What can Firms Do?
A World Curated by Services
Our world as urban consumers is curated by a series of private and public service organizations. We listen to music as we wake, chosen by a radio station or Spotify. We travel to work on trains run by public service organizations. We drive on toll roads built by government or private service organizations. We eat breakfast in cafes or coffee shops built for our convenience and enjoyment. We take time off from consuming to work, but not for long. We internet shop whilst at our desks or at least collect our deliveries from “reception”.
We lunch on fast food or in canteens run by service organizations. We shop in our lunch breaks in streets full of outlets. Each provides merchandise wrapped in a different kinds of experience. We may shop in “worlds” created to provide a complete experience – the shopping malls. We attend concerts or the cinema, eat out again and retreat to our homes to recover. If not, it gives us time to catch up with our social media!
If we vacation, we travel to airports and on airlines. Each airline competing to move us to our destination based on the quality of the experience. We arrive at hotels which provide every kind of facility and experience. All are designed to lure us to stay with them and to consume more. On a wilderness holiday, we stay in hotels or camps provide for us and walk on trails laid out by other service firms.
Services now constitute a huge part of the GDP of most developed Countries. They are the largest employers in any country. Most importantly they constitute the largest use of our scarcest resource: time.
All the World’s A Stage…
A theatrical drama is a useful metaphor for the service experience. The “stage” is set by the creation of the physical setting in which the performance is to be played. There are two kinds of “actors”: employees and consumers. Actors are assigned “roles” which they have to play in the “production”. The performance is “scripted” with each actor receiving instructions (and dialogue). It works to the extent that all the actors “know their parts” and the set works to facilitate the production.
Psychologists have for a long time suggested that knowledge about situations is stored in our minds as a script. This is particularly the case with familiar experiences. For example, a retail banking script assumes the presence of a cashier or teller, a branch, a counter, forms, and other customers. Like a theatrical script, psychologists suggest that scripts can be broken into subsets or “scenes”. An internet retailing script may be composed of scenes relevant to logging-in, browsing, checking-out and paying. Scripts contain a set of actions related to the event. Scripts can be so strong that individuals will “fill in the gaps” . Experiments have also shown respondents re-ordering events that were presented to them, to conform with what they could normally expect to find.
Scripts are extremely useful to individuals. We are continuously bombarded with events that must be processed. Neuroscientists know that the brain strives for efficiency. It categories and simplifies. Scripts enable this and allow us to know what to do next. Individuals have a deep-set need for control and predictability. Scripts allow us to face new events and achieve predictability efficiently.
Services as an Experience
What is it that we are buying when we buy any one of these services? Services are an experience. Consumers are often immersed in a service experience. They take input from all their senses to build up their perceptions of the service they are receiving. I recently (pre-COVID) heard a presentation which described how Singapore Airlines had a problem with its food in Premium Economy. Their sophisticated tracking systems showed that the passengers rated the food down. Indeed it scored less well than the food in their Economy Cabin. This was a surprise since the food was identical. Rather than change the food they worked on the experience refining the food service. For example, bread was offered from a basket rather than coming pre-served on the plate. The result was a significant improvement in the rating of the food even though the food itself had not changed. We make judgements from the whole experience not just the constituent parts.
We internalize the experiences that we buy at both a conscious and a sub- conscious level. There is too much going on around us for everything to happen at a conscious level. There in lies a danger. At the subconscious levels we run the risk of being manipulated.
Coping with Diversity
The challenge for service business is how to build offerings and experiences that will not preclude over a quarter of the market. That ageing quarter represents a disproportionate share of spending power. It cannot be good for business. The solution is to adapt to fit the "healthy ageing", Third Agers. In the process the firm cannot afford to alienate the rest of its potential customers. The aim has to be to design a service experience which is “Age Neutral”.
Age Neutrality in this context means: a service experience which must be equally attractive to all biological age groups. It must deliver the same experience irrespective of changes in the body, brain and senses. It must be just as “easy to use” for all age groups.
It is needed because of the divergent way that age affects individuals. Most people might require reading glasses but does this inhibit consumption? Not only does an age neutral offering have to cope with different age groups but with massive diversity within each group. The older the group the more diversity.
Some individuals will suffer none of the declines in their senses that can come with age. Very few Third Agers will suffer multiple sensory declines without an underlying illness. The older an audience faced by a service firm, the more diverse the range of declines with different impacts on their consumption. Worse still because of perceptual completion many will not recognize that they have a problem. They cannot even self-select into an appropriate experience without prior experience.
Service Failures are Endemic
Unfortunately, the very nature of services makes “right first time “ difficult. Failures are endemic to services of all sizes and forms. The complexity of the system that creates any service is high. Not only that, but vast sections of the operation are not visible to the customer but can still go wrong. There may be a power cut in the kitchen. Three kitchen staff members may be ill with COVID. None of this is visible to the customers upstairs. It is the Maître ‘D and the wait staff who bear the brunt of the complaints about delayed or worse, badly cooked, meals. Alternatively a too boisterous table of guests upstairs can sour the atmosphere of the restaurant. This ruins the appreciation of the well-prepared dishes coming up from the kitchen. The participation of the consumers in the production of their own service multiplies the complexity.
The waiters are not neutral in the service. Their moods and attitudes can influence the satisfaction of the customers. Research has shown a direct relationship between the satisfaction of the staff and the satisfaction of the customer. What some researchers call “Climate for Service” can be key to the service delivered. This is an issue if the staff hold negative ageist stereotypes. Worse if they behave according to them. This adds yet more complexity to delivering a successfully service. It is commonly accepted that consistent successful delivery is a near impossibility.
Service Recovery for Older Customers
The good news is that older consumers are more likely to be satisfied. They cope with service failures better. They tend to see the positive in any situation and thus may not register a failure. They may have “seen it all before” and be more tolerant of the failure. Older customer are more likely to be able to take the firm’s or staff point of view. They can deal better with emotionally charged situations. They are better at diffusing them.
If the firm really fails an older consumer, then the stakes are higher. It must recover the situation. Older consumers are more loyal and hence more valuable. The first problem is to get the customer to complain when something goes wrong. Complaining can itself be an emotionally unpleasant experience. The easy way out for us consumers, is to not to complain. Instead we can leave, and drop the firm from our list of choices for the future. A defensive service provider is likely to have a much bigger impact on the older customer. Somehow the process of complaining must be made “pleasant”.
Bob Payton was the owner of The Chicago Pizza Pie Factory . This was a famous nineteen eighties London restaurant, . He would walk the floors of his restaurant watching for people who were unhappy. Did they send food back to the kitchen? He would ask “How was your meal?” If the response was “Fine”, or something as non-committal, he would pull up a chair. He would sit down and not leave until he had a better answer.
Assuming the restaurant gets past the point of getting the older customer to complain the next step is the recovery. There has been considerable research into what has become known as “service recovery”. It seems a situation well recovered can produce higher levels of customer satisfaction than doing the job right the first time! What can a firm do if things go wrong? Customers have a strong sense of “equity” and want to be treated fairly. They want to receive justice . Not charging for the course or providing a free dessert are standard tools of the restaurant trade.
The Ageing Body
Consumers Need Activity and Exercise
The fifth floor of the Aeon shopping Mall in Tokyo is dedicated to the “Grand Generation”. The mall stocks merchandise suitable for the aging. Everything from highly decorative walking sticks to a supermarket specializing in food sold in individual portions. There are multiple coffee shops. It opens earlier in the morning to fit the circadian cycles of its customers. At 7.30 am everyday there are public exercise classes and special promotions that run until 9am. The aisles have a 180m carpeted walking track, marked with distances. It provides a safe and dry place to exercise all year round.
On the fifth floor of the Aeon mall there is also a gym. In a recent documentary they interviewed Nemeto Kazue a fit and active 82 year old ex tax officer. She comes to the Mall every day. She spend 3-5 hours mostly in the gym. The gym is staffed with young, hip and fit trainers. They take her through resistance training and light aerobic exercises. She says she comes because she wants to stay fit like her late mother who was active until the age of 98. She also thinks the trainers are “cute” and are like grandchildren to her. Hopefully she explores the rest of the floor and generates the kind of activity she needs to feed her brain.
Activity involves “control” over the environment. We get huge satisfaction from “getting things done”. We have an underlying need to feel in control of the world around us. Our sense of agency is important throughout our lives. If we make some of the toughest decisions ourselves we can still feel in control. People who decide for themselves to enter sheltered accommodation stay healthier longer. Keeping a sense of agency or control is an integral part of maintaining cognitive health.
The Ageing Senses
Give them Fish Sauce, Tabasco and Gentleman's Relish
Gentleman’s Relish is the brand name for an English anchovy paste created in 1828 by a John Osborn. It is perhaps the most English of condiments. Its secret recipe is still held by Elsenham Foods. It is known to contain not less than sixty percent anchovies plus herbs and spices. Its slightly fishy taste is used to enhance the flavour of everything from eggs to meat. Its use is comparable to the use of fish sauce as a flavour enhancer in Asian food. Such an English condiment as Gentleman’s Relish may soon become part of the table setting in Italian restaurants. It will be sat on the tables alongside such foreign invaders as Worchester and fish sauces and Tabasco.
When we eat, we are introducing much higher concentrations of organic chemicals than needed to trigger our taste and smell. We can even surpass the raised thresholds of the Third and Fourth Age. The evidence that any increases in our thresholds can influence our enjoyment of food is therefore ambiguous .Understanding these changes is confounded by perceptual completion. We are also creatures of habit and may adapt our choice of food to our changes senses of taste and smell.
As we approach our Fourth Age our preferences do seem to change. We have a lower preference for sour and pungent foods. We have an increased desire for sweets and fats. This is consistent with the large-scale surveys which show that the sweet sense was preserved for the longest. The problem for a chef designing a menu is that not all senses and not all consumers are affected in the same way. Precisely because of this, attempts to enhance flavour in the kitchen have shown mixed results in encouraging the enjoyment of food.
If we are fortunate enough to be running an Italian restaurant the food already uses significant amounts of umami flavour enhancers from tomatoes, Palma ham, anchovies, and many other ingredients. The chef can put a variety of tastes on the same plate, to overcome any sense of blandness. Hot peppers and the tingle of a carbonated drink can still overcome any decline. Indeed, all of the condiments like Gentleman’s Relish may enhance enjoyment by providing variety to the food.
Since salt, enhancers and sauces can be added after the meal has left the kitchen, they can be “on the table”. Of course the chefs will have to be less precious about their work. Historically chefs seasoned their foods as part of the preparation. With an ageing customer base this may become only the starting point, as customers personalize the flavours of their food! This is important because loss of food interest as people age, can have a major impact on health. It influences nutrition and in turn the immune system. Taste and Smell perception affect appetite and immunity in the elderly.
Force Fields for Restaurants?
Where did the target of 10,000 steps a day come from?
Apparently the number did not come from a scientific study. Instead it came from a marketing campaign for the first Japanese electronic pedometer. The manufacturers noticed that the Japanese character for 10,000 resembled a person walking. The “mampo-kei” (“10,000 steps meter”) was launched in the mid- sixties. The result forever locked the 10,000 step target into the world of pedometers, Fitbits and smart swatches.