Where have the humans gone?

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Ollie Bailey


June 13, 2019

It appears that we have forgotten the value of human interaction in customer experience

Value can mean a number of things, when I talk about it I mean;

  1. Being the most efficient, effective, pleasant service provider in the market so that you become irreplaceable to your user, you’re “valuable”;[i]
  2. Financial return; delivering so much efficiency, effectiveness and pleasantness that customers are happy to pay for it (ideally over and over), they’re “valuable”

The two are intrinsically linked;

Harvard Business Review recently acknowledged that Customers who have excellent customer experiences with brands spend 140% more; there is an intrinsic link between customer experience and annual revenue

You can’t generate long term revenue without being valuable to the customer, and usually, the more value you can deliver to the customer, the more revenue you can generate from it.

And that’s why as organisations we’re all chasing value; whether we’re responsible for product, service, revenue or all of the above.

But I think organisations are now going too far; they are hell-bent on delivering the most value in their experiences, and that means they’re removing human interaction.

We are expensive, slow, inefficient and make mistakes, and that puts a target on our backs.

Removing humans from the customer experience without consideration can fail, badly.

It assumes that nothing fails

I recently checked into the CitizenM hotel in Shoreditch for the first time. The whole checking-in process is literally self-serve; from booking online to generating your own key card at check-in.

On my way in, there were a few frustrations, like being asking for my data at booking and then again when checking in. But that was nothing compared to the guy at the screen next to me, who like me was trying to check-in, but couldn’t get the kiosk to recognise his booking.

As I headed to my room, the guy was asking behind the bar for some help checking-in. There was literally nobody around to help him and whether that’s intentional or not, it’s not good customer experience.

I don’t know if this guy had made a mistake, the system had thrown an error or he just didn’t know how to use it - whoever was at fault, the service had failed and CitizenM hadn’t designed for this.

Cutting out human interaction from a service model all together assumes that either humans are a constant or the technology in place is foolproof, and that’s not the case.

Customers don’t expect it

I will admit to being an Apple fan and have bought a lot of their products over the years; from laptops to watches to phones.

I remember their first store; the genius counter, the checkout and “experts” placed throughout the store. You couldn’t move without bumping into a sales guy.

This has changed to the point where I don’t like going into the Apple store anymore; the genius counter doesn’t exist, the checkout doesn’t exist and the staff levels look to have reduced - everything is done by appointment. If you ask for help, you’re told to get an appointment, if you want to buy a laptop, you have to make an appointment etc etc. It’s lame.

For me, the biggest problem is that this change hasn’t been managed well. My expectations were so high of Apple that this change annoys me more than it probably should. In actual fact, their service is probably still better than most of the technology retailers in town, but that doesn't matter; they've not managed the change well and as a customer I am disappointed because I remember the old Apple.

To get it right, we need to start with the problem

A really good example of where human-interaction has been successfully removed to add value is the UK pub chain, Wetherspoons.

Think what you want about the chain of pubs, but the fact that you can order food and drink through a mobile app means the experience is made a whole lot better.

Customers can easily pay separately, they don’t have to fight through to the bar during busy times and never have to leave their seat. The level of human interaction has been decreased to create a fairly seamless experience.

Wetherspoons have understood their customer journeys and I would hazard a guess are seeing that by removing the queues people are ordering more. This only works because there is still staff, but they focus on delivering food and drinks to the table and making sure customers don’t need anything else.

It isn’t as efficient as it might seem

On a service map, it’s easy to look at human processes and think let’s make the complex simple by automating their work. But that can deliver frustration.

Sainsbury’s recently launched a till-free store concept in London. There seems to be more staff in there per square foot than a normal Sainsbury’s. I’m hoping that Sainsbury’s have identified that customers want to checkout quickly and by facilitating that need they will see higher returns. Therefore the additional staff are there to make sure the service is seamless; when it fails there will be somebody there to help the customer through it.

So bring back the humans

It’s easy to look at a service map and cut out the inefficiencies at a holistic level in the search for value. It's also easy to assume that removing human interaction will solve this. But that's wrong.

Without talking to your customers, testing the hypothesis’ and iterating, it won't work.

We need to solve problems by managing failure, expectations and not blindly looking for efficiency.

[i] https://hbr.org/2014/08/the-value-of-customer-experience-quantified

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