Solving the Digital Experience Conundrum: Three Roles for Technology in Customer Delight


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Like it or not, the world is going digital. Web sites were just the beginning. Now we have social media, mobile, and ever more exotic forms of automation like Marie, a digital avatar that helps travelers in New York’s La Guardia Airport.

Since we haven’t figured out how to create more hours in the day, the only conclusion I can reach is that more of our lives will be spent interacting with technology of one kind or another. And less time interacting with human beings. Is that a bad thing? No, but as you’ll learn, being “not bad” is not the same as being delightful.

The Digital Experience Conundrum

As a long-time Wells Fargo customer, I find the bank’s ATMs well-designed and efficient. But when I use other ATMs I find the experience quite similar. One recent innovation is the ability to deposit checks without using envelopes. While I appreciate that new feature, I’m not likely to mention it when someone asked me about my banking experiences. Instead, I’d tell them about a recent visit to a branch office, when a banker gave great personal service to my mother.

Only humans can express empathy and solve problems creatively, so it’s not terribly surprising that interactions with people are more memorable.

In a customer experience study a few years ago, I found that 70% of “memorable” experiences involved people. People remembered when an automated process (website, IVR, etc.) didn’t work, but rarely when it did the job as expected. Since then, I’ve repeated this exercise numerous times with groups of 20 to 200 people, and the results have been amazingly consistent. Each time, 70-80% of the time people recall and talk about interactions with their fellow human beings.

Why is that? Well, humans are more likely to be involved in complex customer situations, especially emotion-charged service incidents. In CustomerThink’s research, we find that friendly, well-trained and knowledgeable employees are key factors in customer experience excellence. Only humans can express empathy and solve problems creatively, so it’s not surprising that interactions with people are more memorable.

Of course, people are also more inconsistent, as Larry Freed of ForeSee points out. You’ll get more delightful experiences, but also more frustrating ones. Technology is less memorable, in part, because it doesn’t have such variability, Freed contends.

The conundrum is that digitizing more interactions may actually hurt company efforts to differentiate based on customer experience. Why? Because most companies use technology to make customer interactions more efficient, consistent and less memorable. Sometimes technology can delight, but as Jon Picoult of Watermark Consulting notes: “When technology helps fuel a delightful customer experience, it usually doesn’t take much for other firms to copy that technology. Then it becomes commonplace and ceases to be as distinctive as it initially was.”

The solution to this conundrum is to understand the three important roles that technology can play in delightful customer experiences. Let’s use the analogy of a great movie, where the audience experience is delivered by the star, supporting actors and a “key grip” to manage lighting and camera movements. Obviously only the actors are seen on screen, but without great support behind the camera, a film won’t be delightful to watch.

Role One: Technology as the Star of the Show

In some cases technology clearly is the lead actor. Take, for example, which conducts its business exclusively online (good luck finding a phone number if you need help). The web site doesn’t try to wow customers on every visit. By stressing ease of use, personalized recommendations and flawless delivery it has earned stratospheric scores of 86 by the ACSI in 2011 and 76% in 2012 NPS® benchmarks.

Not surprisingly, Apple is another loyalty leader that excels in technology-based interactions (although its retail store experience shines, too). Bruce Temkin of Temkin Group says that voice-activated experiences, such as pioneered by Apple’s Siri, will help create delight “if for no other reason than people aren’t expecting them.”

Asking Siri to find the nearest Chinese restaurant is amusing, but businesses also have a great opportunity to create voice-activated smartphone applications using Lexee from Angel or Nina from Nuance. USAA is piloting Nina and plans to launch a Nina-powered app next year, a move consistent with the digital direction that Neff Hudson, Assistant VP, Emerging Channels revealed at a recent CXPA conference. He and other speakers acknowledged that one key challenge is maintaining empathetic and caring customer relationships in a world that is rapidly moving to digital interactions.

New technology is not necessarily required to “wow” customers. Design matters, too. For example, when booking flights, hotels or car rentals, most travel sites function about the same. But Hipmunk innovates by providing flight options sorted by “agony”—a combination of price, duration and number of stops. You also get a more intuitive visualization of the flight options, including layover times. For hotel search, you can see “heat maps” overlaid on a map to help decide where to stay based on restaurants, shopping, night life, etc. Other sites force you, as Forrester analyst Kerry Bodine puts it well, to do the “math in your head.”

There’s plenty of room for differentiation with creative use of current technology. And, for those who want to live on the bleeding edge, Bruce Kasanoff of Now Possible suggests looking at emerging technologies like Senseg which turns touch screens into “feel” screens, or Kinect-style gestural interfaces from Prime Sense. Visit Kasanoff’s One Smart Page for other example of technology innovations that can drive customer delight.

Role Two: Technology as Supporting Actor

Of course, not everyone can be the star. And even big stars sometimes serve as members of the supporting cast. Like Jack Nicholson who won Oscars for his lead role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and as Best Supporting Actor in Terms of Endearment.

Technology, too, can play a key supporting role “in front of the camera,” adding value to the customer experience. Starbucks, for instance, has made its store experience a central part of its value proposition. Why else would someone pay 4 bucks for a Frappuccino when you can make one for yourself for 32 cents?

One key challenge is maintaining empathetic and caring customer relationships in a world that is rapidly moving to digital interactions.

Little conveniences can help a brand stand out in a “sea of sameness.” Jeannie Walters of 360Connext believes that the mobile payment system Square helps create a “memorable experience where before there was nothing special, memorable or intimate about it.” Starbucks has announced a partnership with Square that will eventually enable customers to be recognized when they enter a store and pay by simply saying their names.

Like pizza? Technology is ready to help! Domino’s allows customers to track their pizzas online, and you can order pizzas and other food directly from iPhone apps. Traveling to Dubai? No problem. Pick up a VIP Pizza Magnet from the Red Tomato Pizza company for one-click ordering (refrigerator not included).

Customers may have to engage more with brands to enable technology to do its thing. As Annette Franz Gleneicki of CX Journey notes, “in order for technology to come close to delighting, you have to train it or teach it what will delight you.” For customers willing to convey their preferences, banks can send an email when a credit limit has been reached, airlines can rebook automatically or call centers can call back instead of making customers wait on hold.

Role Three: Technology as Key Grip

In movies, a “key grip” is the person who manages lighting and camera movement. You don’t see the key grip or the workers (grips), but if they didn’t do their job well your movie experience would suffer.

Although rarely noticed, technology is often part of the infrastructure needed for employees to delight customers. Jeanne Bliss of CustomerBLISS says that “high-tech should enable high touch.” From her prior experience at Lands End, Bliss says technology enabled the retailer to automatically inserts custom messages and “freebies” in shipping boxes when customers placed their first order, bought a certain category, etc.

Indeed, personalized and relevant recommendations is one crucial role in digital shopping sites like I actually enjoy getting emails from promoting new books and other products, because they are relevant—based on my purchasing history. Sampson Lee of G-CEM agrees: Using customer databases to tailor customized offers for VIP customers is a good example of technology-assisted delight. But it’s the humans that will get credit for the delight, even when technology was required behind the scenes.

For retailers, having the right products is critical. According to Stan Phelps of Synergy Events, Izzy’s Ice Cream Cafe of St. Paul (Minnesota, USA) serves over 150 flavors of handmade ice cream, but can only sell 32 flavors in the case at one time. By using RFID tags to identify each flavor when it is placed in the case ready to serve, customers can be notified by email within three minutes. (I’ve set my alert for Umeshu Chocolate, a dark chocolate ice cream made with Japanese plum wine.)

On a more serious note, technology can be used to figure out why customer experiences are going bad. One common frustration is a customer failing in a web interaction, then calling for help, only to find that the agent has no record of that web experience. This “touchpoint amnesia” is a common problem, but it’s tough to find the root cause without help from specialized analytics software from vendors like ClickFox or Nice. Fixing multichannel problems may require solutions from major contact center software vendors like Genesys, web experience specialists like Adobe or niche providers like Virtual Hold Technology.

Your Action Plan for Digital Delight

This article provides a sampling of ideas and technologies to illustrate key roles for technology in customer delight. To maximize your success, here are recommended action steps:

  • Understand what drives delight vs. dissatisfaction. Technology can help minimize “dissatisfiers,” drive “delighters,” or both. It’s critical to understand the difference. For example, GfK Loyalty’s 2011 retail banking study found that “helps you be smart about your money” was a new loyalty driver. Banks that can deliver against this driver can create delight. Technology could help via a fully automated self-service web or mobile app, or by assisting bank personnel to consult more effectively with clients.
  • Decide what role technology should play. Not every company can or should make technology the “star” in customer experiences. Visit the Zappos web site and you’ll find it nicely designed with snappy performance. However, you’ll more likely be impressed by the 365-day return policy, free shipping and amazing customer service if you need help with an order.
  • Keep innovating! However you decide to use technology, it changes fast. As many experts noted, the “half-life” on digital innovations is short. Citibank was the first mover in mobile check deposits, but Wells Fargo just launched a similar service. Within the next year, all four of the largest US banks will enable customers to deposit checks by scanning with smartphones.

With good research and innovative thinking, you can use technology to directly or indirectly make a difference in customer experiences. But I expect that humans will continue to play a larger role in memorable experiences for a long time to come.

Further reading:

Disclosure: This article was prepared through independent research. Selected companies are mentioned to illustrate specific capabilities and industry developments; no endorsement is implied. Please visit our sponsor page for information on companies that have supported the CustomerThink community in the past year.


  1. This article makes the case that technology can play a key role in customer service, but not necessarily the main role. Customers remember when technology or an automated process doesn't work, but seldom remember when it does. However customers will remember the person that took care of their problem. Sure there are some exceptions to the rule, but the point is that in most companies, technology should support and enhance the customer service experience.

  2. In response to my article, I got an email from a Personetics representative saying “We believe that technology should play the role of the key grip – always there doing a superior job of making the actors look great. After all, the actors are why people are there.”

    The company offers a Digital Banker solution that combines a number of different technologies. The consumer will see a mobile app with voice recognition and touch screen to help them through banking interactions.

    Behind the scenes they claim to use a “predictive virtual assistant solution that is pre-loaded with more than 100 banking-specific service topics and leverages our real-time analytics engine to accurately predict why a customer is contacting the bank.”

    Here’s a video to illustrate the capabilities.

    Not sure I would call this a “key grip” because it’s not just behind the scenes. This solution seems designed to replace human interactions with a smarter use of automation than what is currently available in the banking industry.


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