Wednesday, January 16

‘App-y holidays still require the personal touch

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The hand-held holiday is almost here

My wife and I are in the basement of an apartment hotel on a sweltering July afternoon in a town east of Milan. It’s the reception, although it would be more appropriate to describe it as a basement with a desk. After a while the manager appears, and we give our names. Our Italian just about amounts to saying we have a reservation so when the manager asks for money, we’re a bit stuck to explain that we had already paid via We resort to waving the relevant email in front of her which I had printed off before we set off on our long-awaited rail holiday in France and Italy and then with a bit of action on her side she finally confirmed that she’d been paid, and we could have our room.

Senza cattivi

In truth that was one of only a few glitches on a glorious fortnight spent travelling via train to and from a music festival in Tuscany so it doesn’t give me any villains to add to Don Hales’ catalogue of customer catastrophes. But I did realise that something had changed since the last time we made a trip out of the UK about three years ago: this was the first holiday that could have been transacted almost entirely on a hand-held device – an iPhone in my case.

The only parts of the trip that had to be on paper were passport control (although that now has an electronic element) and our Interrail passes, which remain quaintly paper-based. The rest of our holiday was fulfilled using the following apps:

  • Interrail – the pass may be on paper but the app was invaluable in helping us plan outward and return journeys and work out whether we needed to reserve seats (a complicating factor in the otherwise carefree world of Interrail-ing)
  • com – we’ll come on to a failing of the service later, but we booked all our hotels through the app without major problems
  • Google Translate – we found this late in the day, but it helped with a bit of menu and official notice-translation
  • Google Maps – despite the voice’s determination to pronounce all Italian street names with a defiantly British accent (we concluded that the “Google lady” was a Brexiteer) we were safely navigated around Tuscany.
  • SNCF and Italiarail apps/sites to manage seat reservations – with no need to print off tickets.
  • Google – for just about everything else, particularly restaurant reviews.

None of the above is particularly innovative, but the combination of apps helped things go smoothly, and if the passport becomes digital it would be possible to have a “hand-held holiday”.

Eroi dei clienti

But even with plentiful Wi-Fi, data roaming and so on, the hand-held holiday can be subject to human error. On booking a hotel in Turin we inadvertently entered the wrong month and didn’t realise until the pay-in-advance booking had gone through. was not exactly unhelpful but didn’t go out of its way to add value, simply passing a message on to the hotel in question. Shortly afterwards the hotel called and said they would be happy to transfer the booking to our intended date. In effect this meant cancelling the booking from their end and booking us directly. The hotel itself turned out to be charming and very comfortable, with a great breakfast in the morning and, as a result they turn out to be my Customer Hero of the holiday.

‘App-y ending?

It’s true that the apps helped us have a great holiday, but they didn’t make it memorable. If my outcome had just been “get me from A to B with some accommodation” then they would have delivered a 98% OK customer experience. But my outcome was to have a memorable and enjoyable break – and that depends on human software (the charming hotel staff in most of the places we stayed in, wait staff who tolerated our faltering language skills with grace and humour, the people we met at the music festival) more than the app software you find in a hand-held device.

If you’re on the path to seamless, frictionless customer experience, you need to make sure you have enough support – ideally from humans – when things don’t go entirely to plan.



About Author

Business strategist, consultant and change manager who helps companies become genuinely customer-centric. Nick delivers customer-driven business transformation projects and has worked across many industries including banking and finance, insurance, telecommunications, industrial and public sector. Has held senior roles with variety of blue chip names including BT, Royal Bank of Scotland, CSC and Sema Group. Currently Head of Delivery at NextTen Innovation Solutions

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