In an era of huge technological development are people really needed in the delivery of an outstanding customer experience?

On June 27th 1967, Barclays installed the first cash machine in the UK at its branch in Enfield; since then we’ve seen the development of many self-service technologies. 

Applications of self service are everywhere: supermarkets, petrol stations, airline check-in, cinema, fast food, the Post Office, Starbucks, even public services such as the NHS and now, reportedly, the Police are seeking to persuade us into self-service crime reporting.

The rationale for the automation of previously people led services is that it not only makes it quicker for customers but for the provider it enables efficiencies, consistency of service and cost reductions.  So is human interaction really superfluous to the delivery of great customer service? If so why then do many banks still make provision for the customer to have a conversation with trained staff, why have McDonalds chosen to redeploy order-takers to both guide customers through new self-service kiosks but also to have them deliver orders to customer’s tables?

Like many companies McDonalds recognises that it is the balance of automation with human interaction that elevates efficient and effective service to an enhanced customer experience.  It has identified the customer interactions that require the empathy that only human intervention can deliver.  Research has shown that the correct balance of technological efficiency married to appropriate human engagement delivers not only happy customers but repeat buyers and increased up- and cross-sell.

In a world increasingly comfortable with faceless human interaction, it’s easy to understand why customers are becoming more receptive to not having to talk to a customer service advisor or sales assistant.  Many of us remain uncomfortable in face-to-face interactions, particularly where we have limited knowledge or expertise and some of us simply prefer the anonymity of considering and transacting with machines.  

By 2020, according to Gartner, customers will manage 85% of their relationships with public and private enterprises without interacting with a single human. (Gartner Predicts 2011); I doubt this.  For sure, in some sectors and for purely transactional experiences there may be no need to interact with a living, breathing human service provider.  After all we know customers are looking for quick, convenient processes and no error transactions.  We know they want to be more in control but they also want to be understood, respected, listened to and when it all goes wrong or they are confused, they want their problems solved.  Customers want their provider to show empathy, humanity, and maybe only the realism that a conversation, a smile that a human being can deliver.

Of course there are many customer interactions that are part of a journey that are transactional by nature; these are rightly being automated. These interactions tend to be those where speed, consistency and efficiency are important; but technology will always struggle with emotional interactions. Companies must map out their customers’ journeys based on their customers’ needs and then differentiate between transactional interactions and those requiring more subtlety.

From our experience, most important, (and often missed) are the handovers and integration points on the customer journey.  The multiple touch points a customer experiences in their interactions with an organisation need to be carefully choreographed.  If the customer has to describe his situation multiple times because the organisation’s own co-ordination between machine and human is not up to the task, it is unlikely that the customer experience is going to deliver to expectation.  We would recommend to build and align the experience around the customer first and then deploy technology where it can add speed, efficiency and reliability; humanise the experience to bring flexibility, innovation and compassion. This in turn will make that experience even better and there will be upsides for both customer and the organisation.

Companies should be wary of offloading responsibility for tasks onto the customers by steering them unnecessarily to technology until they begin to feel that they are making all of the effort with little perceived benefit. Enhance the whole experience with technology and maintain empathetic human interactions so that the overall experience is the best that it can be. It’s not a matter of man versus machine but man and machine, understanding where and how to best deliver to the customer’s needs, working in harmony.

Steve Jobs summed it up in his well-used quote in 1997: “You‘ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology."