Poor airport experiences are as common as typos on the internet.

We've all been there. You're dragging your carry-on through the airport after a long day. With 30 minutes until your flight boards, you stop to grab something to eat. 

By the time you get a table, scan the menu, place your order and receive your drink, there's only 10 minutes left till your flight boards — no time for food. Signaling for the check, you take a few sips of your drink and head on your way. 

This is the nature of an environment where unpredictable surges of demand necessitate a minimal staffing plan. 

Airports are trying to evolve to improve their customer service. When you walk into Newark Liberty International Airport’s Terminal C or Reagan National in DC, you see a plethora of iPads, there on the table, ready to take food or drink orders. 

These self-service digital tools have completely transformed the customer experience, but like all digital transformation efforts the measure of success is in the details — as I experienced first-hand.

'Transforming' Experiences ... for the Better?

With an hour and a half before my next flight out of Newark, I walked to the boarding area and grabbed a seat that offered a clear view of my gate in the beer garden across the way. 

I grabbed the iPad and began the ordering process. Soon the waitress appeared and informed me that they were out of my selected beverage.

Things fell apart at that point. 

There was no way to change my order in the system. I gave the waitress my order. Unfortunately, the waitress had a lot of ground to cover because of the "labor saving" iPads. 

When I requested a replacement beer, the waitress didn't know they were out of that one as well. None of the wait staff knew what was in stock. 

With the advent of the iPad ordering, the wait staff essentially became delivery people — untrained on the beer they served and unknowledgeable about what was in stock.

In the end it took me 30 minutes to get a drink. But the long and torturous process continued when the payment system mysteriously closed out my bill without providing a receipt or an opportunity to specify the amount of the tip.

Learning Opportunities

My experience represents a worst-case scenario — but it's not unique. A colleague of mine sitting at a bar in a different airport used a similar system. This was his multi-step process to get a drink:

  • Order a drink on the iPad
  • Watch the bartender make his drink
  • Wait as the drink sits at the end of the bar for the waiter
  • Receive the drink a few minutes later when the waiter brought it to him

He was sitting at the bar the entire time. Normally the bartender would just put the drink directly in front of him. A quick, human interaction was extended and sanitized in the name of digital transformation.

Points of Failure: Where to Start?

This system has many points of failure. The iPad was designed to eliminate the purely transactional tasks of the wait staff, but didn’t replicate the qualities that distinguish a poor experience from an enjoyable one.

The goal in any digital process is not to replace people. The goal is to use technology to remove friction from processes, making routine tasks automatic and putting information where it is needed. 

The airport experience began fine but fell apart once one small wrinkle entered the process. Linking the ordering system into the inventory system would have solved the initial problem. That is the kind of problem that digitizing a process is meant to solve. 

In the absence of linking the systems, having trained and knowledgeable staff on hand ensures that customers can still enjoy a quick and pleasurable experience.

When designing digital experiences, determine in advance how it will handle the exceptions to the normal process. At the airport, the backup system was the wait staff — but, while polite, they lacked the training to efficiently solve the problem. 

This Could Have Been Prevented

When looking to digitally transform a process you need to map the entire process, not just the customer touchpoints. Map the exceptions. And if your system cannot handle them automatically, train real people to solve them.

In the case of my colleague's circuitous drink delivery, simply giving the bartender's the autonomy to deliver the drinks directly would reduce the amount of overall work. Reducing staff to parts of a process dehumanizes the staff and spoils the experience of customers. Digital transformation should augment — not supplant — what makes an experience great. 

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