The human element of customer experience

by Roland van Breukelen, UKI Marketing Director for SAP Customer Experience

In 2011, Gartner predicted that by 2020 85% of customer relationships would be managed without the involvement of human interaction. Seven years later, that prediction is becoming a reality.

Today, technology has drastically redefined how brands deliver customer experience. Omnichannel customer service is considered best practice, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools are used to deliver personalised experiences, and chatbots are capable of responding to customer service questions 24/7.

However, while the benefits of these new technologies are clear to see, is there a danger that brands could isolate consumers that value human experience as a result? Do brands recognise the importance in maintaining a human element of customer experience?

Trustworthy customer-centric brands will prosper

The most successful brands put consumers at the heart of their organisation, and for businesses to survive, they have to be customer-centric – meaning they need to genuinely understand their customers on an individual level, build relationships and add true value through the services and personalised advice they offer.

One way in which brands can become customer-centric, is by using cloud-based marketing solutions that provide advanced analytics to draw data continuously, create a single view of their customers across the enterprise, and ultimately convert customers into lifelong fans.

Artificial intelligence is set to play a huge role in facilitating this movement – with the power of AI, real time insights around customers’ true intent and motives can be leveraged, to deliver contextually relevant offers and messages to meet the needs throughout the entire customer journey, creating a wholly personalised experience.

However, to enhance the in-store experience, consumers require technologies that utilise AI effectively to provide value – innovations like Smart Mirror for instance, which uses facial-recognition technology together with AI, can provide shoppers with recommendations and pairing suggestions in clothing stores.

The reality is that these technologies, to be effective, rely on massive amounts of data collected from consumers – consumers who are losing trust in business, media and government organisations’ ability to secure their data and respect their privacy. If organisations are unable to establish trust with their audience, their data sets will shrink through attrition: a situation even the most sophisticated algorithms cannot overcome.

People need to feel like they can trust the person or entity they buy from or interact with. This is not an abstract or even new concept. But it needs to be even more prevalent in today’s multi-channel shopping environment, where in order to remain competitive, both brands and consumers are regularly adopting new technologies and channels to engage better.  With many of these channels not using face-to-face engagements, it is important for trust not be sacrificed in the name of data, technology or even user experience. Only then will trust turn into customer loyalty and advocacy.

Balancing act

Our research found that 31% of UK consumers trust AI-enabled technology to help make important decisions like gift research and purchases during the busy, expensive Christmas shopping season – compared to just 15%, 12 months ago. That being said, it is also vital that brands deliver consistent customer experience across all channels, and in order to so, a blend of human and machine is required. While technology is becoming smarter and more sophisticated, it can’t replace the human capacity for empathy, reasoning and understanding.

In certain circumstances, technology is essential in helping brands to create a connected customer experience, by listening to customers’ needs on a vast scale that is far superior to that of humans. However, in turn these insights can then be actioned upon and applied during the instore experience, to ensure the customer has an exceptional overall experience.

One crucial area in particular which requires human interaction is customer service – while chatbots and AI can aid in solving certain issues, it is by no means a replacement to the human element, but rather a counterpart to the overall experience. Customer service agents therefore need to focus on helping the customer in areas where technology does not suffice.

If retailers are to succeed, they will need to offer customers a balanced experience of technology and human experience in order to engage customers at key moments in the customer journey.

What does the future hold?

Building trust with consumers will continue to be a priority for brands, and in order to so, it is vital that a consistent experience is delivered across the plethora of channels in this digital age. Such consistency can only be delivered with a multi-faceted approach by deploying the right balance of AI and human interaction at the same time. For example, we’ll more often see AI being able to prioritise enquiries and complaints in customer service systems to ensure agents spend their time and efforts with more complex queries. For the next generation of consumers, AI will allow organisations to scale, automate and be consistent – allowing real trust to develop.

Ultimately, businesses need to ensure they are engaging customers in the best moments, while appreciating the importance of maintaining a human touch in customer service. This means leveraging real time insights around customers’ true intent and motives, to deliver contextually relevant offers and messages to meet the needs throughout the entire customer journey, creating a wholly personalised experience.

“Having spent the last 20 years of my career in the front office driving the growth and success for businesses using technology from the early days of my career, during the shift from mainframe to client server, to today’s online, mobile and IoT based environments, my passion remains the same as Marketing Director, UKI for SAP CX: Engaging with customers to drive transformation, now digital, while ensuring that the customer and customer experience are central to that transformation.”