Some customer interactions will always have to be performed by people. This is according to Steven Van Belleghem’s classic book ‘When Digital Becomes Human’.
The idea was challenged by many in the customer experience (CX) community who believed that we would very quickly see an end to the need for humans to work in customer service roles. After all, we read stories in the business press almost every day that robots and Artificial Intelligence are now becoming so advanced that many people can expect their job to be automated in the next few years. Why should customer service be any different?
Amazon still ranks the book on several bestseller lists today, so Steven’s argument has become even more relevant with time. Steven’s vision projects that both digital and human interactions are important, but one cannot replace the other. In fact, what brands need to understand is exactly how best to improve a long-term relationship with their customer and where digital engagement might work best and where human engagement can reinforce their commitment to offering great support and experience.
The idea of brands creating a customer engagement strategy that is customer-led makes sense. For instance, what is driving the customer to reach out to a brand and how best can the brand respond? The answer is “depends”. In some cases the best response will be automated because this offers an immediate 24/7 response. In others, a more personal service will be superior. The skill is in defining which customer problem requires which type of service because a mistaken choice – or preventing the customer from switching – can lead to a very poor customer experience.
Companies often compete on efficiency and price, but today, brands need to focus on relevance, value, empathy and authenticity in their customer engagement strategy, rather than just assuming that a great price will bring in the sales. Research published in the Harvard Business Review last year demonstrated that the relationship between personal service and digital service is far more complex than accepting that customers must use one or the other. HBR even noted that when an American bank introduced app-based banking customers undertook many more transactions using the app, but this resulted in many more in-person visits to bank branches too. Brands cannot plan for a binary strategy where personal service is entirely automated because customers define how they want to interact and sometimes they want to speak to a real person.
The research identifies three important reasons why we should expect human service to remain important:
- Service is emotional and technology is not; HBR cites an example where Met Life insurance once offered digital condolences to customers calling to settle a death-related insurance claim. In very emotional situations like divorce, accidents, or even the death of a loved one, can you imagine how unnerving it is for a customer to deal with a robot?
- People still turn to people for advice; humans are now very skilled at using digital channels for information –“To Google” has become a verb to search for information online and yet if the information is ambiguous or overwhelming then people still prefer turning to another person for advice. When Netflix recommends a movie we know it is an algorithm, not a person, but we accept this advice. However if a customer is searching for a hotel in Tokyo that accepts pets and over 200 possibilities are returned in a search then it’s normal to ask a travel professional or other travelers for advice. We value the judgment of others.
- Sometimes automation means less effort for a brand, but more for a customer;even the most sophisticated new technologies can – and probably will fail. Anyone who’s used an automated phone service rarely has anything good to say about it, but they are still around confusing and frustrating clients. This is why companies like T-Mobile are now promising that human agents, trained in a variety of specialties, will replace phone menus and bots.
It is clear that automation will be more important in the next few years. Customers are becoming used to interacting with digital assistants such as Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Apple’s Siri. These tools are getting better and many contact centers will deploy intelligent chat assistants to help customers quickly and automatically.
Brands will use automation to increase customer engagement, to support employees and help them find relevant information quickly, and to reduce the friction of transactions – look at how easy it is to order a taxi or pizza today compared to a decade ago. But human interactions will remain important for customer service delivered by contact centers, in retail stores, and in other types of customer engagement.
Whenever you need to have an emotional connection to your customer, a human will always be far superior to software or a robot. Asking the automated system to express a false emotion – like the life insurance example I mentioned – is inauthentic. It feels bogus, like the company doesn’t care about my emotional needs as a customer that needs help.