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The balance of human and digital servicing

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

We’d all accept that digital tools and technology can save time, effort and money but there’s more and more evidence emerging that consumers want brands to strike the right balance between human and digital servicing.

In Engine’s annual Customer Experience Report, the study revealed that although 62 per cent of respondents wanted simpler, flexible and more affordable customer service options (which digital and tech solutions can support), they were far less interested in companies prioritising investment in voice assistants (15 per cent), using data to make recommendations based on preferences (17 per cent) or automating elements of the customer experience (22 per cent). Indeed, 58 per cent would favour focusing on training and performance incentives for customer-facing staff.

Today’s businesses need to be set up to provide more personal, intuitive and responsive services that dynamically respond to different customers’ needs. Technology, used as a means to do this, sits at the heart of almost every service we use day-to-day, yet in the vast majority of cases, technology alone cannot fulfil all the requirements great service delivery. Customers still want human contact to fulfil certain goals, especially where there’s a level of complexity in their mission that needs discussion, or an expectation of empathy for a matter to be considered fully resolved.

We know as customers ourselves that we prefer to deal with organisations that appear to understand us, share our values, and endear themselves to us in some way. Those who succeed in this are more likely to earn our loyalty. And yet, although we understand the importance of an emotional connection, it’s tempting to revert to focusing on improving the rational, transactional parts of the service delivery as the driver of quick fixes, savings and revenue.

The answer to this apparent juxtaposition lies in businesses gaining a deeper understanding of what their different customers really value and finding the right balance of self-serve and automation vs human-touch and personalisation. And until the general public sees the value in, and becomes more accustomed to using new technologies, organisations will have to continue to stretch to retain the laggards, appeal to the masses and excite the early adopters.

Enabling better experiences

Engine’s annual Customer Experience Report also surveyed consumer views on which brands provide the best service or customer experience and retail brands dominated those ranked in the top ten. It was interesting to see Amazon, arguably one of the most innovative and automated tech companies, voted as number one for the second year running, when respondents had also placed least importance on the use of innovative technology and automation.

Perhaps the reason Amazon tops the tables is because the organisation has found the perfect balance of self-service and targeted support from real people when consumers most need it. They’ve worked hard to design a frictionless experience that puts the customer at its heart. By automating the most common tasks, staff are freed up to accommodate customers facing more significant issues.

And that’s where technology can really deliver value. Both on the front line and behind the scenes, digital tools and technology can strip away more functional, mundane and commonplace tasks from the human to-do list, allowing staff to focus on empathising, problem solving, connecting with customers and being more creative.

Right now, at a practical level, real time analytics and machine learning can enable more effective and personalised experiences at scale by providing an understanding of the use cases, needs and preferences of different customer groups, amassed from myriad interaction and transaction records. Artificial intelligence can work in the background to start to make recommendations and prompt the likely best actions for issue resolution or upsell. Voice assistants are starting to demonstrate contextual understanding and so sustain meaningful and relevant conversations for longer.

More cutting-edge applications include facial recognition to improve security and help hospitality hosts recognise loyal customers, augmented reality to help technicians identify components and diagnose faults, voice technology that allows healthcare providers to focus on patient care rather than admin and mobile video providing vital, virtual support for emergency services.

The risk of rejection 

So, technology is proving more effective and valuable for both lower-level, administrative ‘jobs to be done’, and delivering instant information and connectivity to frontline service teams, but at certain points where there’s complexity, ambiguity or just a personal preference, human intervention is still required. Real-time technical advice, building relationships, understanding personal circumstances, handling service disruption and resolving issues are best handled by people, supported by technology to inform and empower them.

Looking to the future, as more and more becomes possible through technology, staff will need to develop new skills, come out from behind their desks and adopt new roles. As the intelligence behind self-serve becomes more advanced and accepted across the board, customers will see more value in interacting with machines, but the road ahead is not as direct as it may seem. We’re already seeing signs of humans becoming overloaded by technology as it becomes omni-present, seeking digital detoxes from our multiple, portable devices and becoming suspicious of the voice and listening capabilities of ever-more sophisticated bots.

Without a deep understanding of how technology plays a relevant and desirable role in fulfilling human needs, there’s always a risk of rejection. Successful organisations will be those that take the time and care to design great customer experiences with tech and digital solutions integrated in a way that supports people to better serve people.

A great service and a well-designed customer experience are indivisible from the associated organisational ecosystem of people, processes, products, partners and digital platforms that deliver it - to have one, you must have the other too. Understanding and acting on this inherent duality is critical to success.

Services are social systems, designed by people for others to deliver and use, so it’s important to not only have the right skills to design services and experiences, but also the capability to support people across the organisation to develop the customer experience function and shape a customer-centred company culture.

Designing a new service and experience is relatively easy compared with the challenge of designing a really great one – and more so, making it happen. The good news is, in the practice of service design, there’s a collaborative, systematic and creative way of developing and embedding the required vision, capability and culture to succeed.

Paddy Whiteway, Client Services Director, Engine (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa

Paddy Whiteway is Client Services Director at Engine – The Service Design Consultancy. He’s worked in consultancy, marketing, business development and client services with leading brands in a variety of sectors.