world, this principle means that a new platform for transparency should help the customer understand their position within the complex corporate system while forgetting the restrictions and limitations that are inevitably shaping their experience.

The United Airlines mobile app is a great example of how internal systems can be remediated to improve the customer experience. Their app successfully blends independent internal departments in a single application that helps customers understand and control factors that may influence their flying experience. For example, the app can display flight status, available flight amenities, entertainment options, passes for a lounge, account information and even embeds Uber for a seamless travel experience. In being named the 2014 Airline of the Year by Global Traveler, Jeff Foland, United’s executive VP of Marketing and strategy noted that last year they introduced even more “new tools to give customers more information and control over their travel experience” (United Airlines). Screenshots illustrating the remediation of these functions are in the appendix.

Any new digital platform leveraged for the purpose of customer education and empowerment exemplifies Michael J. Reddy’s “conduit metaphor” (Day). Such platforms serve as intermediaries between an organization and its consumers. Organizations are not giving up control of their information by using it to educate customers (Kirby). They have full control over what information is shown and how it is presented. Organizations will reap the greatest benefits, though, if they put themselves in their customers’ shoes when designing these systems. It is essential to use familiar language and deploy intuitive designs. By failing to do either of these things, businesses illustrate to the customer that they are out of touch and do not truly understand customer needs. Using business jargon, for example, alienates customers and diminishes their ability to understand the information presented to them. In fact, launching a business-centric solution instead of a customer-centric one may be more destructive than not launching a solution at all.
A handful of companies are beginning to employ these practices and are reaping rewards in loyalty, satisfaction and revenue. Each of these companies is willing to expose potentially unfavorable information such as a downed server or a delayed package to the customer. Exposing this information, though, facilitates more intelligent customer decisions about how to handle or escalate issues and gives them confidence that progress is being made toward a resolution.

FEDEX

Fedex (along with competitors UPS and USPS) offers a package tracking interfaces which exposes an internal system in a customer-friendly way. Senders and recipients can see locations of their packages along their journey and estimates the delivery date and time. Google has extended this platform further by remediating this content into the search engine’s default display when a tracking number is searched. Their commitment to transparency by exposing a preexisting internal system has helped propel Fedex to be top rated in the Quest for Quality awards (Fedex).

Figure 3: Fedex Package Tracking Interface (Fedex Package Tracking)

Figure 3: Fedex Package Tracking Interface (Fedex Package Tracking)

UBER

The Uber mobile app combines GPS functionality, specific driver information like name and car model, driver rating and payment into a seamless system. The combination of these independent systems gives the customer full transparency to whom is picking them up, their expected arrival time and the level of service they should expect to receive. Additionally, Uber solicits customer feedback about the driver and driver feedback about the customer after every ride. That information is aggregated and presented back in the interface creating a cycle of feedback and transparency for both the organization and the customer. Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, recognizes the power of technology as an intermediary for this service: “The taxi industry has been ripe for disruption for decades. But only technology has allowed it to really kick in” (Stone). This technological disruption has empowered the customer and the organization to make more informed decisions. According to a Business Insider article, Uber has been promoted to near “Apple fan boy realm” by customers, suggesting extreme loyalty and satisfaction (Shontell).

Figure 4: Screenshots showing different Uber functionality (Uber Screenshots)

Figure 4: Screenshots showing different Uber functionality (Uber Screenshots)

SALESFORCE.COM

Salesforce.com displays the state of every server that they host at all times via their site trust.salesforce.com. Through this site, customers can learn of outages and issues and receive updates on estimated time to resolution. By being transparent about these circumstances, Salesforce.com avoids keeping customers in the dark and deflects potential calls inquiring about server status. Customers can self-serve the answers to their questions. Their commitment to transparency has paid off. Salesforce.com received the highest scores in an annual CRM systems survey conducted by the Civil Society IT (Salesforce).

 

Figure 4: Server Statuses on Salesforce.com

Figure 4: Server Statuses on Salesforce.com

Figure 5: Specific Server Issue on Salesforce.com

Figure 5: Specific Server Issue on Salesforce.com

A pro-transparency mentality is mimicked by our cultural practices as well. The local food movement, which aims to connect local growers and eaters, emphasizes knowing the journey one’s food took from the farm to one’s plate. Farm-to-table restaurants commonly list sources of their ingredients and information on preparation on their menus or posted publicly in their restaurants. Many restaurants are even constructing open kitchen architectures to allow diners to have an unobstructed view of the food preparation. With the proliferation of speedy web and mobile technologies, we have grown accustomed to immediate information access. While some companies have adopted these technologies and techniques for sharing information, the majority still would benefit greatly from leveraging such technologies to provide their customers with an unobstructed view of essential information for the purpose of customer education and empowerment.

Figure 5: Map of local food sources at Revolutionary Soup, Charlottesville, VA (Vegology)

Figure 5: Map of local food sources at Revolutionary Soup, Charlottesville, VA (Vegology)

The Case for Transparency

Each new sociotechnical era depends on maturation of the previous eras for success. The Distribution Age would be irrelevant without the massive content production that was stimulated during the Industrial Age. The Age of the Customer would be impossible without strong information sharing platforms. In the same way, the Age of Transparency does not replace the Customer Age but rather extends it. Customer Experience Management remains an essential function to the customer-brand relationship. Without providing positive customer experiences, an organization has little opportunity to reach the more mature transparency stage. Additionally, accessing platforms for transparency is an exercise in customer experience. A platform with ideal content but poor performance or design is just as likely to stimulate negative brand associations as a disappointing face to face interaction at the store.

Building these solutions is not simply a feel-good exercise; it has strong financial benefits, as well. For many organizations, the cost of operating a support center is a heavy yet obligatory expense. These centers field questions and resolve uncertainties that customers face. Uncertainty Reduction Theory, proposed by Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese, explains that uncertainty is inherently uncomfortable and that people need information about the other party in order to minimize that discomfort. The more information one has, the better that he or she can predict behavior and actions of the other party. While developed to explain the initial interactions between two people, this principle logically extends to brands and their consumers as well. Confronting with a new issue, customers are naturally uncomfortable. Educating and providing self-service options to customers empowers them to answer their own questions and decreases their own uncertainty which, therefore, decreases the likelihood that they will reach out to the organization with inquiries. Deflecting these calls has the potential to save companies tremendous investments in infrastructure, personnel and training. Designing, developing and implementing platforms for transparency can be a costly operation up front but the return on investment is likely to be great. Decreased costs are only half of the equation. The new found consumer trust and confidence derived from transparency has the potential to increase revenues. Investments in transparency platforms are a win-win.

The born-digital generation, defined by Marc Prensky in his book “Born Digital” as anyone born after 1980, is quickly maturing into a significant percentage of the consumer market (Prensky). With the median of this group turning 18 years old this year, a critical mass of digital natives is now shopping with their own money and making their own buying decisions. Digital natives have grown up in an environment of extensive information access and have an “insatiable desire for immediacy” (Bolter, Gusin). Their view of relationships with each other and with institutions is different than those of digital immigrants (anyone born before the advent of the Internet and other digital technologies). These views, which have been shaped by the technologies that have been ever present in their lives, diminish the corporation from a position of superiority to one of equality. On Facebook and Twitter, for example, companies and consumers both have the same type of account, same role and same functionality. In this sense, the company is now a technical equal.

Organizations need to start acting like peers instead of parents in order to appeal to this burgeoning market. Providing digital platforms to help de-blackbox the customer’s experience is a perfect way to begin this transformation. Companies should share information that will empower their customers during each stage of the customer journey just like a friend providing advice during a shopping trip. The days where organizations prescribe answers are over. Knocking on the door is a refreshing new era where companies trust their customers to use relevant information to make the right purchasing and service decisions. The organizations that embrace and implement solutions for transparency and information sharing will see great returns on loyalty, satisfaction and revenue in the newest era in corporate sociotechnical differentiation. Welcome to the Age of Transparency.


Appendix

Screenshots from the United Airlines app showing great visibility into different operations that affect a customer’s flight experience. The “Where is this aircraft coming from?” functionality is particularly transparent and informative. United has exposed a key internal system to allow customers to understand the point in the supply chain that has delayed their flight. For example, understanding that the flight preceding mine is delayed due to weather at its point of origin helps a customer be more empathetic towards the delay and realize that it is not the airlines fault.

Integration with Uber

List of current Club passes

MileagePlus Premier Status

List of all current reservations

Additional travel tools (non-United specific)

Additional flight information

Visibility to where my plane is coming from

Upgrades list

Amenities for my flight

Boarding pass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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