A positive emotional connection that customers experience with brands stays with them and increases loyalty and engagement. By improving the human connection in an increasingly digital world, brands can strengthen the emotional connection they have with their customers. This article will take a look at the ways brands can improve the human element of the largely digital customer experience.

Digital if You Do, Digital if You Don’t

A Gallup report from 2019 on humanizing CX stated that “customers will experience less brick and more click,” and they couldn’t have been more correct. Little did brands know what was soon to come down the pike. The COVID-19 pandemic drove many customers to shop exclusively online. Social interactions became mostly limited to social media, chat windows, and Zoom meetings.

Brick-and-mortar storefronts struggled to remain operational. Social gatherings became limited to family units, and social distancing became the norm across the nation and the world. Schools closed and students began using distance and remote learning over the web. The digital world became our actual world as non-essential businesses moved to a 100% remote workforce, and human interaction became limited to interactions with those we lived with.

After months of isolation, the need for human interaction became obvious, and brands were no exception. Customers craved to hear a real voice, to make a connection with a real person on the other end of the chat window, to interact with a brand’s representatives via social media, or otherwise make an emotional connection with a real human being. The pandemic is/was a shared experience, albeit one that was shared through mutual isolation. Human contact became even more important.

Jim Goldfinger, chief customer officer at CustomerTimes, told CMSWire that he saw the effects of the pandemic on employees who went from being camera shy to actively participating, largely because of the need for human contact. Goldfinger said that many newly remote employees embraced the silver lining of avoiding long commutes and having to dress up to prepare for work. “As a result, early during the pandemic, I noticed that most of the participants on conference calls used audio only and not video. Guessing many of us may have still been dressed in pajamas. Over the last several months, I’ve seen a marked increase in the number of participants who turn on their video during calls which I attribute directly to this yearning for human contact,” he said.

Related Article: Using Social Media To Build Human Connections With Your Customer

Embracing Digital While Becoming More Human

A recent customer experience and communications report was released by Fintech leader Broadridge Financial Solutions, Inc. in which they surveyed 3,000 North American consumers. Not surprisingly, 56% said that the pandemic has fundamentally changed how they communicate and engage with businesses. 54% indicated that they have also seen an increase in humanity in the communications they've received from brands. Also interesting is that 19% of respondents overall,  and 27% of millennials, have used a chat feature on a brand's website, portal or app.

What is even more fascinating is that AI is beginning to play a role in facilitating a more “human” response, as emotional AI is making software “more human” by mimicking human cognition and intelligence. Because of the digital nature of the internet, brands are turning to AI and machine learning to craft a more human experience for their customers through AI chatbots, real-time decisioning and personalization engines.

Natalya Bucuy, marketing director at LiveHelpNow, a help desk platform provider, said that chatbots can initially be used to provide answers to basic questions, as well as to solve simple self-service customer inquiries such as providing help with login difficulties or locating specific information about a brand’s products or services. They are also able to direct a customer with a more complex problem to the right person within an agency. By using AI, “a customer in need of accounting help doesn't end up with a general agent with no expertise in accounting, for example. In doing these tasks, chatbots make customer experience more efficient and free up human resources to deal with more complex customer service issues. That, in turn, brings more of a human element into customer experience because customers get their issues resolved quickly, while receiving better customer service.”

Additionally, AI is now able to help personalize the customer experience through recommendations and suggestions that are tailored for each specific customer. “Such personalized customer experience is more human because it helps create a personal relationship between the customer and the brand. By helping humans feel more connected to the brand through personalization, chatbots bring empathy into customer experience,” Bucuy explained.

A large part of what drives the human element of AI chat is customer engagement. According to Stefan Read, VP of engagements at Jackman, a customer engagement reinvention company, traditionally, it was possible for brands to compete using dimensions such as product, price, and promotions, but today, big brands such as Amazon and Walmart have won that game, leaving brands to find new dimensions they can still hope to compete on.

“In a world in which the ‘functional’ dimensions are off the table, that means competing on emotional benefits. It’s crucial to be clear about what this benefit is through an open and honest exploration of your brand,” said Read. “Customer engagement requires solving for a real human need, then bringing it to life seamlessly across channels.” This requires an open and honest exploration of your brand, becoming clear on just what benefits you offer customers. “This will give you the flexibility you need to adapt to meet new challenges and new customer needs,” he said.

Drive the Human Experience With Empathy and Values

Diverse and inclusive brands are able to make emotional connections with a diverse customer base that non-diverse brands simply cannot make. Diverse customers can more easily relate to brands with diverse employees, and those employees provide suggestions, ideas, and observations that a non-diverse workforce will simply be lacking.

Additionally, brands that embrace diversity and inclusion show that they not only respect their employees’ differences, but celebrate them as unique individuals who make significant contributions to the brand.  By empathizing with employees and customers and genuinely caring about their well-being, brands are more able to show that they are compassionate and honestly embrace the values that they espouse.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has taken on a whole new level of meaning for consumers today. The last year has been volatile on many levels, with the COVID-19 pandemic literally changing the way consumers do business with brands, and social and political unrest across the nation and the world. Brands simply cannot sit back, and must take a stand. COVID meant that brands had to put the health and safety of their employees and customers first, and profit took a back seat. Social and political issues meant that brands had to take a stand on issues that five years ago they would have never publicly commented on. The reason for this is that customers honestly care about those brands that share their values, and will continue to do business with them. More importantly, brands that share their customers’ values will make more of a human connection with those customers.

Arthur Filip, executive vice president at HCL Technologies, a next-generation global technology company, explained that the COVID-19 crisis has made customers more interested in a brand’s core values, and how it is contributing to the community. “We are finding that customers want to see what a company values and contributes to, and we have brought more of our CSR into the forefront,” Filip said. “We have been a strong contributor to various causes in our 40+ year history, but we are now finding increased customer interest. Customers are also interested in working together to help people, especially those affected by the pandemic.”

Learning Opportunities

When brands commit to and act with purpose, they are actively enlisting the commitment and loyalty of their employees and customers. This can only be accomplished when brands truly understand what motivates them. By understanding the needs of others using empathy, brands can cultivate stronger emotional connections with customers. Those emotional connections are what they will remember when they think of the brand, and it will drive them to remain loyal.

Use Social Media to Be More Human

Naturally, if brands want to reach customers where they socialize, they must reach out to social media. While it’s very true that brands must be consistent across all channels, providing the same brand voice and values, when it comes to social media, the brand voice can be a bit more playful, and in this case, a bit more human. Brands can effectively use social media to show their human elements to customers.

Read said that brands need to realize that when it comes to social media, traditional marketing tactics such as pushing a message just will not work, and could actually be counterproductive because in the world of social media, the consumer controls the brand. “This means not trying to shape or start the conversation but instead making meaningful contributions to existing conversations. Transparency and authenticity are key, and you should expect consumers to have a finely tuned BS-detector,” Read explained. “Don’t toot your own horn, but do let customers do it for you by letting your guard down a bit: give peeks behind the curtain, show up ‘warts and all,’ own up to and take responsibility for your missteps, and talk about what you’re genuinely proud of and why. In short, behave like a good ‘person’ with no agenda other than to find win-wins with your customers.”

Your most engaged associates are the best “human” representation a brand has, Read said, and they are exactly the type of person that should be involved in a brand’s social media. “Find the people in your organization who really are living your values and give them the keys to your social media. Let them show up as themselves as the brand. Encourage them to respond as they would if it was a customer standing in front of them,” suggested Read. “Show them what’s going on around the company and let them share what they’re most excited about.” To optimally use social media to show a more human side to customers, let a human who embodies your brand do it.

Brands should recognize that although social media can be used to deliver promotions, coupons, and discounts, it should not be looked at as a sales mechanism, but rather, as a way to connect with customers using the brand voice. Brands can connect emotionally with customers through social platforms. Social media is where brands can show their personality, share their opinions, and take a stand about social issues — and customers will love them for it.

Filip said that his company, HCL Technologies, has always used social media to broadcast its humanitarian efforts, and in the past year, its social media channels have played a key role in promoting its social workings, including “Women in Stem, Black History Month, Gender Equality, or Sustainability. We are using social media to launch a new program #Inspireforbetter, which looks to bring HCL employees and members of the extended business community together to ideate ways to bring the change that the world needs.”

Storytelling for a Human Element

Storytelling is a very human experience, because we are all storytellers. We love telling our own story, and also enjoy hearing the stories of others. We begin listening to the stories our parents tell us at a young age, and then we hear stories from our teachers, our grandparents, our brothers and sisters, and everyone around us. In his book, The Voice of Knowledge, Don Miguel Ruiz wrote that “Before we were born, a whole society of storytellers was already here. The storytellers who were here before us taught us how to be human.” Storytelling is part of what makes us who we are.

Bucuy told CMSWire that storytelling can be used to help bring a human element back to the digital customer experience. Like Ruiz, Bucuy believes that storytelling connects with people on a truly human level, even when it is coming from a brand. “Ever wonder why we cannot stop watching some commercials? It’s because they tell stories. All humans love a good story. No matter where we are, as soon as we hear someone telling one, our ears perk up and we tune in. It’s human nature. Stories bring us closer together because we all share this curiosity,” she said.

Bucuy said business leaders and experts from all fields have been heralding the tradition of storytelling in relation to business. She said that if you have a good story to tell, customers will listen. “Storytelling is a great way to engage audiences and connect with them. Incorporating storytelling into customer experience can involve anything from marketing messaging, to telling customers the story behind the company or behind each product.”

Of course, the process works both ways. Not only do people love to listen to stories, they love to tell stories, especially their own story, and customers are no different in that regard. “People love to hear stories and people love to tell them, too. Talking to customers about their experiences, asking them about their journey, their needs, their successes, all can make the relationship more human and personal,” explained Bucuy.

Final Thoughts

The events of the last year have made people realize just how important a connection with our fellow human beings is, while at the same time, the values and mission of brands have become even more important. Brands have had to take a stand socially for the values they espouse. Brands have had to show their human side, to provide customers with a human element in all of their interactions with a brand. By embracing digital while becoming more human, driving the human experience through empathy and compassion, using social media to build connection, and using storytelling, brands can provide a human element that helps to create an emotional connection with customers.