balancing act
PHOTO: John Loo

Face-to-face interactions with customers ground to a halt last spring with the onset of the pandemic. Contact center agents and others were pushed to work from home, while phone calls flooded contact centers, leading to long wait times. As a result, companies quickly shifted their approach to focus on digital customer service and digital customer experience efforts. 

Nearly a year later, the pandemic continues, though early vaccination efforts provide some hope that a return to face to face interactions aren't too far off. What will the balance between human and digital interactions look like when the economy reopens?

Extend the Brand Story Into Online Experiences

“One of the great tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic is the loss of in-person human contact,” said Esther Poulsen, CEO and founder of Raare Solutions. “We are, by nature, social animals and for most people we find the personal interaction to be energizing and rewarding. Even people with more introverted personalities draw a certain level of comfort from being around the right people. When it comes to shopping and entertainment, the live, human experience is highly valued across the product spectrum and we celebrate the brands that make that personal experience rewarding.”

Even after the pandemic becomes more controlled, brands should invest time creating a strategic plan for replicating the in-person customer feeling in a digital world, Poulsen said. “Vaccines may ease the current COVID-19 spread, but there will still be people who feel cautious about in-person experiences, and there is no assurance that another virus would turn the world topsy-turvy again."

“The thoughtful integration of digital customer engagement will provide a broad spectrum of consumer options that ultimately will serve customers who need to engage with a brand in the way that makes them feel comfortable, engaged and valued,” Poulsen said.

To do that, she recommended integrating more of the brand story into the online customer experience to more closely resemble the in-person experience, where the brand vibe and story occurs naturally, from the décor to the music to the way salespeople greet and service customers.

Related Article: Why Brand Awareness Matters

Which Interactions Benefit From Humans and Which From Digital Means?

The pandemic accelerated digital adoption and increased customer's awareness and expectations for customer experience, but brands can't ignore or replace the human element, said marketing consultant Tim Parkin. “Technology can improve the customer experience, but it must not become a stopgap or substitute for delivering a satisfying and enriched experience for customers.”

Before considering the balance of human and digital interactions, companies should begin with an assessment of their current customer experience, Parkin said. Conducted an internal and external review with customers to properly understand both sides of the spectrum and pinpoint the deficiencies and opportunities.

“Companies often go too far by replacing as many touchpoints as possible with digital means and mechanisms,” Parkin said. “This often happens as part of a digital transformation initiative where digital becomes the hammer and the customer experience is just another nail. While this may be advantageous for the company, it erodes the human component of the customer's experience.

To achieve the right balance, companies should map the customer experience and pick the key areas where human interaction would add incremental value, Parkin recommended “These areas or touchpoints must be protected at all costs. Similarly, there may be interactions that are adding little or no value which can be eliminated or replaced with purely digital solutions.”

Parkin points to the Target website as an example. To pick up a purchase curbside at a Target, customers must first place the order online. There is an option to let Target know you're "on the way" when completing your order. This helps Target prepare your order and manage logistics while also delivering you a faster and more seamless customer experience. The order is completed when an associate brings your order out to your parked car. This is a prime example of balancing the human and digital elements of a customer experience and creating a win-win for the business and customers.

Related Article: Customer Experience Needs Empathy Now More Than Ever

Provide Customers With a Choice

"Lean into changing CX processes and provide options,” recommended Matt Erickson, marketing director for National Positions. “The pandemic shifted not only the communication but also the possibilities surrounding CX. Some customers are at peace with the greater leveraging of automation technology, such as chatbots, while others have developed a very short fuse, which is also understandable.”

To appease both worlds, brands need to lean into further personalization of their communications if relying on marketing automation but also give all customers a ‘get out of automation free card’ in the form of a way to schedule a direct meeting, call or Zoom wherever possible, Parkin added.

“The pandemic has pushed stress levels to the breaking point; it does not take much for a customer to feel unheard,” Parkin said. “Make sure you are adapting with them and flattening any perceived hurdles between your brand and the experience they deserve."