Today, technology has drastically redefined how brands deliver customer experience. But it’s the human interactions between brands and their customers that often make the difference.

As we move into a second year of the pandemic, much of the discussion about customer experience has focused on the benefits of technologies. Omnichannel customer service is considered best practice, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools are used to deliver personalised experiences, and chatbots can respond to customer service questions 24/7. A recent report nevertheless found 74% of the AI/machine learning technology used in retail targets back-end operations, while only 26% directly interacts with customers.  While the benefits of all these technologies are clear to see, there is a danger that brands could isolate consumers who value human experience as a result.

Following a recent roundtable discussion with senior experts from retail, financial services, and insurance, one shared perspective stands out: it isn’t a case of technology or humans, but technology for humans. People will remain at the centre of the most important customer conversations. Technology’s job is to take care of the routine and mundane, and to enable, but not replace, the most critical parts of the experience for both the customer and the agent.

According to PwC, 75% of retail customers report that, as technology becomes more pervasive, they want more human interaction, not less. And 64% of customers feel companies have lost touch with the human element of their interface with customers. On the other hand, there are many straightforward things a customer might want to do that don’t need dedicated person-to-person interaction. These can and should be automated. For example, exploring product options or surfacing information customers have already provided before to make a query more efficient, or automated checkout, and even customising their items before purchase.  Let’s think, for example, how retailer North Face uses cognitive computing technology to help customers find the perfect coat by asking questions about where they’ll wear the coat and what they’ll be doing. Using that information, North Face can make personalised recommendations to assist customers find the right coat for their activities. These are tasks that the vast majority of customers would prefer were taken care of quickly and effectively by technology.

That all-important human touch at the right moment

There are plenty of slick tools that can automate processes for different types of tasks: but while the data associated with these interactions must be handled in a transparent, compliant and friction-free manner, these should be no-regrets deployment decisions, freeing up valuable resources to address the critical interactions, the moments that deliver disproportionately positive, or negative, experiences.

It’s in these hyper-critical moments where understanding of context, empathy and human dialogue make the difference. Customers expect a certain level of care and service when contacting a retailer contact centre, for example when we want to discuss inaccurate charges or make a complaint related to product qualities or refund problems, human to human interaction becomes essential to triage the concern  and understand the nuances and urgency often associated with moments that really matter. 

It comes with no surprise that a recent study found that 75% of customers would rather solve support issues by speaking with a live agent than by using another method and that the number one reason customers dread calling companies for support is the growing probability that they will encounter a bot instead of a human upon connection. When customers call a customer support network, they want to be greeted by another person who has the expertise to help them solve a problem. Humans want to feel valued and understood, so empathic communication and active listening play critical roles in an agent’s ability to successfully support their customers. A live agent can step into the shoes of a consumer and understand an issue from their perspective, both technically and emotionally. This relationship development can increase customer satisfaction by allowing an agent to align recommendations strategically with what their customers value most.

The role of technology here is to reduce friction, provide the right information and to do so quickly and accurately. It should work in the background to empower colleagues and ensure that they are armed with the intelligence they need to deliver the best interaction possible at that moment.

Our roundtable experts felt that there was still much thinking and work to be done in this area. For the successful, there were many potential benefits: improvements to customer experience scores (specifically, the retail sector has seen an increasing number of consumers reporting problems with organisations, with 13.9 per cent of customers experiencing a problem with a food retailer and 12.1 per cent - with a non-food retailer), finding new opportunities to provide additional services, uncovering insights to fuel the development of new products, and increases in employee engagement  were all mentioned.

Putting it into practice

So how can companies use technology to enhance human interactions and improve customer and employee experience? Some of the roundtable participants we spoke to are now using data and speech analytics and AI to determine up-front whether a customer needs special attention, either because their situation is complex, or perhaps because there’s an opportunity to make a difference by funnelling the conversation to a human agent. They’re also using AI assistants that prompt agents with next-best-option suggestions for customers, based on real-time analysis of what the customer is saying, their emotional profile and an understanding of their previous purchase or complaint history. In these situations, AI-based technologies can help an agent to spot potentially challenging situations or detect stress in a caller’s voice, and signpost sources of support or alert their supervisor that they may need help.

And the impact is not just on the customer side. One side effect of the increasing use of technology to take care of straightforward enquiries while diverting the more complex and emotionally-charged conversations to humans, means that customer service agents may need more ad hoc support today than they may have done in the past. And, with many people now working from home, it’s harder for supervisors and team members to spot when a colleague may be struggling.

One aspect of these developments is the changing skillsets required by agents. We are seeing a need to re-think the capabilities required by both the customer agent and their supervisor. With AI and bots increasingly handling more standardised cases, agents are increasingly required to handle exceptions, to take the initiative and ‘break some china’ to achieve the best outcome, as opposed to sticking to a script and staying within tightly controlled boundaries that could result in a “computer says no” result. They need to be empathetic and able to identify opportunities to delight the customer, build brand loyalty and up-sell when the opportunity arises, but also know when to pull back and simply listen with empathy and understanding.

All of this requires a fresh look at agent roles, in addition to a re-evaluation of the different incentive mechanisms and performance measures that drive behaviour. The roundtable participants agreed that we will increasingly need innovators and people who can think on their feet. And we can’t penalise them for spending time with a customer if it delivers the right outcome. Agents should be empowered to use their wealth of skill, knowledge and intuitive to foster positive experiences that will leave customers feeling valued: a competitive advantage that all the technology in the world cannot offer. This means that traditional measures such as average call-handling time may no longer be appropriate — in fact, averages in general are counter-productive if you want to encourage personalised interactions that meet a customer’s specific needs. There is little opportunity to delight based on averages.

With all this considered, it is no surprise that the human touch has previously been coined as a “luxury” in customer service. But, while technology is storming customer support services, the value of human communication in problem-solving, relationship development, and overall customer satisfaction cannot be overlooked. In summary, despite the trend towards ever greater use of technology in customer experience, we mustn’t lose sight of the need for the human touch if we want to deliver better outcomes. There are plenty of opportunities for technology to improve customer interactions with brands, but these must be framed as enablers for better human-to-human experiences, as opposed to replacements. Technology for humans, not technology or humans.

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Written by

Andy McDonald

Andy McDonald

Andy McDonald is a retail industry focused commercial leader with an international perspective helping companies deliver on their growth goals. With over 25 years of experience, Andrew is regarded as a specialist in Digital Customer Engagement, Contact Centre Strategy and Customer Experience Analytics.

Having an engineering background, Andrew prides himself on remaining customer-focused while balancing technology and service-based investments on behalf of this clients.

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