Is Using Technology to Make Service Experiences more Human a Contradiction?

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We hear all the time how technology can help create better, more human customer experiences. Yet, that seems like an outright contradiction. “Human experience” is a bit wishy-washy to be fair and may not be measurable, however, to paraphrase a famous legal quote, we know it when we see it. Moreover, technology is both an art and a science. Ten companies could use the same tech stack and still deliver vastly different service quality and experiences. So, let’s investigate what exactly human experiences are, whether that still equates to good service, and how to smartly use technology to achieve this.

What are Human Experiences in a Service Context

Let’s start with some human traits that make for good service:

  • Honesty
  • Competence
  • Speed
  • Personalized communication (i.e. relevant to me)
  • Sympathy and/or Empathy
  • Decision-making power

Nothing mind-blowing there so let’s use an example. As an American expat in Germany, I’ve frequently run into the issue of not having a US cell phone number to receive authentication codes. Of course, companies never allow me to enter my German number. I wanted to transfer around $1,000 from my US bank account to another US bank account. Since that’s unusual activity for me, it wanted to send a two-factor authentication (2FA) code via text message. The catch? I was only allowed to use a US number, which I don’t have currently because I live abroad. Time for customer service.

I started the call by asking where the rep was located. Sure enough, she was at the bank’s HQ in Virginia which coincidentally I used to work right across from. We chatted a bit about the walking trail behind it, and all the deer and then got on to the issue. For both of us, that simple connection of shared experiences made the entire call more human and of higher quality.

Unfortunately, the bank’s policies hadn’t taken my unusual situation into account and worse yet, it wasn’t solvable (that’s another article). The overall experience was still good and above all, human. The agent understood my frustration because she hadn’t dealt with this before either and found the rules equally silly. Like me, she was experiencing this problem essentially at the same time and like me, was powerless to solve it. A failed resolution doesn’t have to be a failed service interaction though. It felt like we were in the same boat.

Simple use of better technology, in this example, using a 2FA app like Authy or Google Authenticator that I could set up in online banking, would have eliminated this problem, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Does Human Experience Equal Good Service?

I chose the above example because it begs the question, was that quality service? My issue was not resolved on the first contact (or ever). Handling time was probably 15 minutes as we cycled through possible options. I do remain a customer and was satisfied with the agent’s performance, just not the bank’s policy on multi-factor authentication. From a metric’s perspective, the call was a disaster. It was long, nothing was resolved and uncovered an unsolvable problem. Did I mention I was paying international rates the entire time on that phone call?

But if you ask me, and to be fair I’m able to separate service experience corporate policies, it was still a good call. Disappointing? Yes. Frustrating? Yes. But bad? Well, no actually. I was taken seriously, the agent worked hard, didn’t try to rush me off the phone, and sympathized the entire time.

So, let’s see how technology can avoid creating bad experiences, but more importantly, create room for more human ones.

Human Experiences with only One Human?

If a customer calls with a problem, goes through a Conversational IVR system, and is able to use its self-service features to solve their issue on that same call, no one would argue it’s a bad experience. Indeed, the customer never has to wait, solved the issue themselves, and on the first contact. The only human involved here was the customer. How can we call that a more human experience?

First, the customer was able to interact with multiple systems (e.g. CRM, ordering system, etc.) all via their voice which is the normal method humans communicate. Second, they were given the power to fulfill their own needs or goals. Granted, maybe it was just changing a hotel booking or getting a replacement item but the customer feels empowered, not held back or required to explain and argue their case.

Is this a real HAL 9000 quote or from customer service?

Now, contrast this use of technology with my banking issue. The bank’s two-factor authentication policy was reasonable and probably covered 95% or more of customers. Yet, being forced to have a US mobile number OR alternatively, have an 2FA device mailed to a domestic address (equally pointless) was both a failure of policy and technology. If I could’ve set up 2FA as quickly and easily as I’ve done for my Google account or Outlook at work, the entire phone call wouldn’t have even taken place.

That scenario would also involve no other human than me. But, at the same time, it provides speed, it’s personalized, and gives me the decision-making power to act on my needs. These are all basic human needs, not to mention customer service expectations. Better human experiences don’t necessarily require two humans. But they do require creating policies and using technology with these essentially human elements in mind.

Here are a few ideas for implementing self-service technology with this in mind

  • Set clear expectations, even low ones if need be, and be darn sure you meet them every time.
  • Always provide a warm handover to human agents, making customers repeat themselves is disrespectful of their time and effort.
  • Ensure transactional self-service actually works, i.e. all necessary authentication is possible, backend systems are integrated and the customer can complete the process on the same call or chat.
  • Give text or voice bots some personality but don’t overdo it. Customers still know they’re just bots, but nobody wants to talk to a soulless HAL-9000 either.
  • Avoid infinite loops where users are whisked back to the beginning of a conversation or process. You may as well doom them to a legacy IVR instead.
  • Don’t “misunderstand” forever. If your voice or chatbot continues to misunderstand a user, ensure that after say 3 tries on the same issue, the customer is automatically handed over to a human agent.
  • Always let the user end the interaction, never your self-service. (“Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye”)

Technology, like any tool, can complement humans and service when properly thought through from the end user perspective, i.e. the human customer, and not merely as a means to achieve specific KPIs. Good service or at least a good experience is the goal and the technology is how you get there. KPIs like NPS or CSAT are the results, not the other way around.

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