Chatbots or the human touch? I know which I prefer

The robots may be coming, but great customer experience still requires people to bring it alive, says John Sills.

by John Sills
Last Updated: 06 Jun 2016

Is person-to-person interaction on the way out? Facebook, Microsoft, Apple – hardly a week goes by without another tech giant announcing (with varying degrees of credibility) the dawn of a new chatbot age of automated customer assistance.

So you could easily be forgiven for thinking that before long we’ll all be spending much of our time talking to computers when we want to get things done.

But I can’t help feeling that the obituaries may be being written before the breathing has stopped – because if anything, as customer experience becomes more computerised, then human interactions are going to be more important than ever.

Imagine the scene. It’s a mildly sunny April morning, and you’re walking through the busy streets of Soho on the way to work. Your eyes are heavy from a late night and an early morning. You need coffee.

But where to go? The choice is endless, and you notice a flurry of advertising boards ready to lure you in. As you get closer, you see these two.

Which one do you choose?

Signs like the one on the right give us something different from reward schemes and identikit experiences. We love them because we know there is a person behind it, an individual who’s decided to do something differently from everyone else, something that hasn’t been dictated or created by a branding team based at a business park HQ somewhere in Slough. They make us laugh, think, talk, and share. Starbucks (the sign on the left) is selling function, which has its time and place. The Flying Bean (the sign in the right) is selling smiles, something you’re far more likely to build a deeper connection with.

I witnessed the impact of this human touch one day on the train last year, whilst on my usual (and very reliable) Chiltern Railways route into work. The train driver on the day was doing his job as expected – driving us, on time, to our destination – delivering the functional needs that I and the other passengers all shared. But then he decided to add his own, human element to proceedings, as my Twitter timeline from that morning shows:

This particular human touch didn’t make my journey quicker, give me a more comfortable seat, or aid me in my attempts to win the elbow battle for the arm rest with my fellow commuter. But it did make my journey better, and made me, and the whole of the carriage, smile. It was a brilliant start to the day, and most of us got off the train with a greater spring in our step.

Once you start to notice the impact of these small, human touches, you begin to see them everywhere. London Underground is becoming famous for them, and, to balance the score, Starbucks sometimes gets in on the act, too:

The coming of Chatbots does ask serious questions about the future of service, but the concept isn’t new. A couple of years ago, I tested O2’s Tweetserve service, allowing quick answers to quick questions from within the Twitter DM function. It wasn’t personal, and it wasn’t human, but it worked, and it worked well, giving me the information I needed within seconds of needing it. Albeit without making much of an emotional connection:

Customer experience is all about how you make people feel, and the two sides will deliver this in different ways. Siri’s poems aside, automated assistants will be superb as getting the basics right, doing simple things quickly and efficiently, and making sure little things don’t go wrong.

But human interaction will remain for the bigger moments, where you really need support, advice, or someone to make you feel good about the world. They’ll make you smile and feel special, creating a stronger bond between the customer and the company.

In short, functional chatbots can stop you frowning, but fellow humans can make you happy. Great customer experiences, both now and in the future, will need both.

John Sills is a Senior Consultant at The Foundation. If you enjoyed this article, you can sign up to his personal blog for more of the same.

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