The real magic is anticipating customer need

Wearable contactless payment systems - the future of customer experience or a gimmick?

There is something ‘cool’ or futuristic about not having to pull out your wallet to pay. As the idea has gained mainstream acceptance more companies have started to put forward solutions.

It’s a longstanding concept at hotels that you can use your room key or room number as a payment method in the restaurants and bars. Disney’s MyMagic+ wearable strategy, first proposed in 2008, was rolled out in 2013 and is perhaps best known through the MagicBand, a wrist-worn RFID device that combines key, ticket, and payment system throughout the park, all personalized to your experience. Restaurant staff greet you by name when you arrive for your reservation; you don’t need to carry a wallet. It’s the epitome of seamless customer experience – rather like magic, in fact.

The Moscow Metro has rolled out dedicated rings and bracelets with embedded RFID, so riders can ‘pay and pass’ quickly and easily without taking out their wallets or phones. The more forward-looking among you (or perhaps more dystopian-minded) might see the inevitable path from this to implanted chips that let us pay with the wave of a hand.

Leaving aside the potentially troubling aspects of this – what does this mean from a customer experience standpoint? Is this really an improved, sustainable, differentiated customer experience, or is it just a gimmick? If these wearable methods become more widespread, will I need a different device for the metro, my gym, my supermarket loyalty card, and my doctor? How will it scale to a broader use – after all I only have so many fingers.

It is not the introduction of a ‘magic’ piece of wearable technology that makes the Disney implementation so compelling – it’s the understanding of the underlying interaction between service and customer. During a recent stay in the USA, a parking-lot ticket machine offered me the option of an SMS when I got close to the end of my paid-for time.

The warning was nice, so I didn’t risk getting a ticket, but it went one better: I could reply directly to the SMS and extend the parking time by 60 minutes, which made for a better, more flexible shopping experience. SMS is a far less flashy technology than a wearable RFID chip, but the specific implementation mattered less than the careful understanding of the customer need.

As cool as the concept is, wearables for non-contact payment don’t inherently add value.

Let’s take a look at the Moscow Metro again as an example for other major cities. Travelers – especially commuters – want to get to their destinations as quickly and as smoothly as possible. Contactless payments ease the friction of one part of the journey, but this could be addressed more simply, as it has been on the London Underground, with the implementation of standardized contactless payments, rather than investing in developing something bespoke with a shorter lifespan.

Instead, there are other aspects of the infrastructure that could be augmented to improve the customer experience. City planners have a space or capacity problem – more trains on the same route are sometimes impossible. Now imagine that a ‘predictive’ analysis could create a custom, personalized journey for each commuter, offering the fastest and most network-efficient route at that moment in time, based on aggregate data from all travelers currently in the network. If a train fails or if delays are to be expected from construction sites, then this information feeds into the system to help mitigate the resulting issues. City planners can better plan based on experience; service work can be done more efficiently.

To give you one final example: Last year, Amazon unveiled its concept grocery ‘Amazon Go’. It’s a store with no checkouts – you just take what you need and, when you’re done, walk out the door. It uses a combination of your phone, on-shelf sensors and cameras with deep-learning capabilities to track what you’re buying, and charging you accordingly when you leave. This has the potential to be a phenomenally smooth customer experience, and there’s not a wearable in sight. What Amazon is doing is understanding the customer need and building systems to get to that as directly and smoothly as possible.

This is why understanding the customer and their underlying needs are what matters most. A bad process is a bad process, whether that relies on wearables, charge cards or subway tokens. On a more positive note these implementations demonstrate that even inconspicuous, long established processes that have existed for more than 80 years – such as the Moscow Metro – are in favor of modernization.

Olaf Wicke

Olaf is the Senior Product Marketing Manager for OpenText Customer Experience Management. He is an innovative visionary for Customer Experience solutions, and associated new business models and strategies.

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