Why high tech customer experience still needs a human face

Don't let all those clever algorithms blind you to the fact that it's people who provide great service, especially when they go the extra mile, says John Sills

by John Sills
Last Updated: 06 Mar 2017

Ask anyone about a recent great customer experience they’ve had, and they’ll probably mention the person who made it happen.

Rosie, the hotel receptionist who arranged for the kitchen to reopen because your train was delayed and you missed dinner. Graham, the air steward who found paper and colouring pens to keep your toddler entertained. Bianca, the shop manager who drove to your house with the bag of clothes you’d left behind for your big holiday tomorrow.

But is it just a coincidence that those companies that regularly appear in the ‘best customer experience’ charts - First Direct, John Lewis, Google - are just as well known for engaged employees as they are for great service? Many other companies which claim to obsess over customers often overlook the thing that makes the biggest difference: people. And more importantly, the empathy and spontaneity that those people can bring to an experience.

So whilst reading Drive - Dan Pink’s excellent book on motivation - I was happy to discover a theory that joins these dots and seems to confirm that the things that make for engaged employees are the very same things that also create great customer experiences. 

The book focusses on self-determination theory, first proposed by Deci & Ryan in 1985, which is concerned with the motivation behind the choices people make. They argue that for people to be motivated, there are three crucial things they need:


Allowing them control over how they complete the task at hand, with a focus on the outcome, not the process, empowering empathetic people.


Giving them support to be good at their job, developing their skills in line with their ambitions, creating ongoing development.


Ensuring they have a connection to their colleagues and the company through a shared sense of purpose, with open communication to build trust.

So, the theory stands that if employees have these three things, then they’ll be happy, motivated, and engaged at work.

Looking at this through a different lens though, I’d argue that giving employees these three things also creates great customer experiences:


Flexible process which give employees freedom to do what’s right for the customer and react to their specific situation, treating them as individuals


Customers being dealt with by people who know what they’re doing, giving efficient service with the right answers at the right time, with measures of competence being linked to customer experience


Ensuring customers can relate to the organisation, creating a deeper bond based on shared values and common goals with employees

Despite increasingly living our lives through largely faceless organisations, using Amazon instead of Woolworths, Nutmeg instead of building societies, and FitBit instead of personal trainers – humans will still pay the central role in creating great customer experiences. It’s still employees who are programming the algorithms, designing the screens, and coming up with the ideas – as well as making the mistakes (just ask the person whose typo brought down half of the internet recently).

So next time you update your customer experience strategy, by all means start by understanding what your customers really want. But before you start building journey maps, flow charts, and overly-complex measurement frameworks, take the time to understand what’s really important to your employees, too. You may find a way to please both at the same time…

John Sills is a Director 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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