Technology and its impact on customer relations

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By: Bao-Viet Lê, Partner at Bain & Company Middle East

Bao-Viet Lê, Partner at Bain & Company Middle East

It’s all too easy to take for granted the ways that committed employees enrich the lives of their customers. The auto mechanic who spends a few extra minutes chatting with a senior citizen, the grocery clerk who compliments a shy child on a new pair of shoes, the hospital nurse who gives her patient’s hand a squeeze—all manifest a positive purpose.

Small acts of compassion at the right moment come naturally to some people. But companies that earn strong loyalty from customers systematically teach and reward such behaviors. Now, though, many businesses have reached an inflection point where digital technologies are replacing face-to-face interactions at a staggering rate.

Leading companies in many service industries such as retail, telecommunications, banking, and insurance thus are investing rapidly to build the technology, requisite data, and analytics capabilities to meet customers’ high expectations. In the vast body of work that companies are undertaking to digitize the experience, they rarely ask one important question: How do you teach the algorithms to love your customers?

A crisis of disconnection

This is not to underestimate how recent advances in data analytics and technology can create unprecedented levels of personalization and even connection with customers. Still, this opportunity comes with a massive risk. As companies build their digital operations and become less reliant on frontline employees, they risk losing the human connections.

Digital metrics often fail to capture friction that annoys customers. And some technologies have unwittingly alienated customers or prospects: Marketing campaigns powered by artificial intelligence have sent inappropriate items to young people, while AI tools deployed by some banks to make credit decisions have wound up perpetuating biases against protected characteristics, such as race and, gender.

At a fundamental level, many customers crave connection in their commerce. The surge of people returning to restaurants and stores in the wake of coronavirus vaccinations testifies to the social aspects of purchases. Without a conscious effort to embed humanity in digital experiences, we are headed toward a bleak and joyless world ruled by models that are poor substitutes for the spontaneity and ingenuity of the best frontline employees.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Companies that integrate the best of traditional customer-centered approaches into the digital front line will be able to combine the best of both worlds. They will create experiences that delight customers in ways that were impossible without the fusion of humanity and data. These elements include intensively using data to personalize the experience for customers; a robust feedback system that spurs continuous learning and improvement; a culture that puts the customer’s priorities at the center of every decision; and empowered, engaged employees who view enriching customers’ lives as the core purpose of the company.

Digital with a personal touch

Many transactions can be fully digitized in ways that benefit customers. However, many situations merit a human touch—blended seamlessly with digital. No industry is more ripe for this opportunity than healthcare. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of telehealth accelerated, with digital interactions becoming a standard channel of care. Online video has made it possible to conduct many visits at a distance, but good doctors know when they need to see patients in person for a high-touch exam. How will companies with less obvious boundaries decide when and how to maintain that human touch? Surprisingly, some digital natives are leading the way.

Wanted: Empathetic data scientists

Data scientists, programmers, and designers will play critical roles in enabling the digital frontline. But an affinity for delighting customers is an anomaly for most tech-intensive roles. Training employees, and finding other ways to maintain the customer connection, such as gathering and listening to customer feedback, is so important for understanding not just what customers do, but also how they feel. The digital front line should have the same level of personalization, empathy, and engagement as human channels. In the race to rapidly digitize even more elements of the customer experience and meet customers’ ever-growing demand for simple, easy, and personalized digital experiences, it’s tempting to rely largely on the promise of big data and AI-driven algorithms. But this is just one piece of the puzzle. Better products, delivery—indeed, the entire experience—depend on constantly reading the data and also listening to customers to understand their needs and feelings. Especially in complex or emotional interactions, there is no effective substitute for human interactions and human judgment.

What does it take for companies to keep the human spark alive as they seize opportunities to build out the digital front line? Key elements such as using feedback to create a customer-centered culture among highly engaged employees. Combining that culture with the right data and technology will power the next generation of loyalty leaders.

At the highest level, company leaders should ask how they can maintain and embed the human touch in their interactions with customers, and what role employees play. To get started in this context, leaders should consider some key questions:

  1. Does our culture allow us to embrace technology in ways that make it easy to act in the best interest of our customers?
  2. Is our product and experience truly differentiated, clear, and compelling, whether delivered through a human or a digital front line?
  3. Are we upgrading feedback systems to include operational and other signal data and competitive benchmarks?
  4. How can we break down silos between digital, marketing, and customer experience functions so they collaborate to deliver the right offer or message at every customer touchpoint?
  5. Which specific use cases for digital engagement or personalization should we choose first for testing and learning?