On the Origin of Touchpoints

When I pulled together my service design literature review this summer I was surprised to find that none of the papers in the service marketing canon mention the term “touchpoint.” It’s a pretty glaring omission so I decided to dig into the history of the term and find out where it came from.

As it’s used today, touchpoint seems to be an umbrella term that can refer to any of several different facets of customer experience that are treated individually in the literature.

  • Service Evidence (Tangibles) – The physical elements of a service. Shostack introduced this idea and Parasuraman included it in the 1988 SERVQUAL scale.
  • Service Encounter – The human interactions that take place between a customer and a service provider. Bitner explored the development of this concept in 1990.
  • Servicescape – The environmental aspects of a service. Bitner’s 1992 paper refers to a FedEx dropbox as a “lean environment or servicescape.”

The closest the term “touchpoint” has come to the established service marketing canon was earlier this year when Mary Jo Bitner (of service encounter and servicescape renown) used the term in an unpublished paper. Bitner acknowledges that it has become more common (particularly as a substitute for “service encounter” and “moments of truth”) but indicates that it is still less widely accepted in the academic community.

The term evidence dates to 1982; tangibles to 1988. Service encounter to 1985 and servicescape to 1992. But when did “touchpoint” enter the mix?

The word itself is not new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces it to a 1602 treatise on astronomy. Over the years it’s taken on dozens of meanings. Touchstone, checkpoint, highlight, pitstop, point of friction, boundary object, counterpoint, nexus, cause celeb, jumping off point, point of contention, point of comparison, flashpoint or liason. It has technical meanings in acupuncture, engineering and mathematics. The term is a trademark for a series of Christian books, a series on child development and the name of a polyandrous networking club.

Harvard Business Review adopted the term in February 2007 to describe the instances of direct contact between a customer and a service. McKinsey Quarterly embraced it in June 2003. Live|Work used “touch-point” at least as early as 2002 when Lavrans Løvlie gave a talk about service design at the Interaction Institute Ivrea.

Before that, the term touchpoint existed in the world of branding to mean precisely what it means in service design, suggesting that the term was borrowed outright by the newer discipline. But it’s still not clear who coined the term, or when.

Customer relationship marketing (CRM) is a likely source. When companies like Oracle started building systems that could track every possible point of interaction with a customer, that concept needed a name. References to “touch point” or “touch-point” are common in articles on CRM and industry discussion boards starting in the late nineties.

Several companies also registered domain names around this time. Touchpoint Communications registered touch-point.com in 1996 for a business selling personalized marketing materials. They couldn’t get touchpoint.com because an ISP had snapped it up a year earlier for an unrelated purpose.

There’s a tantalizing copyright record from 1992 for a text entitled “Touch point analysis and touch point analysis research guide and club membership” by R.J. Staszak, but I haven’t been able to find a copy so it’s not clear whether it’s a fit.

The earliest solid references to touchpoints used to describe the points of contact between a customer and a service can be found scattered throughout articles in trade publications.

1999 – Best CRM practices require cultivation of touch points
Advertising Age’s Business Marketing; Vol. 84, Issue 12

Data come in from numerous paths or, as CRM practitioners call them, touch points. These touch points include the obvious channels in the integrated marketing mixture–advertising, direct marketing, public relations, interactive–but also include less-than-obvious channels to provide a complete picture of how customers interact with a brand.

1998 – Wow customers with service to build positive PR
Hotel & Motel Management; Vol. 213, Issue 8

Racker was G.M. of the first TownePlace Suites in Newport News, Va., and now manages brand training for the six-property product. Since guests generally stay up to 21 days and contact with hotel employees is minimal during their stay, management established a focus on service touchpoints.

1997 – Advanced Mail Equipment Pushes the Envelope
Managing Office Technology; Vol. 42, Issue 9

For many companies, mail has become the last “touch point” with customers. Mail provides an opportunity to communicate through targeted promotional materials strategically inserted with customer statements.

1995 – The Morphing of Customer Service
Management Review; Vol. 84, Issue 12

Over and above the music, there were other drivers of patron satisfaction that included the encounters we have with patrons, all the communications-related activities, the parking, the whole experience from the customer’s point of view,” says Reynolds of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s interactions with customers. As a result, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra worked to improve the touch points, such as brochures and other correspondence

1994 – Health Care Book of Lists (pg 77)

CRM (customer relationship management) identifies contact points between customers and the company, and enables the organization to use each “touch point” to learn more about customer needs.

1993 – Marketing for Keeps: Building Your Business by Retaining Your Customers (pg 154)

Try Education as a Customer Touchpoint. Inviting customers to an educational forum of some sort offers a subtle opportunity to make contact.

I haven’t been able to dig up any references to “touchpoints” prior to that. There’s no smoking gun. No authoritative source. But there might have been a catalyzing event.

In 1996, British Telecom introduced a series of interactive multimedia kiosks throughout London called Touchpoint kiosks. Since kiosks are of course touchpoints themselves, my theory is that the prominent branding of the kiosks helped popularize the term in the public consciousness, making it easier to adopt later on when service design firms first emerged in London.

The UK has power points, fire points, cash points and till points. Touchpoints seem like a perfect fit.


  1. Hi Jeff!

    what a great resource this post is! I am working on a book for AVA academia on Brand Driven Innovation, including a chapter on ‘touch point orchestration’. While looking for the source of the term ‘touch point’ I stumbled upon your 2007 post!
    I have always thought that Scott Davis and Michael Dunn coined the term in their 2002 book ‘building the brand driven business’ http://bit.ly/5L0mrw . But it looks like I am way off! I am quite sure however they’ve coined the ‘touch point circle’, representing the pre-purchase, purchase and post purchase stage in a user’s experience. I will work on redoing that model form a user’s perspective.
    thanks for your insights!

    erik




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