The paradox of customer experience: human interfaces versus artificial intelligence (AI)


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Let’s talk about one of the most important paradoxes in customer experience: the “Human Element.” Why is it a paradox? Well, it’s because it seems to be simultaneously the easiest part to understand, the easiest part to execute properly, and the one that has the strongest effect on influencing and creating positive customer experiences. And yet… at the same time, it’s also the one that is successfully done the least often. Know what I mean? Let me explain with two examples from my personal experience, and I think you’ll see.


Recently, I was checking in to a business hotel for a trip I was making, a process I’ve gone through hundreds  of times all around the world. Most business hotels are pretty similar to each other. However, this one instance, one of the lobby staff walked up to me and welcomed me by name. He had remembered that the previous time I checked in, it was also early in the morning, and that I had asked for a glass of orange juice, which he offered me. Of course, this stuck with me. This is the kind of personalized customer experience I mean when I talk about the “Human element.” This is the kind of interaction with the hotel that will elevate anyone’s opinion way above just another cookie-cutter business hotel.

Another story of the Human Element in customer experience comes from Gary Vaynerchuk. On a recent to visit with us in Belgium, Gary posted that he would be having dinner at a particular restaurant, and wanted to meet up with his fans in the region. Hundreds of people showed up! And Gary, despite being tired from travel, not prepared with a coat, and not even totally full from the meal, spent literally hours outside in the cold with his fans, to talk to them and engage them. This kind of act shows his sincerity and his dedication and, well, shows his human side. It shows his fans that he values them in a real and tangible way. And they’ll remember him for it. These moments show that many companies believe that the human part is easier than the digital part. I tend to disagree. You can buy technology. The human part, well, that requires human energy. Day after day. Customer after customer. It is just the hardest part of doing business, and because of that: the human part is the most differentiating part of doing business.

These kinds of things show the Human Element of customer experience. Direct, person-to-person activity that can’t be replicated by AI or any machine, and it’s the most intuitive thing in the world. This is how you get customers for life. You do this right, you’ve got it made.

If you like to hear more, please check out this video. 

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steven Van Belleghem
Steven Van Belleghem is inspirator at B-Conversational. He is an inspirator, a coach and gives strategic advice to help companies better understand the world of conversations, social media and digital marketing. In 2010, he published his first book The Conversation Manager, which became a management literature bestseller and was awarded with the Marketing Literature Prize. In 2012, The Conversation Company was published. Steven is also part time Marketing Professor at the Vlerick Management School. He is a former managing partner of the innovative research agency InSites Consulting.


  1. But the receptionist thing is very subjective.. Not everybody wants that.. Personally I would consider it creepy if they propose the same thing I had last time.. I expect them to know what I had, yes, but they should not show that they know..

  2. Hi Steve
    Though I admit some things cannot be replaced by AI but at the same time think how the lobby staff remembered you had an orange juice. Because she was present before. So had she leave who could have taken care of this great experience you had. Ofcourse this us where artificial intelligence can help us right. Your past experience, feedback being captured transferred as an input to the new visit and you get the same experience or even better. The lobby staff even a new one offers you orange juice but may be options of 3 flavors to choose from. I think we should think the positive side AI can bring in helping the personal touch of the physical.agents/ staffs interacting with customers.
    Please note this is my personal opinion and I must admit this is a great article to read through.

  3. Couldn’t agree more, Steven, although the word “paradox” implies that there is possible room for interpretation.

    Yes I’m old, and yes I have a vested interest in customer care because I make my living talking about personal and delightful customer experiences, but you’re absolutely right – winning in business is about the intimate, heartwarming, emotional, personal touch. No doubt the younger Generations X, Y and Z will argue about how much more convenient it is doing everything on line and it’s more effort to talk to a human being. They will trot out as if ALL businesses do what amazon does. But amazon and sister company Zappos are the exception, with only a handful of other on line retailers offering anything vaguely similar.

    Here’s a reality check for the 99.9% of CEOs and CXOs who read this: YOU ARE NOT AMAZON! The modern salt mines you have created for people on your team, and the shockingly poor experiences of your customers should give you a very clear message.

    You used the example of a hotel employee and the orange juice. I recently had a late check-in at a self-service hotel where there is no human contact – use your credit card for all transactions. It took 30 minutes at the end of a day-from-hell which involved useless airlines and airports, pathetic car hire processes, and a GPS that sent me to the wrong destination. The phones at the hotel went unanswered, and it was finally at a petrol station that a real and sensitive human being helped me find my way. Oh, and did I mention that it was on the night of my 60th birthday? What a gift.

    So I saved a few bucks sleeping over at the hotel that night. Am I going back? Definitely not! The world is just too stressful as it is without having someone – anyone – to help you and treat you with a minimum level of respect and courtesy.

    One thing is for sure, however, and that is I will keep pushing this message until the day I retire or die. Chip Bell tells the story of how grandparents always give two cookies, not an apple. Shep Hyken says “Be Amazing or Go Home,” and Bob Thompson notes we have to be “Hooked on Customers.” There’s no paradox in these statements.

    Am I a neo-Luddite that rejects all technology and AI? Not by any means. It’s when companies think that these technologies can be a substitute for personal contact that it all falls apart.

  4. I think leading companies will view Human vs. AI as not “either/or” but “and,” as Steven and Aki point out. Yes, when consumers need something simple and quick, automated tools (when they work) can reduce time, effort and friction. Computers, however, are a long way from dealing with complex problems or simulating compassion. Humans remember more strongly negative and positive events and make decisions based on emotion, so removing human touch fully will backfire. Top firms will blend the strengths of both humans and robots.


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