Getting the human and tech balance right in customer experience – Interview with Julia Ahlfeldt


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Today’s interview is something different. Last week I was in Pretoria, South Africa, where I was speaking at the Customer Experience Innovation and Tech Fest conference. On the back on my keynote, Julia Ahlfeldt, one of my fellow speakers, asked if she could interview me for her podcast, Decoding the Customer, which explores business trends and innovation in the field of customer-centricity. I said that I’d be delighted to have a chat and thought I’d record it too and release it as part of my own interview series. In the interview Julia and I talk abut how firms need to tackle the human and tech balance challenge that exists currently customer experience today, how they can go about doing that, what the future holds and what that means for leadership in firms that aspire to be customer experience leaders.

This interview follows on from my recent interview – Are you willing to delight the specific? – Interview with Seth Godin about his new book: This Is Marketing – and is number 284 in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that are doing great things, providing valuable insights, helping businesses innovate and delivering great service and experience to both their customers and their employees.

Here’s the highlights of my chat with Julia:

  • Powered by humans is becoming a thing.
  • Many firms are not getting things right when it comes to customer experience and they are getting bogged down in technology, digital solutions and self service etc.
  • In the meantime, many customers are complaining they are not happy with the service that they’re getting.
  • Whilst customers are happy to self-serve, when things get complicated they want to reach out to a human being.
  • The trouble is that many companies are not making it easy for them to do that.
  • Many customers and industry professionals are saying that the human connection has become increasingly important.
  • But, we’re not seeing a huge amount of evidence of more of the human touch in practice.
  • In August, John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile in the US announced the nationwide launch of ‘Team Of Experts’, an initiative where they are dispensing with traditional automated phone menus and robotic help and are replacing them with specially trained, local teams of human representatives that will provide help 24/7 to customers in cities around the US.
  • They have been testing this initiative for two years, against their standard service, and it is generating a plus 55 NPS differential between the two propositions.
  • Also, their team of experts are actually costing them less than their previous automated operating model.
  • What they have done right is that they have started with the experience they want to deliver and they have then figured out what is the best way to deliver it.
  • They have put the customer problem ahead of a business problem.
  • If T-Mobile in the USA can do this then this is a bit of a sign that ‘Powered By Humans’ is becoming a thing.
  • To get this right, businesses have to answer a series of questions:
    • What is your experience strategy?
      • Is it high tech and low touch?
      • Is it high touch and low tech?
      • Is it low tech and low touch?
      • Is it high tech and high touch?
    • Will it change for different types of customers? and
    • Will it change depending on the stage of their journey?
  • Things will change in the future as our preferences change.
  • But, we don’t live in the future. We live in the present so let’s focus on what customers want now.
  • This will require companies to make choices about what to do and, more importantly, what not to do.
  • I wish more companies would concentrate on being great at a few channels rather than mediocre at a lot.
  • There is a lit of talk about failing, failing fast and learning right now. And, that’s great.
  • However, the best question you could ask a senior executive right now is: When was the last time that you failed at something?
  • Don’t be surprised if you are met by a wall of silence as an answer.
  • Around 70 percent of all digital, change and CX initiatives are failing to deliver against their objectives.
  • Customers are waiting for companies to try things.
  • Leaders (and everyone else for that matter) need to be clear about what is their relationship to the word service, what it means to serve and what they think of service roles and the people that work in service related positions.
  • If you you look down on any of that then you are in danger of playing a zero sum game.
  • We all need to be more conscious, more present and pay more attention to everyone and everything. If we don’t then we will not be happy with the way things turn out.
  • We have to figure out what experiences we want to build, what type of business we want to build (and why) as well as what sort of countries, societies and economies we want to build (and why).
  • Businesses are agents of change and choice and we have to become more conscious about our footprint, how we operate and our contribution.
  • The trouble with that is that we are our own worst enemy and convenience trumps choice every time.
  • Therefore, we need to fight against our natural instincts.
  • Sometimes, we can ask companies to help us make better choices and do better things.

About Julia Ahlfeldt

Julia guides organizations on how to gain market leadership through customer-centricity. Originally from the USA, she is now one of the foremost Customer Experience experts in South Africa.

She has worked with blue chip clients, such as JP Morgan, American Express, and Virgin to deliver on their brand promise and foster customer loyalty through great experiences. Julia leverages her knowledge of global best practices and understanding of the local market to unite organizations around the customer.

Julia has a degree in economics from Scripps College in California and started her career in management consulting. She is now a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP), an internationally recognized accreditation held by only a few people in South Africa.

She is also the host of the podcast, Decoding the Customer, which explores business trends and innovation in the field of customer-centricity. The program profiles customer experience thought leadership and examples of CX excellence from organizations around the world. Guests have included senior leaders from brands such as Airbnb, VW, and Multichoice Africa, as well as authors and experts.

Check out Julia’s website:, have a listen to her podcast, connect with her on LinkedIn here and say Hi to her on Twitter @JuliaAhlfeldt.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


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