Airport Avatar Enters Brave New World of Customer Service

Travelers coming through the New York City area’s three airports—La Guardia, JFK, and Newark—might soon feel the need to double check that they aren’t walking through the set of a science fiction movie. That’s because the airports are introducing some high-tech help in the form of “Ava”—a life-sized, computer-generated female avatar. She’ll provide answers to airport patrons’ common questions. Customer service expert and author Ron Kaufman says Ava the Avatar offers a fun, exciting way to improve customer service for weary travelers.

“Ava is an absolutely fantastic customer service innovation,” says Kaufman, author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet. “Like the invention of the telephone, the pager, email, and company websites before her, I think avatars will prove to be the next important step in how we use technology to improve service.”

Kaufman says these avatars have the potential to be of great help in other high-volume service situations.

“I was at the Marriott in Times Square the other day and I asked a hotel employee seated behind the security desk how to get up to the rotating restaurant,” notes Kaufman. “I’m sure he gets this question a hundred times a day, so he mechanically and unsmilingly gave me the answer. Sure, the information was accurate, but it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. What if, instead, there had been an avatar there saying, ‘Hi! How can I help you? The front desk is located on Floor X. The restaurant is located on Floor Y,’ etc.? The information could have been relayed to me in a fun, cheery way. But most importantly, the hotel employee would have been freed from behind the desk to be a roving customer service representative, greeting and helping guests with more complicated issues.”

Ava the Avatar will work tirelessly and cheerfully all the time. Anyone in service knows how difficult it can be to be at your 100% best all day long. Now imagine how difficult it might be to do so at some of the busiest airports in the world. “By having Ava the Avatar, these airports are offering travelers a guaranteed friendly ‘face’ to come to when they need quick help,” says Kaufman. “She’s in the same spot all the time so she’s always there when you need her. Her mood can’t be shaken by busy, curt passengers. She’ll always provide service with a smile. I think that’s a great addition to any business.”

While the first round of avatars won’t be interactive, they will come equipped with a lot of helpful information. “These avatars will be like the FAQs of the airports,” says Kaufman. “They’ll provide a one-stop location for getting information on flights, restroom location, taxi location, and so on. All those things we want to know as travelers but don’t want to spend time running around finding an airport employee to ask.”

She’ll free up airport employees to do what a machine could never do. Naturally, the first inclination will be for people to be concerned that these avatars will replace jobs done by humans. At least for now, that doesn’t seem to be the case, as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has said in addition to adding Ava, it will be boosting its customer service staff by 20%.

“I don’t think any service provider should be afraid of this technology,” says Kaufman. “Many customer service situations require free thinking, something only humans are capable of. For example, sometimes the rules need to be bent to make a customer happy. You’ll need an actual person there to decide when that is and isn’t appropriate. Sometimes you have to go that extra mile, for example, physically walking with someone from one place to another, and obviously an avatar can’t do that. I really think service providers will be pleased to see how this frees them up to do what technology can never do—provide truly personal, unique, out-of-the-box, unexpected service situations.”

Eventually, she’ll be able to provide specialized care. “As the technology develops, I think avatars will be a great way for companies to provide efficient, specialized help to customers,” says Kaufman. “For example, perhaps they’ll be able to recognize different languages and respond in kind to customers—a great asset for an airport. Perhaps they’ll be able to recognize a child or someone with special needs and immediately be able to answer the questions or concerns of those groups. The next step might be a 3-D holographic service advisor who will know your name, where you have been and where you are going, and can ‘walk you there’ and converse with you in real-time. The possibilities are endless, and it really is exciting to think about what a boost this technology can provide to service.”

“At $180,000 for a six-month rental, the avatars’ price tag is probably too hefty for many small or mid-size companies,” says Kaufman. “But for high-volume businesses like these airports, it’s probably quite reasonable, especially when you consider that they’ll free up other employees to do their jobs more efficiently.

“It will be very interesting to see what travelers think of Ava the Avatar once she’s installed at these airports,” says Kaufman. “I suspect they’ll find that she’s a positive service improvement, both in the helpful information she’ll provide and in the way she’ll free up airport employees to provide even greater service themselves. Here’s to the future of uplifting service!”

Steve Anderson provides information to insurance agents about how they can use technology to increase revenue and/or reduce expenses. He speaks professionally to hundreds of agents each year on the future of technology, the social web, and how insurance agencies can establish their Internet presence.

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