Interaction in the ‘new normal’, or how service provision changes

Chiara Orsingher
Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Bologna and Professor of Service Management, Marketing, Advertising and Communication for the Executive and Full-time Masters of BBS
28 July 2020

The pandemic and the ensuing social distancing abruptly reconfigured the provision system of many services and, with this, the clients’ service experience.

Mainly personal services were affected and, in particular, those services that in order to be provided require, in a prevalent way, the interaction with direct contact staff and the physical participation of clients. We are referring to services that involve a transformation of some sort of a physical state, like for example dentists, hairdressers and traditional catering, or the transformation of an intellectual state, like museums, theaters, or amusement parks.

In these cases, clients postponed the experience or, whenever possible, they self-replaced the suppliers by way of self-production of the service. To the latter we may add those services that through the interaction with the supplier, involve a transformation of the clients’ knowledge, skills, and abilities, like education, consulting, musical learning, sport training.

On closer inspection, a few had already been available for some time, with online provision models. Online open universities, platforms or applications for language courses or specific trainings are just some of the examples. However, most of these provision models have the characteristic of taking place mainly in an asynchronous and individual manner, thus excluding the immediate exchange and interaction with clients.

The services in synchronous supply, like for example online tutoring on a training platform or an after-sale chat with an assistant, were traditionally considered peripheral compared to the main provision, or limited to a selected part of the client service experience.

The Covid-19 pandemic has actually transformed the existing models. It is no coincidence that on the social media a test has become popular, which asks managers and employees what drove the digital transformation in their company. There were 3 options: CEO, CTO or Covid-19?

A sort of ironic provocation on something that really happened: following social distancing, several service companies that have got to do with the clients’ knowledge, skill and ability transformation adapted their provision model extremely fast. Such adaptation implied the transfer of activities online and, with this, the rethinking of the service content, of the provision time, of the opportunities offered by technology, of the professional and relational role of the supplier and the client’s participation and engagement methods. The result was an extraordinary learning by doing on the part of service companies and clients: companies progressively honed their provision model and clients gradually learned to create and maintain the context conditions to participate efficiently in the service.

Now that the measures of social distancing have been partially lifted, the return to the new normal pushes us to wonder what will be, for clients and businesses, the destiny of these new provision models. Have they engendered a stable change in clients’ attitudes towards online service experiences? Have they modified their usage behavior? Will clients abandon online channels to go back to offline provision models?

It is possible that the lockdown experience, social distancing, and the uncertainty that still exists today about the future, will push clients to use indifferently offline and online service experiences. In other words, it is possible that the client’s omnichannel behavior, already consolidated in retail, banking and insurance services, is extended also to those services that include an interaction with the supplier, involving a transformation of the clients’ knowledge, skills and abilities. It is possible that clients will start the relationship with the service supplier and the other clients offline, continue online, alternate with other offline experiences. Clients might decide which channel to use each time, based on context information, like for example, the time available or the compatibility with other activities.

For service companies, these possible changes in purchasing behaviors entail the implementation of flexible models, for which one of the targets of the marketing activity is the creation of client’s experiences that are consistent with the service promise, regardless of the channel used. In other words, models for which the choice to alternate offline and online experiences is part of the value offer to the client.

Author: Chiara Orsingher