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Is technology incompatible with a positive customer experience?

The 2017 edition of Edelman’s Barometer of Trust makes sobering reading for anyone in business: the UK’s level of trust in business is at a record low; the credibility of CEOs has plummeted by 12 points in the last year; and people are three times more likely to believe leaked documents than company press statements.

Edelman found that, for Britons, trust is being undermined by public fears about immigration and the erosion of societal values. But they also concluded that trust is threatened by the pace of technological change; and this poses a serious dilemma for brands seeking to improve customer experience by investing in new technologies.

The phenomenon of technological advancement and its impact on society is elegantly described in Thomas L Friedman’s “Thank you for being late – an optimists guide to thriving in the age of accelerations”. Friedman maintains that the pace of change driven (in part) by exponential increases in computing power (Moore’s Law) has left many people feeling dislocated. Mid-tier jobs are being replaced by software and old societal norms of community overturned by new technology-based interactions. In the field of customer experience the talk is of chat-bots, artificial intelligence, machine-learning, big data, cashless society, apps and omnichannel. But just how compatible are these developments with a world where customers still express a dislike of IVR and some technologies remain relatively immature?

At the same time strategies for building a strong brand are undergoing a sea-change. Traditional brand approaches such as advertising, sponsorship, distribution and product differentiation are no longer as effective as they once were. Instead we are entering an ‘Age of Experience’ where brands will become stronger by demonstrating authenticity of experience and establishing a personal relationship based on mutual trust. (Tellingly last week Campaign has reported on falling revenues at WPP, the world’s biggest ad group and Accenture’s ambitions in customer experience - “Accenture wants to be world's biggest 'experience agency of record”).

“Technology presumes there's just one right way to do things and there never is”

If Robert Pirsig (author of ‘Zen and motorcycle maintenance) needed proof for his maxim there is an expanding book of examples of how technology falls short. Earlier this year Facebook announced it was ‘refocusing’ its use of AI following a 70% failure of its bots. We encounter weekly examples of data breaches. And even at the most mundane level technology can fall short; a significant minority of the customer feedback comments we gather for our clients reference call routing systems that do not give options that the customer understands, leaving the customer frustrated and the client using more resource, not less.

So how do you square the circle of building a platform of trust with your customers while investing in the one thing that might scare them away – technology?

Technology has a key role to play in delivering a good customer experience (where would we be without CRM, email, online booking systems, efficient ways of gathering customer feedback) but it also bring risks – at the granular level of ‘customer service fails’ and at the macro level of undermining reputation and trust. Here are five ways you can minimise those risks.

  1. Build in a human override – be wary of handing over complete control to technology. Automated systems can go awry when a customer has a complex and unprogrammed set of requirements. You need to be able to identify when this has happened and rectify the situation swiftly.
  2. Use technology as a solution to a known problem – avoid the tendency to use technology for technology’s sake. Identify and prioritise your problems and then evaluate whether technology has something to offer. First Direct have built their brand on a platform of service but make a promise of having people answer the phone (rather than an automated call-routing) because it supports their brand platform.
  3. Integrate technology with existing process – use technology to enhance rather than replace existing process. Most businesses should have systems and processes that are fundamentally sound. Technology can streamline, empower, enable and inform; but if it is needed to replace then you may have bigger issues with your business model.
  4. Consult your employees – Never under-estimate the knowledge of your front-line staff. Involve them in the decisions that determine how technology can best be deployed. Workshops, ‘proofs-of concept’, trials will all benefit from employee engagement. Those on the front-line will be quick to spot flaws before you start to alienate customers; and by engaging them you will build trust and avert suspicion.
  5. Be customer centric – Carry out research with your customers before implementation so that you are in a position to prepare your customers for new technology; explain why you are introducing new processes; make clear the benefits. And, once launched, maintain an open channel of communication to allow them to give you feedback.

Let me close with a view from Douglas Adams, author of ‘Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy

“We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.”

As always, let me know what you think.

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