Digital Transformation for Analogue Customers

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Digital channel shift, digital transformation, digital enablement… there is no doubt that digital is the word everyone uses for customer experience in 2017. But what is really meant by digital in this context?

There are many ways to define it. In the simplest sense it is the interaction between service offerings and a customer using digital technology: interacting with organisations using a screen, a keyboard, a mobile device or perhaps voice recognition. Another definition could be a sense of agility; yet another definition by being always-on and offering a 24×7 service approach. These are all valid definitions.

This got me thinking, if most customer interactions are now digital, what is the opposite of this? In engineering terms, it’s analogue. My background is electronic engineering, with a degree from the 1980s. Back then, there were two parallel streams of electronics, digital and analogue. At that time analogue electronics was still around and digital electronics – surprising as it seems now – although rapidly on the rise, was not the dominant form that it is now. I was even involved in building an analogue 1G mobile network (yes, that’s what “1G”means for those who use 4G mobiles today) in the early 1990s. The handsets are only available to see in technology museums now!

Let’s take a short step into definitions. Simplifying greatly, digital is a stream of ones and zeros that, when decoded, represent anything from characters to video streams to voice conversations and pretty much anything else that can be transmitted and processed. Analogue electronics was a way of modelling the real world with absolute values that varied over time. For example, to represent 70% of something then a voltage could be measured with 1 volt representing 100% so 0.7 volts represented the 70% output desired. This was very simple and understandable, however it had fundamental limitations on accuracy and also processing speed. The very nature of analogue electronics meant that 70% could often be 0.69 volts or 0.71 volts or even varying between these, but “good enough” to represent the value. When analogue circuits got complex it was almost implicit that there was some variation that depended on circuit build quality, temperature and even humidity. There were always concerns too about the signal to noise ratio, that is, the background randomness that confused messages.

So what’s the relevance of this diversion into old-fashioned electronics to customer experience? It’s simple: customers are human and humans are by nature analogue creatures, that’s to say, they approximate things and have “feelings” in the same way the analogue circuitry would perform differently each day.

A key component of electronics in the 1980’s and indeed still exists today is the digital to analogue converter (and vice-versa). This simple device translates 0.7 volts into a stream like 01000110 (70 in binary if you’re interested!) or the opposite. In other words, from a number that humans understand to a stream of digits that they don’t.

Digital channels have so many technology advantages that they now dominate all electronics and therefore also dominate channels for contact by customers: web, social media and email are “pure” digital channels. So what is left as “analogue”? Human contact, via contact centre telephony and face to face contact e.g. in retail stores are examples, yet contact centres are rapidly digitising too to reduce the need for relatively expensive agents to take time for human to human interactions.

Hence in the rush to transform everything customer service related to digital remember that customers, humans, are analogue creatures. They have daily variations in their feelings and behaviours, they often have a low “signal to noise” ratio (distractions, distortions in what is heard, deletion of large amounts of information received). Customers are not digital. That is so often the point of breakdown for good customer experience today.

As designers of good customer experiences, we often focus on three areas: the well-known triangle of People, Process and Technology. What is needed today is a “digital to analogue converter” between Technology and People. This is essentially the Process area. Create digital enabled processes that are analogue-centric. Focus less on measurement of return on investment by channel and more on the empathy linkage with emotions, mood variance and perceptions of service that each channel can offer. A thirty second wait in a shop queue to checkout is rarely a problem; the same delay in online checkout will lose 90% of customers and leave a lasting bad impression. The customer journey process design based primarily on technology investment will often frustrate a customer who has neither the insight nor interest in how a digital process has been limited by back office constraints. Humans interact through five senses, the visual and the aural are the most important customer experience senses, these are often hardest to create and connect with in digital channels.

In summary, we need more analogue experience design in a digital world. Let’s think of digital to analogue conversion, adapt to natural analogue variances and allow customers to interact on their terms.

Philip Watt
Philip is an independent customer experience consultant based in Oxford, UK. He is an expert on customer-centric strategy, from user experience design to technology deployment. He has worked with many organisations in change and transformation programmes to improve their customer experience.

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