Is a ‘human free’ experience the future?


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What happens when you take the people out of an experience that was traditionally a human-based interaction? Does it make it better or worse? And what does this mean to the future of Customer Experience? Amazon and Uber might soon have answers for us on these questions.

Amazon and Uber have been making headlines by eliminating the humans from areas of the Customer Experience where a person is usually involved. Amazon is promoting its Amazon Go stores that don’t require checking out with a person. Uber is fighting with the DMV in California about the legality of testing its driverless taxis in San Francisco.

However, the move toward automation for traditional human interactions doesn’t stop here. There is talk about computers replacing lawyers in the day-to-day legal work and systems that can predict treatment plans for cancer patients almost as accurately as a doctor can.

Addressing Pain Points in an Experience Is a Good Thing – Usually.

While it’s intriguing to consider each of these experiences, it’s also raising important questions about whether humans enhance or detract from the Customer Experience.

Who hasn’t waited in an interminable check-out lane at a brick and mortar retailer and wished for a better way? Who hasn’t queued up, unloaded the trolley onto the counter behind a person only to realize with dismay that the object in that person’s hand is not a credit or debit card but instead a check book? The very thought makes me cringe. Ever sat near a weirdo on public transportation or ridden with a cabbie that makes you uncomfortable? Don’t get me started on the people skills of some cab drivers in certain cities!

Both examples are well-known pain points in a current Customer Experience. Slow check-out lines are a reality in many retail experiences (*cough*, Walmart).  The troubles with cab drivers and fellow transit passengers are so common that they are a staple punchline for movies and television.

Addressing pain points is a good thing, usually. Entrepreneurs have made billions doing just that, fixing the unpleasant or problematic moments in an established experience with a new solution.

But what does it mean when the new solution is to remove the human touch? What effect will that have on a person’s assessment of his or her experience with you?

Not Every Experience Can Afford to Lose the Human Touch

Accenture Strategy says that eliminating the human touch results in a “Digital Disconnect.” Their survey of nearly 25,000 people worldwide and across industries revealed that customer satisfaction relies on human interaction. They reported that 83% of U.S.-based customers would rather deal with a person than a digital solution. Moreover, 45% say they would pay more for better customer service. Accenture concludes that companies would be best to balance their automated solutions with human ones, giving their customers the option for either type of interaction.

Let me tell you a personal story. Back in the day in England ( it seems a very long time ago now!), we used to have our milk delivered every day, to the doorstep. Every week our milkman would call for his money, Lorraine would chat and have a laugh with him. Despite me often saying “Come on Lorraine, let’s move with the times and get it from the shop. It must be cheaper!” we continued with the delivery and stayed loyal to the dairy! We felt we were getting a personal service and didn’t want to contribute to the milkman losing his job! However, when ‘our milkman’ left and was replaced by someone else, things changed. He no longer called for his money. Instead, we found the bill on the doorstep and a scruffy note asking us to leave a check out for him the next day. There was no ”Hello, I’m your new milkman, hope all ok with you, anything else I can get for you?”. No chat, no laughter. Nothing, just a bill. Needless to say, after a while we got our milk from the grocery store like everyone else!

I don’t know about you, but when I have a problem, I usually try to fix it myself online. However, if I am unsuccessful, I then resort to getting some help. However, I don’t picture getting help from a bot. I imagine a person!

Since so much of what makes a Customer Experience successful is how a customer feels about it, does it make sense to hand that over to a machine with no feelings whatsoever?

When designing an emotionally engaging Customer Experience, it only makes sense to have human beings involved. Will a bot be able to tell I am hassled and frustrated when it “takes my call?” Will it respond with an appropriate empathetic response that convinces me that it is listening and ready to remedy the situation to my satisfaction? Can it exemplify excellence in customer service that is such an integral part of a Customer Experience? Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t.

I, for one, am intrigued and would like to try the Amazon Go store. I would also like to take a ride in a driverless car. They sound interesting, and, of course, as a Customer Experience Consultant, I want to know what the experience feels like. Or most importantly, how I remember the experience made me feel.

But am I ready for all human interaction to go away? Am I ready for a computer to fix my computer instead of a human genius? Willing to fly on a pilotless airplane? Or to get my Starbucks delivered by drone (no, it’s not a thing…yet!)? I don’t think so. If the report from Accenture is accurate, neither do the other consumers out there.

So, is removing humans from Customer Experience the best way to improve it? As of now, I say nope—at least not as a rule. There are individual experiences better made automatic, e.g. checking in for flights, paying tolls on the motorway, etc. But there are others where flesh and blood human is best, e.g. the oncologist’s office and, well, defending oneself in a court of law. I am not comfortable with a different solution. My guess is a lot of you aren’t either?

As it pertains to Customer Experience, humans are in the main an asset. Some might say they are the main asset. Just not for every part of a Customer Experience. Having options is key, and at least one of them should be human. It makes people feel more comfortable to have a person’s help than not to have it. For now, anyway.

What do you think? Is removing humans from the checkout and the driver’s seat a step in the right direction or a bridge too far? I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments below.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


  1. Thanks for the article, a very good read.

    Ultimately the line will be drawn at the comfort level of customers, which you would imagine will only increase over time as people adjust to technological change and learn to trust the bot so to speak.

    Slightly off the topic of Customer Experience, the series ‘Black Mirror’ which is available on Netflix investigates some pretty interesting ideas regarding technology advancement and how it could affect us in the future (usually in a pretty dark, negative way!). This article reminded me of an episode where a “human” bot is created based on one of the character’s digital footprints, but – surprise surprise – does not work out as intended…well worth a watch.

  2. According to an article in Harvard Business Review technology lacks flexibility. When we’re interacting with a person and we’re having trouble understanding something, the person can adjust to us. If we’re having a misunderstanding, they can help clarify it. Technology really can’t do either of these things. A person has the ability to delight us or disappoint us. It’s really hard for a technology (today) to ever delight, however, because it’s standardized and is built on a set of rules. But it is possible for technologies to disappoint us.

    That said, as someone working for a technology company I can see a large amount of service situations where technology could/should take over from humans. But anyone that reads my articles here at Customerthink will also know how I argue for the importance of human interactions and how humans and technology needs to work in harmony in order to provide the best possible experience that makes us feel well. The latest one just a couple of days ago:

    Thanks for a great post Colin 🙂

  3. Interesting thoughts and overview of the “human vs machine” topic. As is this case with most things in life it is not the absence or presence of something, it is quality of the experience driven by the experiential design. If a machine can do a better job of getting the information i need quickly, then that will be preferred. If you get stuck and need some help that is more organic in nature, then human interaction is more appropriate. The trick is; the right tool designed for the right job. No one would want to call up Netflix to order a movie. Likewise, you probably would want to talk to a doctor when making difficult health decisions. Some functions can be automated to be very customer centric simultaneously receiving employees of boring and monotonous jobs. For example, I had a very pleasant and seamless experience with a windshield replacement through Farmer’s Insurance. Never talked to a person and got what I needed done immediately the next day. The real risk here is doing something because you can, versus if you should. Throwing people into non customer centric phone trees irritates people not because they hate talking to machines, but because they can’t what they want done easily. Finally, we cannot ignore generational issues on this. Older generations tend to want to talk to someone, those middle ranges usually want to email, and the youngest are completely happy with a text or completely automated experience. It comes down to what is the desired experience…you work backwards from there to figure how to do it the best way possible while balancing efficiency. Thanks for the provocative article!


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