Published July 2019 by Professor Janet McColl-Kennedy

Bolton, R. N., McColl-Kennedy, J.R., Cheung, L., Gallan, A., Orsingher, C., Witell, L. and Zaki, M. (2018). Customer experience challenges: bringing together digital, physical and social realms. Journal of Service Management 29 (5) 776-808. 

Professor Janet McColl-Kennedy and her co-authors of this paper received the Robert Johnston Highly Commended Paper award of 2018 from the Journal of Service Management Editorial Review Board.


  • While the impact of the physical environment where the service takes place – that is the “servicescape”- has been generally well understood, we need to better understand the digital and social realms. In the near future, AI, robots and VR will be a completely normal part of the customer experience. For example, we see this in law and healthcare – think AI lawyers in virtual courtrooms, or personalised treatments based on genome pattern sequencing and robots in operating theatres. 
  • New technologies will not necessarily replace face-to-face encounters, but will work alongside them, making already complex service systems even more so. Managers must understand customer experiences across the three realms  - digital, physical and social ‘spaces’ and integrate them to facilitate better experiences for and with their customers, and avoid potential pitfalls.
  • It is important to also recognise the changing social interactions between individuals. But not merely customer to employee, employee to customer, but also customer to customer, human to machine, machine to human and machine to machine. 

What’s new

  • Left to Right: Associate Professor Chiara Orsingher, Professor Lars Witell, Dr Mohamed Zaki, Professor Ruth Bolton, Dr Lily Cheung, Professor Janet McColl-Kennedy and Associate Professor Andrew Gallan
    We developed a novel framework that allows us to categorise services according to how digital, physical or social they are, and the levels of complexity in each space. This enables us to identify areas of opportunity and of potential conflict and to devise ways to resolve tensions. 
  • At the most complex end of the spectrum, where services are highly physical, highly digital and highly social, organisations are going to have to manage relationships between the spaces very carefully in order to facilitate the right service. Customers will choose which elements they want from which space: organisations will need systems in place to cope with that seamlessly.
  • Where the move is towards a greater social presence in a digital space, we anticipate several challenges, including arriving at a better understanding of how human customers are going to react to digital assistants. 
  • The key insight? Taking an integrated digital, physical and social perspective is necessary in today interconnected world for better customer experiences.

Bottom line

Services are about relationships between customers, suppliers, employees and a range of other human (and non-human) participants in increasingly complicated ecosystems. New technologies have the potential to enable greater efficiencies and improve their customers’ experience. But not all technologies will be welcomed by customers. Service providers must

  1. connect across the three spaces to meet customer needs,
  2. develop appropriate practice around personal information,
  3. know when to launch, and
  4.  use our model to develop a coherent customer experience.

In an era where AI, robots and digital twins are part of everyday parlance customer experience will change. We need to make sure it’s a change for the better. 

Adapted from “Connecting the Digital, Physical and Social”, Cambridge Service Alliance, University of Cambridge (April, 2019)

Contact Professor Janet McColl-Kennedy​ to learn more about the research.

Learn more about Service Innovation Alliance.