The human difference: why we need to keep people at the heart of experience

Date Published

16/03/2021

Reading time

5 mins read

Author

Oli Freestone

While technology offers many opportunities in the quest to deliver a more proactive and efficient customer experience, it’s the human interactions between brands and their customers that often make the difference, writes Oli Freestone, Institute Lead at Capita.

As we move into a second year of the pandemic, much of the discussion about customer experience has focused on the benefits of technologies and capabilities such as automation, big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI). However, in our view, this focus is myopic. There’s a greater emphasis required on the human side of the experience equation.

Following a recent roundtable discussion with senior experts from the retail, financial services, insurance and utilities sectors, 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.

Of course, there are many straightforward things that a customer might want to do that don’t need dedicated person-to-person interaction. These can and should be automated. For example, paying a regular bill, exploring product options or surfacing information a customer has already provided before to make a query more efficient. These are tasks that the vast majority of customers would prefer were taken care of quickly and effectively by technology.

There are plenty of slick tools and bots that can automate processes for these types of tasks. While these interactions must still reflect the brand persona (in the tone and language used) and 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. When your car has been stolen, your benefits are delayed or your pension statement is wrong, human-to-human interaction becomes essential to triage the concern, complication or complaint and understand the nuances, potential distresses and urgency often associated with moments that really matter. 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, finding new opportunities to provide additional services, uncovering insights to fuel the development of new products and increases in employee engagement and productivity were all mentioned.

There was also discussion regarding the swing towards outbound interactions, when the data allows companies to anticipate customer problems and opportunities before they occur, connecting the right agent with a customer before they even realise that they need help.

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 they are vulnerable or because their situation is complex or risky, or perhaps because there’s an opportunity to make a difference by funneling 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 contact 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 emotional support today than they may have done in the past. For example, it can get very difficult for an agent when a customer who has just lost their job is struggling to pay a bill, or when a bereaved relative is trying to resolve an insurance claim but doesn’t have all the documentation. 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, versus 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. 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.

In summary, we argue that, despite the trend towards ever greater use of technology in customer experience, we can’t lose sight of the need for the human 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.

Written by

Oli Freestone

Oli Freestone

Head of Capita Institute

Oli is responsible for digital thought leadership, research and insights as Head of Capita’s Institute. He has worked across multiple industries as a management consultant, has expertise in strategy, technology and innovation, and is a regular contributor to leading publications on these topics.

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