person on a tightrope, seen from below, against a cloudy sky
PHOTO: Marcelo Moreira

Technology has the power to transform customer interactions and add tremendous value. But at what cost? 

Over the last 20 years, we have seen spending on “digital transformation” rise significantly as businesses invest in technology to enable greater personalization, purchase simplicity and online customer care or self service. These digital touchpoints are defining the journey customers have with a brand and each one is critical to the becoming either a loyal brand promoter or a detractor.

Striking the right balance between human touch and digital interactions is tricky. Every company needs to continue to invest in both digital and human customer experience (CX) until they get it right.

Marketing and customer experience professionals who work together to reach an overview of where digital vs. human interaction is appropriate will be the ones who maximize both profits and customer loyalty. The rule of thumb when determining whether digital or human interaction is required is: “high effort = bad; low effort = good.” And when a failure point is identified, it is essential to understand where and why it’s occurring.

For example, a simple change of address is an interaction that is easily handled by digital means. But as we expand into areas such as customer service issues in hospitality or in online shopping experiences, human interaction becomes paramount to the customer experience. Easing the room reservation or check-in process online via digital channels is efficient and a bonus to the customer. But it is impossible to simulate a warm welcome or a human smile.

Knowing the moments when you need to retain or introduce the human touch is vital to providing great CX.

Here’s what CMOs and customer experience professionals are thinking about when determining the mix of human vs. digital and how that balance will meet the needs of current and future customers: 

Omnichannel Strategies Are Good – And Not Going Anywhere

There is no doubt that customer demographics, especially age, can affect engagement and channel preferences, but it’s far too easy to fall into misguided segmentation groups.

Not all millennials prefer to interact with chatbots, and the majority of baby boomers now own smartphones.

When you start to analyze CX feedback and data, begin by looking at your audience segments to see what matters to them. Look at those things that are most impactful and then tackle them according to impact, business readiness and then value.

While you may have customers across the demographic spectrum, having an omnichannel CX strategy will help ensure you satisfy the needs of ALL customers.

By relying on a single digital strategy, you are dictating the means of communication your customers must use to interact with you and your brand rather than meeting them where they are. Delivering superior customer experiences is a balancing act in which you must meet the needs of today’s customers while predicting what experiences tomorrow’s customers will need and want.

Replacing a concierge desk at a hotel with a chatbot station is most likely not going to answer the customer’s most pressing question or satisfy their need. And that experience is the difference between them being loyal, brand promoters or disparaging detractors. And that difference impacts the company’s bottom line! 

It is important to obtain consistent feedback and not make assumptions about what you think your customers are experiencing both on and offline. From there, you can build an omnichannel strategy that encompasses all the ways your different audiences prefer to interact and engage.

Related Article: The Art of Audience-Driven Marketing: Stop Selling Products, Start Building Audiences

Close the Feedback Loop to Build Relationships

The ease of administering instant, digitally-enabled surveys during, or at the end of a customer interaction has made them a core element of every CX program in recent years. But while surveys remain important, we need to go beyond the initial feedback engagement and acknowledge the feedback given. 

We have two opportunities to close the feedback loop: That first opportunity is upon receipt of feedback when you thank them and tell them how customer feedback is changing how you do business (yes, create a “you said, we did” page). The second opportunity is when you make a change, return to them to ask them to take a look. This then becomes a relationship which your brand has personally engaged in. So often brands make changes based on feedback and fail to tell their customers who initiated that change. It’s not enough to just track and trend improvements. If you want to get closer to your customers, invest in this relationship — it will really drive intimate relationships which are very powerful and can create a super promoter.

We should also remember CX isn't just about instant conversion, it’s an emotional path of trust and engagement that you take with your customers. This can be positively influenced by leveraging customer feedback to understand customer preferences during digital interactions. As an example, a digital-first business found in its relationship survey that feeling appreciated was a key driver of future financial behaviors for one of its segments. This presented a challenge because that’s a very "analog" thing to influence. So it came up with different concepts to make that customer segment feel more appreciated. Once it had validated one (which was to recognize the customers for achieving certain milestones), it tried to build this into digital interactions. It then did an A/B test to see whether this new way of "recognizing" a customer increased "I feel appreciated" and guess what? Appreciation doubled, and NPS increased around seven points. This is a great example of how a digital business leveraged feedback to understand how to digitally impact a very human part of the experience.

Related Article: Closing the Loop on Customer Engagement

For More Powerful Feedback, Step Beyond the Survey

In addition to surveys, customers are also leaving breadcrumbs of feedback and signals less formally through a variety of other channels.

Making sense of both structured and unstructured data provides the necessary insights to better understand what customers need. It allows you to capture and categorize the emotions customers feel about every experience they have along their journey. Combine the emotional and behavioral signals with the financial and operational data, and you have a complete picture of a customer's “what” and “why” — their behaviors, actions and associated intentions. And this information provides you with everything you need to understand exactly what it will take to improve their experiences. 

For example, collecting feedback through a two-way SMS text and social media style conversation doesn’t look and feel like a survey, yet it’s just as powerful and offers on-point, real-time engagement. Or by analyzing a recording of a call center interaction, you may learn a customer tried to engage online with your company first but wound up having to talk to a call center agent. Many insights can be gleaned from the actual text of a conversation without requiring the customer to complete a survey.

Of course, the ability to get more details from your customers can be worthwhile. You can gather behavioral data on 100% of your customers, then dig deeper with the 10% who are willing to tell you what influenced their behavior. Getting to the heart of why the experience was painful is key to eliminating the pain point.

Another important piece of understanding how your customers feel? Listen to your employees — the people on the front lines who interact with customers everyday. Collecting their insights has proven to drive some of the most profound changes in customer experience strategies.

Related Article: Move Beyond Surveys to Gain a Full View of Your Customers

Know When Human Interaction Is Essential

If a customer is seeking guidance, an answer, advice or is just plain stuck and can’t get what they need (a bad experience), human interaction becomes vital. Make sure that switch from digital to human interaction is seamless. Customers get impatient if they feel they’re being locked out and you’re making it difficult for them to do business. This is where buyers become detractors.

Think about situations that are likely to stimulate negative customer emotions, too. In banking, a common example is when a customer becomes the subject of identity theft, or they’ve lost their credit or bank card. This situation is a perfect example of when humans want to talk to humans — because only another human can provide the reassurance they require. They need to hear “everything will be fine” from a human who will either take ownership of the situation or accept part of the responsibility for finding a solution.

Related Article: Striking the AI and Human Balance in Customer Experience

Combining Digital Channels and Surveys to Predict Sentiment

Companies that look at both net promoter scores (NPS) and feedback from text-based surveys gain the best of both worlds in getting a true view of how customers feel and why. A “0” on a survey is a customer making an unambiguous statement: they’re upset. At that point, you need some additional language to understand what’s behind the score and determine what angered the customer.

You can gather that information with structured feedback, but you can also observe behaviors in your digital channels. If you’re seeing an unexpected drop-off at a particular point in the user journey online, you can analyze that and see if the customer is frustrated with an issue at that particular point. Was it price? Navigation?

Companies that use recorded video to capture feedback tap into a very compelling method of acquiring both rich emotion and storytelling. When employees and executives see video stories, it forges an emotional connection that can supercharge cultural transformation. Relaying that a score moved from 50 to 45 only tells you there’s something more to learn. But when employees review comments and watch real human stories, it generates compassion and accelerates the creation and maintenance of a customer-centric organization.

Every day we are discovering amazing new ways to engage with our customers in the very moment they need it. Then, when we really get to know them, we are able to anticipate their needs and our care will be in the background smoothing out the wrinkles often before they even notice it. However, even then, we must ensure the emotional connection is still there, so having a human touch and constant engagement will remain just as important. Anyone involved in CX knows their work will never be done, but the combination of technology and intelligent process is already creating some beautiful customer journeys. I am excited at what is still to come.