Head to Head Debate – Customer Service – Technology vs. The Human Touch

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As technology develops, it has changed the way many businesses approach customer service – but are these high-tech developments actually helping?

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Is technology ruining customer service?

Many people have bemoaned the increasing trend towards integrating technological solutions into customer service processes, as signifying the loss of the human touch. We live in a world where the nature of customer service is changing as the technological landscape does, and companies are increasingly relying upon the use of technology to help make their systems more efficient or to help them meet an increased workload.

The debate is a complex one, taking into account modern business practices, technology, the newly empowered consumer and how we want businesses to behave in the modern world.
So what are the main points of contention?

The Economics of Increasing Automation

Many would argue that the main currents propelling the trend towards increasing customer service automation are mainly economic, rather than strictly trying to give customers a better experience. This would not be the first time that businesses have been accused of using technology to increase their profits at the expense of the perceived quality of the end product, but it is an accusation that stings especially strongly when it comes to customer service.

Developing a reputation for bad customer service can be inherently damaging to a company, and if one thing is likely to put customers off engaging with your company then it’s the insinuation that you are putting profits over the needs of your customers.

So what are the economic drivers that are leading companies to increasingly automate their customer service systems?

The first is a simple cost/benefit equation based around the idea of a large upfront cost being balanced by long term savings. Implementing a system of automated customer service is not going to be cheap, but once it is in place a company is only going to be left with maintenance, licensing and update costs. When these costs are compared to those that come with having to pay salaries, training and other expenses associated with employees, the potential savings can begin to be seen.

The second economic argument centres on the idea of increased efficiency. The economic theories regarding businesses state that inefficiency within business processes directly leads to the misallocation of resources and the loss of profit. If the introduction of technological solutions into a customer service system means that less customers are getting ‘lost’, being misdirected or are unable to find the information they want, this means that customers should get through the system faster. This equates to a reduction in inefficiency and an increase in the amount of customers that can be processed each day, meaning that the system is now better value for money.

Business Reasons

There are also a number of business reasons that mean that embracing a more technological approach seems like a better option:

– Increasing visibility within the system as a whole, so that bottlenecks and weak links can be easily identified and monitored
– Ensuring the consistency of customer service delivery
– Being able to track each customer through the whole process easily
– Eliminating the need for employees to perform repetitive tasks all the time and therefore to increase employee productivity, engagement and happiness

Customers are unlikely to accept a lower quality of customer service on the basis that it is improving a company’s profitability though, so for technology to win this debate we are going to have dig into a few other facets of the issue.

So will technology trump the human touch?

Eliminating Human Error

One of the main reasons that an increasing number of companies that depend upon customer service for their continuing existence are turning to technology, is that eliminating human error makes the experience better for every party involved. Getting rid of human error makes the whole process quicker, which means that customers get what they want faster and are therefore more satisfied. Satisfied customers are far more likely to be repeat customers.

But is eliminating human error a question of adding more technology to the mix or of providing more training to the humans already involved?

Perhaps an example will illustrate the quandary that companies find themselves in. Crutchfield is an independent electronics retail business, set up by Bill Crutchfield nearly four decades ago, that clocks up around $250 million in annual sales with a team of 500 employees. The company has a tech support call centre, which deals with customer queries involving the technical details of the nine thousand plus products that the company sells.

The company has an interesting, hands on approach to getting familiarised with its products. Every time a new product is introduced, the tech team get one from the warehouse and take it apart, making detailed notes as they go. These notes then form the basis of the catalogue descriptions, the way the sales team direct customers to products and the detailed product knowledge that the tech support team use to help clients.

This is the very epitome of the human touch approach to customer service, as the company could have simply relied on manufacturer specs. But the in-depth training and cross team communication needed to maintain such a system is going to be an expensive and time consuming use of resources, and may even place a limit on how much future growth the company can undergo.

Now, there is undoubtedly going to be a fair amount of human error bound up in this system, but can adding technology really remove this, or does the answer lie in even more in-depth training? It is highly unlikely that technology is going to be much more efficient at filtering technical information to fit specific customer queries, then a very clued up and knowledgeable employee.

Losing the Human Touch

How are customers likely to react to the Crutchfield system? I would argue that they would like the hands on specialised approach, because at its heart it represents what many think customer service is all about: human beings helping other human beings.

However, what would happen if the company wanted to significantly expand its operation and open two more stores in distinct geographical locations? It would most likely be far too expensive for the company to hire a new tech and customer support team for each new location, and what if the quality or content of the specialised information turns out to be different? This would have huge effects and mean that there was a noticeable variance in the quality of service provided by the three stores.

No, it would be much more efficient in terms of resources and keeping the successful system intact, to bring in technological solutions to allow for cross-store training and the distribution of information between the three stores. Bringing in technology such as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) would allow the tech support team to be able to deal with three times the amount of customers, but it would also mean that a portion of the human touch had been sacrificed at the altar of business efficiency.

How would the original customers of the first store feel when they suddenly come across an IVR system in place of the previous all human call centres? Some would accept it as the necessary price a good company has to pay to grow, but others would see it as a loss of quality.

What Customers Want Vs. What Reduces Business Costs

What this all comes down to so far is a perceived conflict between what is good for businesses (reducing costs and thereby increasing profit) and what customers really value in customer service (being able to interact with knowledgeable human beings about the issues they are facing). But is the issue really as black and white as this?

It is by no means set in stone that the introduction of technological solutions to reduce costs has to directly translate into a worse experience for the customer. In fact, if an IVR system is well-designed and relevant, a lot of customers actually appreciate the speed at which they can be directed to where they want to get to.

There are a number of other ways in which the desire to reduce costs while maintaining quality and increasing efficiency can work together in harmony:

• By identifying what kind of queries are driving the highest volume of calls, an IVR or cloud call centre system can help a company streamline its customer service options process so that customers get to a real human quicker
• Certain kinds of small queries such as ordering new parts or outlining the return process can be handled entirely by the IVR, meaning that there is more time for dealing with more complex customer queries
Multi-channel and cloud call centre packages allow tech support to see all of the customers
previous correspondences with the company, and communicate with them across multiple channels in real time so that they can offer the best support possible.

This is not to say that if an IVR system is poorly designed it is not going to be a source of teeth grinding frustration for customers, and a source of pain and misery for the company, as they see queries lost within the system and customers leaving. But it is a demonstration that the aims of the company and the customer don’t necessarily have to be pulling in different directions.

The Reciprocity of Communication

In 2012, an 86 year old women in America became so frustrated with the IVR system implemented by her bank that she was pushed to send them a wickedly caustic letter. In it she told the bank that she was setting up her own hopelessly complicated IVR system for the bank staff to navigate if they wanted to speak to her (including each caller being given an individual 28 digit PIN) where “uplifting music will play for the duration of the call.”

This highlights an important part of the drive towards technological solutions and the way that it makes customers feel about your company. When members of your company try to contact a customer they expect to talk to the actual person they are looking for, so why aren’t customers paid the same courtesy and made to jump through increasingly impersonal hoops? What does it say about the way that your company views its most important asset, its customers?

One thing that customers hate is being made to feel like an insignificant number on a company system, and one thing that can easily overcome this is making sure that any attempt to communicate with the company is reciprocated in a manner that is fitting.

If your customers feel valued at the end of their experience, it does not particularly matter whether a lot of technological solutions were involved.

Are Automated Systems Really More Annoying than an Incompetent Person?

This is an important question that doesn’t often get asked within discussions regarding the increasing technologisation of customer service. Would the average person prefer to deal with an IVR system that was slightly overlong and annoying but was exactly the same every time, or face the prospect of being placed in the arms of someone who didn’t have a clue what they were doing?

Technological solutions ensure homogeneity with regards to the experience that customers will have, and this can be a good thing for both them and the company involved. With an IVR taking care of the early part of the interaction, training and quality control can focus on making sure that customers are dealt with correctly once they have chosen which rout they would like to take.

The Changing Nature of Customer Service

The final point to consider is the idea that the inherent nature of what customer service actually is has changed dramatically in the last decade or so, and is only going to continue to do so. Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to contact a company you would still mostly had to write to them or phone them up. Now you can email, tweet or message them on Facebook as well as being able to look up the answer to your query yourself on specialised forums or tutorial videos on Youtube.

The amount of information available to consumers is potentially vast, and the role of customer service is changing accordingly. No longer are companies the principal source of information about their products, and so their role has changed to one of being a facilitator and trusted advisor. Multi-channel customer service packets are in tune with this trend, because they provide a stable level of service across the many different forms that customer/company interactions can take. Instituting these kinds of systems does involve losing some human interaction to technological solutions, but this shift is designed to ensure the quality is kept consistent.

There is no reason that the increasing use of technology within the customer service systems of companies all over the world necessarily entails the complete loss of the human touch. Only if companies want to try and eliminate as many costs as possible and don’t care about how the quality of their service is affected, will it completely eliminate human interaction, and these companies should probably be avoided anyway.

What do you think about this debate? Is the human touch the most sacrosanct principle of customer service or is it all about efficiency and speed?

James Duval
James Duval is a marketing expert who has been cited by Mainstreet, ProBloggingSuccess and MarketingProfs. He works for Comm100, thinking about new tricks and techniques in the email and marketing industries.

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