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Is Virgin’s Use of Google Glass the Future of Customer Service?


Google Glass hasn’t yet been released to the public, but many have begun experimenting with its potential real-world applications: for example, on the operating table and in the police force.

Recently, Virgin Atlantic brought another use case to the forefront: the potential for Google Glass to enhance customer service. In Feb. 2014, the airlines embarked upon a six-week trial—later extended to eight weeks—in which customer service agents greeted first-class customers at London Heathrow Airport with the aid of Google Glass and another piece of wearable technology, the Sony Smartwatch 2.

“By being the first in the industry to test how Google Glass and other wearable technology can improve [the] customer experience, we are upholding Virgin Atlantic’s long tradition of shaking things up and putting innovation at the heart of the flying experience,” says Dave Bulman, Virgin Atlantic’s IT director.

Indeed, Virgin has proven itself an early adopter of in-flight technologies that are now industry standards, such as seat-back video screens (pioneered in the early ‘90s). But Google Glass, despite Virgin’s positive experience, remains a polarizing device, sparking concern over privacy-rights implications—not to mention an expensive one, coming with a $1,500 price tag (though consumer pricing is expected to be much lower).

For now, the device is available only to people who signed up to test a beta version, known as “Glass Explorers”—but experts anticipate a public release for Glass before the end of 2014. So, is Virgin’s use of Google Glass a look into the future of customer service? We spoke with technology experts to find out.
Virgin Atlantic Google Glass_landscape (1)

A Virgin customer service agent wearing Google Glass.

Virgin Sees Customer Service Success Through Glass

Before the Glass trial, Virgin passengers arriving at a first-class terminal could already expect to be greeted by name as they stepped from their vehicles, says Stephane Cheikh, project manager for SITA (the technology research company that ran the trial). Virgin has an established process of scanning car registrations to determine which passengers they’re associated with, so employees know who’s showing up just before they arrive. From there, however, the process becomes a bit less high-tech: As cars pull up, dispatchers verbally assign a customer service agent to the arriving passenger.

“They were making those assignments via radio,” Cheikh says. “[SITA] looked at it and we thought, ‘there must be a better way to do that.’”

So, for the trial, SITA designed a mobile app, wherein dispatch could press a button to alert agents of new customers. Instead of hearing dispatch over the radio, Kenneth Charles, Virgin’s volunteer Glass-wearing agent, would hear a small buzzing sound in his ear.

As Charles approached customers, the Glass device showed him not only their names, but also their loyalty information, flight status, what transportation arrangements they’d made at their destination and what the weather was like there. So, for example, to a guest arriving in a shirt and jeans on his way to 20-degree weather in New York, Charles could say, “You might want to pull out a sweater from your suitcase.” And because Glass is a hands-free device, he could help the passenger do just that.

Virgin Atlantic Google Glass_landscape (3)
“I think it’s a great thing for service,” Cheikh says. “You get the right information about the right person at the right time.”

Still, even Cheikh was surprised that, in the course of the trial, none of these passengers reacted negatively to the device that’s sparked so much controversy. No one asked for the Glass device to be turned off or asked if they were being recorded, he notes. Some guests asked to try it on. Others, curious about the device—and impressed with the service offerings, Cheikh says—specifically requested the Glass-touting Charles as their service agent.

Cheikh says the computerized glasses (and the two Smartwatches) used were just as popular among the employees testing them. As the trial progressed, they asked to be able to see more data on their screens, including passengers’ birthdates and seating charts for their flights. Meanwhile, employees reported that the new gadgets made for a less-stressful work environment, since they were no longer constantly straining to hear the radio dispatch.

“Now, we have staff at Virgin asking to keep [Google Glass],” Cheikh says.

Personalizing the Customer Service Experience

The potential benefits of using Google Glass for customer service extend beyond the travel industry. Adam Honig, senior vice president at cloud services and advisory company Cloud Sherpas, could see Glass performing well in “any sort of business environment where recognition is important,” whether that’s the first-class cabin of an airplane or the register at a coffee shop.

“Understanding what the customer’s profile or preferences are, how to address them, how to pronounce their name—that could be very powerful,” Honig says.

Software developer Emotient is already pushing the limits of customer recognition with a Glass app that reads and analyzes human expressions. As it states on its website, the ability to actually tell what a customer is feeling about a service experience or a product has huge potential for service-oriented organizations. For example, service reps could alter their delivery approach or even their product offerings based on a customer’s true reaction—and companies could target marketing and product development efforts accordingly. Already, Emotient’s beta version can detect some human emotions with more accuracy than actual humans can.

Not only could customer service organizations benefit from having staff wear Glass devices—they could also benefit from customers wearing them. A customer wearing Google Glass, says technologist Eric Abensur, could be provided with a targeted list of offers, suggestions and discounts right before their eyes upon entering a service establishment. This not only entices customers to buy, Abensur says, it also re-establishes their relationship with an actual brick-and-mortar location: a relationship which is increasingly being lost in an age of e-tailers and online shopping.

The potential benefits of wearable technology even extend beyond an organization’s storefront to its warehouse, where hands-free scanning of inventory could increase productivity and make employees’ jobs easier and safer.

Giving Support Professionals an Eye for Customer Issues

Others see possible wearable-technology benefits at another stage of the customer experience: support. Stephen Smith, senior technical product manager for remote IT support service GoToAssist, says headsets such as Glass could be used by support professionals to help consumers fix malfunctioning software or devices.

The GoToAssist mobile app’s new feature, SeeIt, already allows users to point their Android phones at devices as support agents talk them through a repair or setup process. According to Smith, more than a third of GoToAssist’s customer base has used SeeIt since the feature launched in early 2014: a sign that developing a similar app for Glass could prove even more popular. After all, with Glass, “you’re not having to hold something and point to something [else],” Smith says.

GoToAssist is already eyeing a Glass app that would include annotation capabilities, says Smith, so that IT support personnel could watch customers’ exact process to see where they’re going wrong, or where the product is breaking down. As a user looks at a device, the support agent, “rather than verbally saying, ‘up a bit…there!’ [could] highlight or circle the item,” Smith explains. (Check out their neat Glass demo here.)

“What you’re seeing when you’re wearing Glass is actually what the person at the other end sees. If you can see what someone else is seeing and you’re 10,000 miles away, there’s a huge benefit in that,” says Smith. “It will improve support and improve customer satisfaction.”

In fact, Google recently announced its new Glass at Work program, which aims to provide industry-specific apps for certain business users, including technical support. It’s likely that more support-focused apps, in the vein of SeeIt, will crop up in the near future.

Social Concerns and Technical Difficulties

Though the potential benefits are significant, early users of Glass have described a number of issues that could make the device tough to use in a customer service setting.

Many are glitches you might expect of any first-generation technology. One common complaint is short battery life. Jason Smylie is chief information officer at Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop, and is also a Glass Explorer. Smylie has managers-in-training wear the device to record their decisionmaking during busy lunch shifts, but reports he’s only able to monitor about 30 minutes of each shift before the device’s battery dies. Glass also breaks easily—Smylie has already snapped his in half once while taking it out of its case. (He notes that Google “was kind enough to replace it.”)

“When equipment’s being used in a restaurant, it needs to be durable,” Smylie says. With the fragility of Glass, “there’s a lot of ways things could go south. It does freak me out.”

Due to issues such as these, Honig doesn’t think Glass should be used in customer service interactions—yet. The hands of front-line customer service staff, he says, is not the place you want to put a technology that’s still in the fickle stage of beta testing. “Customers often don’t get very happy if stuff isn’t working,” he says.

Those looking to use Glass in the workplace will also need to take factors like network speed and connectivity into account, notes Cheikh. Despite Virgin’s ultimate success with the Glass program, its device did experience some problems with the spotty mobile 3G and Bluetooth connections being used (though these issues were largely resolved when they switched to WiFi). SITA also noted that lighting conditions must be close to perfect for the Glass camera to function well.

Then, of course, there are social concerns, such as the oft-discussed fine line between “cool” and “creepy.” Smylie says that, besides the fact that Glass is not yet widely available for purchase, he’s waiting for the device to become less of a privacy polemic before instituting it on a widespread basis. In short: a lot of people simply don’t like the idea of a computer that works as a camera being pointed at them. One Glass wearer in San Francisco was allegedly assaulted in a bar for sporting the headset—and 42 percent of U.S. workers said in a recent survey that they would not consent to using Google Glass even for their jobs.

“At a point when this becomes a little more socially acceptable,” Smylie says, “then we would feel comfortable having a cashier wear it.”

The Future of Glass in Customer Service

Of late, Google itself has begun taking on one of Glass’s more easily-remedied social issues—its uber-nerdy appearance—by introducing hipper frame designs, as well as partnering with Italian eyeware company Luxottica to develop Ray-Ban and Oakley lines for Glass (expected to release in 2015). Google is also extending the mobile operating system (OS) used in Glass to other types of wearable technology through its “Android Wear” program, which offers the OS at a reduced cost to developers.

But for Smith and many other experts, it will be the usefulness of the apps created for headset technologies such as Glass that will ultimately causes their success or failure.

“There’s got to be another benefit beyond the novelty of it,” Smith says. He points to activity trackers, such as Jawbone, and social media platforms, such as Facebook, as examples where people have widely adopted new technologies because they were actually useful. “If you can come up with an app that connects with people either personally or in their business or both, that’s how it’s going to be adopted,” he adds.

Abensur agrees. “Before wearable technology can enjoy a surge in popularity, there first needs to be a demand in place—something that is dependent on the number of creative app developers building new services,” he says.

Smylie hopes for a restaurant-specific app that will allow important sensors to flash across a manager’s eye—for example, if a refrigerator temperature gets too high or a customer’s meal is left sitting too long under a heat lamp, he says.

Honig expects that it will be the specialized, industrial uses for Google Glass—such as its assistance in the operating room or its use in scanning barcodes at large distribution centers—that will cause it to proliferate. While he doesn’t think it will be ready for use in customer service this year, he does see Glass becoming more widespread by 2016.

So, is Google Glass, in the model of Virgin’s trial, the future of customer service? It’s entirely possible… it’s just not there yet.

Cheikh expects it will take one or two more releases before Glass is really ready for its public debut. In the meantime, however, he encourages other businesses to start testing Glass with customers.

After a few in-house trial runs, “come up with an app and just use it with real people,” Cheikh says. “With customers, just try it. That’s the best way you’ll be able to see if it will work or not.”

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About the Author

Victoria Rossi writes about topics related to customer service, retail, and help-desk management for the Customer Service Investigator blog. Before joining Software Advice, Victoria reported for various magazines and newspapers, in addition to work as an editor and writing coach. She holds a master's degree in journalism and a bachelor's degree in history.

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