Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the Peter Principle. For those of you who need a reminder: it observes that employees tend to be promoted in an organization to their level of incompetence. In other words, at some point, employees will reach a level of responsibility that they are not capable of handling, which then will lead to a decrease in performance. But it’s not the employee part that I want to talk about, I want to address the limits of technology in an evolving world.
You may remember that I wrote about the 90% tech experience in one of my former pieces: about technology that’s really cool, but that is not (yet) good enough to create breakthrough evolutions in CX. At the end of the day, CX is a 100% human matter. With the stellar rise of breakthrough technology like big data, machine learning, voice recognition, sensors and everything AI and IoT, some of us made the mistake of thinking that CX was mostly about efficiency and reducing friction. We had our products, our services and then we tried to remove all the obstacles between us and the customer. But customers should not be a functional end goal for a company’s mission and strategy. They are humans who need understanding, support, empathy and a listening ear when things go wrong.
There is nothing so frustrating as a customer as not feeling heard, seen, understood or supported. And that is where my concept of “the Peter Principle of technology” comes in. We were so obsessed with technology creating convenience and removing friction, that we promoted it to its level of incompetence.
As a simple example: there is nothing so frustrating as having to talk to a “dumb” chatbot when you have a very specific problem. Recently a friend of mine wanted a book to be delivered at a certain supermarket, received notice that it had arrived, went to the reception desk, where they told her ‘that delivery is not in the system’ and could not be found manually either. So she went back to the website, where she for the life of her could not find a real person to talk with. Only a chatbot which was of course not able to understand that “the system says that the book has arrived but the humans cannot find the delivery in the storage”. The website did not mention a telephone number, e-mail or live chat. So she became exceedingly unsatisfied about that brand.
This is not a standalone experience. 46% of buyers get frustrated that they don’t have a choice in human versus bot at the start of service. 55% say it takes too many questions for a chatbot to recognize it can’t answer their issue. Even CX practitioners believe that chatbots are the worst channel for customer experience delivery; with just 6% saying their organization delivers a “very good” or “good” CX through the channel. And yet, so many online retailers offer chatbots, because it’s cheap and convenient for them (and very much less so for the customer).
And that is a perfect example of the Peter Principle in technology: a chatbot that is too simple to recognize a non-standard situation and completely incompetent to handle it in a way that can set the customer experience straight after a mishap. Or an algorithm that stalks you for days with the hotel that you just booked. Or even an online form that fails to recognize your home address – because the city council recently changed your street name – and thus refuses to conclude the buying procedure and ship your product.
Technology is great at recognizing patterns and therefore excels at de-frictionalizing standard situations. But it is currently still pretty awful at handling exceptions, or situations that require a lot of empathy and support. And those companies which for instance promote AI to the level of handling exceptions and emotional situations, are truly at risk of the falling for the Peter Principle of technology, resulting in a frustrating and sub-par CX. For exceptional CX, you need humans in the places where technology is – for now – still incompetent.
As I wrote before, technology is no longer the holy grail in customer experience. We will keep using technology for efficiency, convenience and personalization. It will keep playing a vital role in CX, and it will keep evolving. But be aware of promoting it to human places where it has not evolved yet, and where its limits will not solve customer experience issues but make them worse. That is why customer culture, and how your “humans” handle customer situations, is – and will remain for quite a while – the holy grail of CX.
And so, next time that you want to apply a (new) technology to generate more convenience for yourself – in the hope (but not the certainty) that it will do the same for your customer – ask yourself: “has this technology evolved to the level of competence that it will create more customer happiness?”. If the answer is “no”, then you know what (not) to do.