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As usual, my brain draws some funny connections, so I hope my readers can follow me this morning. Let’s see if the threads of three different experiences will knit together.

Let’s start last night, where my eye doctor reported on my 40-something eyes: Progressive lenses, he recommended, to help with reading all the little screens in my life. Makes sense, I agreed: I’m already taking my eyeglasses on and off, and holding my camera up to my nose to review shots. But wait, he added, there’s more. As these little screens have proliferated, he explained, we’re suffering from more eye strain, staring at blue-light rather than printed pages. The research is just starting to come together, he cautioned, and we don’t know where it will go. “As with any new technology,” he mused, “there might be some unintended consequences as it advances.”

He was on to something.

I was at the eye doctor’s, in fact, because I’d recently celebrated a birthday. Talk about unintended consequences: I spent a lot of time staring delightedly at my smartphone as hundreds of well-wishes appeared on my Facebook wall. It was a success story of modern technology that makes it easy for family and friends to celebrate together, regardless of time and space. As we’ve moved from tinny-sounding singing greeting cards to high-definition videos texted to us, we’ve gladly replaced an old custom with a new one.

Technology can put a happy sparkle in our eyes, too.

Alas, not everybody has figured out how to make technology more delightful than painful. This was particulary clear recently at the Newark Airport, where another eatery succumbed to the trend of replacing people with iPads. Don’t misunderstand: I pre-order coffee and sandwiches using an app a lot, especially for fast food. But for in-person experiences, we haven’t worked out the bugs of using technology for customer service.

[tweetthis]Great service is an app with its own OS: People![/tweetthis]

As I’ve written before, nothing beats a skilled worker, regardless of pay grade, to create customer delight. And loyalty. There remain times when techno-coolness is a poor substitute for a people-driven service experience.

At the airport, I stopped at a restaurant whose attraction was fresh, high-quality brand-name deli-meat sandwiches. A big menu still hung on the wall behind the counter. As I stood there, the only customer in th place, the staff behind the deli simply ignored me. Evidently her customer service app hadn’t been upgraded in a while. A polite ahem later, she instructed me to place an order on the iPad at the end of the counter.

She couldn’t take my order outside of the technology process.

Hungry enough not to argue, I tapped my selection, then returned to stand before her. I watched as she glanced at a screen behind the deli, then reached into the refrigerated case to pull out a pre-made sandwich! Placing it in a bag, she handed it to me explaining it was faster if I just took a pre-made one. Did I want any condiment packages, to apply myself, too?

Talk about ghosts in the machine!

As my eye doctor pointed out, we’re still learning a lot about how technology fits into our lives. It’s easy to forget that smartphones and tablets are recent inventions. While the “internet of things” relentlessly cross-wires our real lives to virtual ones, we’re still working out the kinks.

We could produce a generation of short-sighted seniors; or a generation better connected to each other than ever before. Neither is guaranteed; and we should be cautious enough to ask which we desire.

One thing is already certain: We learned from a generation of script-reading call center failures that not every automation improvement increases customer satisfaction. Some companies are downright myopic with their substitution of technology for service, regardless of cost. We may find that important business things – satisfaction, loyalty, word of mouth – can’t be driven by algorithm alone.

[tweetthis]In a future of wrap-around virtual-glasses, will the human touch still be seen as the best service?[/tweetthis]

Service, it turns out, operates as its own powerful operating system. Punching in your order for a prefabricated product might work well for textiles or automobiles. We might prefer a dozen video messages to a single hand-written birthday card, too. But I couldn’t eat any of the birthday cakes posted on my social wall; and I could hardly eat the sandwich handed to me at the serviceless deli either.

Great service is its own OS. When delivered by the right technology, people, it’s still the best indicator of long-term success. Just as complex experiences continue to benefit from combining the most from a skilled surgeon, manager or salesperson with technology, we should be careful not to turn everything into an automat experience.

Let’s remember to look up from time to time. We might discover there’s someone right there in front of us – a customer, a colleague, a friend – who needs the right touch: One that isn’t best delivered by a touchscreen.