Why Not Replace People With Technology?
In the second half of the 90s I was involved in consulting in the area of shared services. Being a sidekick I got to witness the sales pitch. What was the sales pitch? No human beings. Everything in the back office was subject to business rules. The business rules could be codified, programmed and back office work could be automated. No human necessary. Nirvana: 24/7/365 nirvana of efficiency guaranteed to deliver the same outcome each and every time.
Today, I notice the same love of technology as regards the front office: where the customer meets the enterprise. In this age of technology do people still matter? Do we need sales people given that content marketing will generate the interest, product demos can be put on the web, and the ‘inside sales’ people can take the orders? Do we need to have any people in marketing given that big data will generate the insights, decision engines will contain the heuristics, market resource management systems will hold the marketing assets, and marketing automation will take care of the execution of marketing campaigns? Do we need people in the call-centres taking calls given the extensive self-help that can be enabled through digital channels and every customer would prefer to interact via Twitter? Do we need people in the stores? Why not rebuild the stores so that they resemble a combination of a website and a vending machine?
What Do These Two Women Say On The Matter?
Allow me to share a conversation that I overheard the other day between two women. Before I do that let me set some context. Waitrose is supermarket chain in the UK and it is owned by The John Lewis Partnership. The John Lewis Partnership has been and continues to do well despite tough times for retailers. Tesco used to be the darling of the CRM press and used to be the dominant supermarket chain. It has not been doing so well since austerity hit. Morrisons is the fourth largest chain of supermarkets in the UK.
As promised here is the gist of the conversation (between two women) that I overheard at the weekend:
Mrs A: “Waitrose is known for their great customer service and rightly so. It’s easy to find someone to help you. And when you ask for help in finding something, the Waitrose person walks you across the store and takes you right to the item you are looking for. They are so helpful.”
Mrs B. “I was in Waitrose this week and wasn’t sure what ingredients I needed for eggs Benedict; I haven’t cooked them before. So I asked for help. The Waitrose man didn’t know either but he told me that he would find out. I saw him walk to one of his colleagues. Then he came back and told me what I needed and how to cook eggs Benedict. He was so helpful: he made my problem his own. That’s such good service.”
Mrs B. “The staff in Morrisons don’t walk with you to the item you are looking for. Yet, I always find them warm, friendly and helpful.”
Mrs A. “I don’t like Tesco. It is hard to find people in the store to help you. And when you do find someone to help they tell you where you can find the item, point towards it, and then leave you to it. They don’t walk with you and show you where it is. They don’t care – not at all like the Waitrose people.”
Mrs B. “I used to do all my shopping at Tesco. Then Tesco got greedy – pushing up prices and cutting down on the customer service. Now, I shop for the basics at Morrisons and the rest from Waitrose.”
My Take On The Situation
I’ll leave you decide whether people matter or not in the age of technology. For myself, I am clear that humans are simply more at ease in dealing with other human beings. And there is no substitute for great customer service – the way that the folks in Waitrose (and John Lewis) stores interact with their customers, and amongst themselves.
Before you rush off to revamp your customer service remember that one ingredient does not a dish make. A great dish always consist of the insightful application of a recipe – and the recipe requires a mix of ingredients, in the right measure, and sequence, cooked for just the right amount of time. How does one generate such insight? Through experience: on the battlefield of life. What is the recipe? The business philosophy and organisational design: what matters, who matters, the operating principles, how conflict is handled, how rewards are shared, how people are structured into groups, and how interactions-relationships-differences-conflicts are handled…
Please note: I am not in the business of giving advice (in this blog). So you shouldn’t take anything in this blog as constituting advice. In this blog I find myself involved in sharing my thinking and experience. That is all. Then you make of it what you make of it.
I have mixed relationship with corporate technology given my first hand experience of it. It is true that technology is essential and it brings many benefits. It is also true that most corporate technology is complex and expensive to set-up and operate. Last, and perhaps most important is that it does not show up as being usable nor useful to the people on the front lines that have to use the technology. Put differently, from the user perspective the disadvantages outweigh the benefits. A great example of such a technology is enterprise CRM systems. Can Vizolution prove me wrong?
I met up with Marcio Rodrigues, Customer Propositions Director, at Vizolution to learn about this technology. Here is what I learned:
- Vizolution technology is being used by three of the top five UK banks and two of the top 5 insurance companies;
- According to customer surveys, customers (95% of them) like the experience that is generated through Vizolution;
- By using this technology financial services companies have increased sales conversions anywhere from 14% (mortgage conversion) to 93% (life insurance and critical illness); and
- The folks in compliance love Vizolution as it sends/receives files using 128 bit encryption, allows complex issues to be explained properly, and enables a consistent sales process.
Ok, the banks and insurance companies like it because it improves sales conversion and improves compliance. What I was interested in was the customer. Why do customers like it? What does Vizolution bring to the customer experience? This is what I learned:
- By being able to see what the sales agent is talking about customers feel more engaged in the process;
- The on screen visuals make it easier for the customer to understand the financial product being discussed; and
- The process of signing-up for a financial product is so much easier and quicker – there is no waiting for the paperwork to arrive by post, reviewing and signing it, waiting for approval.
By now you might be wondering what is Vizolution and what does it do. As I understand it, Vizolution:
- Is patent pending software that allows businesses to engage their customers in sales conversations through an instant, easy, screen sharing session via the internet;
- Is simple and quick – with just one click the sales agent can initiate a Vizolution session and it is just as easy for the customer; and
- bypasses the typical issues in installing screen sharing software locally and navigating around-through corporate firewalls.
My last question to Marcio was on costs: purchasing, installation, and use. What I can tell you is that the pricing showed up for me as being modest even cheap given the difference that this technology has made to sales conversion rates. At this point I could not help being a ‘strategic consultant’ and so I advised Marcio and his team to rethink the pricing!
If you want to learn more about Vizolution then I suggest that you contact Marcio. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have used this software solution either as a manager, a sales agent or a customer then I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.
Please note that I am taking a holiday over August and as such I do not expect to be writing any posts until September. I thank you for reading and hope you make August a great month for yourself and all the people you ‘touch’.
Disclosure: I am happy to write about Vizolution as it occurs to me that this is a simple useful technology. I am not being paid, in any way, for writing this post. Please note that I am not promoting Vizolution and with every technology I encourage you to do your research before you buy.
For those of you who view me as a customer service expert, you might be surprised to know that I have an avid interest in marketing and most of my work over the last 10 years has been with, and continues to be with, marketers and the Marketing function. So in this post, I am going to address what I see as two most important challenges facing marketers and the Marketing function.
Is technology the answer to the challenges facing marketers?
I recently attended and spoke at the Technology for Marketing & Advertising conference/exhibition in London. What I found fascinating is the love of new technology. I was reminded of the heady days of CRM. Do you remember those days? The days when Siebel sales folks would open up every sales presentation with “Siebel is the fastest growing software company ever.” And the point was that CRM technology was going to change the business world and put customers and their wallets at the feet of the organisation.
What is the biggest challenge facing marketing and advertising today? Is it the lack of technology to gather up all the data on prospects and customers and use this data to fire out marketing propaganda and offers, across a variety of channels; to turn prospects into customers and customers into repeat buyers and loyal advocates? If the folks in your marketing department believe this then your business is in deep trouble.
The first challenge is that of relevance
When it comes to effective marketing the first challenge is relevance. From the customer perspective the question is “Why should I listen to you? Why are you relevant to my life? What do you offer that simplifies/enriches my life?” Please tell me how technology is going to address this crucial challenge for you.
Look, Sky keeping marketing to me through direct mail, through email, and by telephoning me regularly. What does Sky want? Sky wants me to sign up for Sky TV; I was once a customer. I keep refusing. Why? My viewing needs are adequately addressed through a combination of Netflix/Lovefilm and going to the cinema. What Sky TV has to offer is no longer relevant even if it is being offered at half price.
The second challenge is that of the Customer Experience
Marketing is a profession that is tasked with manipulating impressions and emotions through the use of image, words, sounds and story. Put bluntly, marketing to date has been the discipline of propaganda. The big problem is that this propaganda does not work. Why? The most pithy answer I have ever come across is that put forth by Matt Watkinson:
No amount of marketing can compensate for an average one-star review on Amazon. You just couldn’t talk the talk anymore, you had to walk the walk.
If you get this you get the enormity of the challenge. What this means is the marketers and the Marketing function have to pretty much turn themselves inside out. They have to transform themselves from image makers to reality makers. Their challenge is to ensure that all the organisational actors that impinge on the Customer Experience do that which is necessary to deliver a Customer Experience that matches the brand promise, the value proposition, and the customer expectations.
Please tell me who the fancy technology is going to help you, the marketers, to influence the minds and shape the actions of all the people in the organisation that directly or indirectly generate the Customer Experience?
My advice to marketers
Technology is a red herring. Technology allows you to undertake marketing activities. Technology impacts the operation/mechanics of doing marketing. What technology does not do is address the strategic challenges. Worse still the pursuit of technology distracts you from the most important strategic challenges facing you, and your business. What are those strategic challenges? Brand relevance, and Customer Experience.
Where is the enthusiasm born of imagination and passion?
In my 25+ years of walking the corridors of business organisations I have come across the mind/intellect in many guises: as strategy; as planning; as process; as metrics; as technology; as standardisation; as the pursuit of ‘best practice’ and ‘benchmarking’…… What I have rarely experienced is enthusiasm born of imagination and passion. Yes, I have come face to face with fear, with greed, with pressure, with determination. And that is not the same as imagination, passion, enthusiasm. In this post I want to deal with imagination.
Does imagination matter?
Is business simple a game of mind? Is it simply a case of putting in place the right mix of ‘resources’ – people, processes, technology, metrics – based on analysis and then configuring and deploying these resources in the correct configuration? I say that this is the traditional assumption and narrative. And that it is not a surprise given the backgrounds of the people who read and write these narratives.
It occurs to me that imagination and passion do matter. It occurs to me that they play a pivotal role in the game of business, to customer service, to customer experience, to customer-centricity. And it occurs to me that these two dimension are neglected – pushed out to the background or paid lip service. I see tactics (VoC, data mining, CRM systems, process redesign….) devoid of strategy and where I do encounter strategy it shows up as being devoid of imagination. It is as if just about everyone is playing the same game (make the P&L numbers) to the same rules and each players is expecting to differentiate himself from his competitors!
Why is imagination so critical?
I say imagination does not just matter, it is critical for any industry that is not immune from change in customer preferences, in competitors and competition, and in technological disruptions. Why? Let me share with you the insight of a particularly insightful philosopher:
” An animal has not enough imagination to draw up a project of life other than the mere monotonous repetitions of previous actions ….
If life is not realisation of a program, intelligence becomes a purely mechanical function without discipline and orientation. One forgets too easily that intelligence, however keen, cannot furnish its own direction and therefore is unable to attain to actual technical discoveries. It does not know by itself what to prefer among countless “inventable” things and is lost in their unlimited possibilities. Technical capacity can arise only in an entity whose intelligence functions in the service of an imagination pregnant not with technical, but vital projects.” Jose Ortega Y Gasset
Put differently, there are limitations to reason. Reason is limited by reason. Reason keeps one restricted to the comfort zone. And it is great for as long as the environment does not change. Imagination is needed to create/shape new environments and to deal with environments that are in the process of change.
Take Amazon. Was it not borne out of the imagination of Jeff Bezos? Take Starbucks. Was it not borne out of the imagination of Howard Schultz? Take Zappos? Was it not borne out of Nick Swinmurn? And was it not imagination (of being the company known for great service across the world) that enabled the Zappos leadership team to put Zappos’ existence at stake to reach for that which was imagined? Think Vodafone. Was it not borne out of the imagination of mobile telecommunications? The list is endless.
What has this got to excelling at the game of becoming customer-centric, at being a customer experience master?
Everything. In my travels what shows up for me? Obsession with the technology of customer service, of customer experience, of customer-centricity. When I speak ‘technology’ I am not just pointing at IT systems. I am pointing at obsession with the means/methods/tools – the rational domain of the engineer. What does not show up for me, what do I not encounter? An imagination pregnant with possibilities and vital projects to which customer service, the customer experience, and customer-centricity can contribute.
Imagination is critical to making the shift. Why? Because that is what is needed to move out of the prison of the ‘making the numbers’ and sticking to the comfort of the ‘known and best practice’. What made Steve Jobs great? At the technical level Steve Wozniak was supreme. Why is he simply a footnote? Because he lacked the imagination of Steve Jobs. Put differently, Jobs was the poet, philosopher and the founder of a new religion around the user experience. Allow me to illustrate this through the insight of Jose Ortega Y Gasset:
“The vital program is pretechnical. Mans’ technical capacity – that is, the technician – is in charge of inventing the simplest and safest way to meet man’s necessities. But these …. are in their turn inventions. They are what man in each epoch, nation, or individual aspires to be. Hence there exists a first, pre technical invention par excellence, the original desire… which part of man is it, or rather what sort of men are they, that are in special charge of the vital program? Poets, philosophers, politicians, founders of religions, discoverers of new values…. the engineer is dependent on them all. Which explains why they all rank higher than he…”
Put simply, without poets and philosophers like Jobs your engineers like Wozniak are not going to get you far in the game of customer service, customer experience, customer-centricity.
How do we treat the old and vulnerable in our hospitals?
To me, the mark of any civilisation is how we as a society treat the vulnerable. How we treat the vulnerable shows how much we genuinely care for people as human beings rather than economic entities. And when it comes to vulnerability the old folks in hospital are about as vulnerable as you can get – trust me I have spent quite some time observing how these folks and they way they are treated. Which is why I am not at all surprised by how badly these folks are treated in the UK. Here as some highlights from a recent piece in the Guardian newspaper:
- “Nearly half of hospitals are failing to provide good nutrition to elderly patients while 40% do not offer dignified care..”
- “At Alexandra hospital staff told how they sometimes had to prescribe drinking water on medication charts to “ensure people get regular drinks”
- “Inspectors found “meals served and taken to the bedside of people who were asleep or not sitting in the right position to enable them to eat their meal”
- “At Barnsley hospital, one patient whose nutrition was supposed to be monitored ate only a single spoonful of ice cream for lunch before their tray was cleared”
This is what the Chief Executive of the Patients Association says in this article: “Why is it that patients have to be prescribed water? Water and food are not treatments, they are a basic human right. Helping patients with food and water is not a try-to-do, it is a fundamental part of essential care”.
Ask yourself: what kind of system delivers this outcome? Is is simply a question of not enough staff on the ward? Or is it more: a system in which the ‘human touch’ has been driven out and replaced with stuff like targets, tasks, forms, checklists, outsourcing to reduce costs….? Whatever you decide, it is clear that the system is not designed to care for the patient and his/her wellbeing. It is a system in which there as so many players (each player doing his thing) that no single person has the complete picture of the patient nor the feeling of responsibility for the well-being of patients. It is a system where the people at the top claim and possibly believe that they are treating the patient/the customer well. Whilst the people at the coal face only make the targets (set by the people at the top) by not paying attention to the needs of the patients. Does this remind you of many commercial organisations where so many functions/people touch the customer and yet no-one owns the customer experience nor is responsible for the health of the relationship?
Are we using technology to dehumanize (one another) rather than enhance the human touch?
“For all the promise of digital media to bring people together, I still believe that the most sincere, lasting powers of human connection come from looking directly into someone else’s eyes, with no screen in between” [Howard Schultz]
As a society we are in love with technology and we are under the illusion that information technologies can and should replace the human touch. This is not a harmless illusion – it has a real impact on our relationships with each other: between employees; between the people in the business and the customer; between the doctors and their patients… You might have read about the research (and real life horror stories) that show that human babies shrivel up, under develop and even die in the absence of human touch. Is it any different for adults?
Abraham Verghese spells out the importance of human touch and ritual to the well-being of patients in the following video. I urge you to watch it as the story that he shares sheds light on the human condition and provides lessons on how we treat one another.
What are the lessons for Customer Experience?
Just in case you did not watch the video here are some of Abraham Verghese’s words and my commentary on those words:
- “The patient in the bed has almost become an icon for the real patient who is in the computer. I have coined a term for that entity I call it the iPatient. The iPatient has getting wonderful care all across over America, the real patient often wonders where is everyone? When are they going to come by and explain things to me? Who is in charge?” There is world of difference between the real customer and what the customer’s record in the marketing database – too many marketers and organisations confuse the two.
- “There is a real disjunction between the patients perception and our own perceptions as physicians of the best medical care.” We live out of our own worldview and we want to think well of ourselves so we almost always have biassed view on how well we are doing in terms of looking after our customers and the relationships we have with them. Often we confuse convenience and the repeat transactions that it drives with customer loyalty founded on an enduring emotional bond.
- “To often rounds look like this where discussion is taking place in a room far away from the patient. The discussion is all about images on the computer, data, and the one critical piece missing is the patient.” I witness many discussions about customers and/or the voice of the customer and yet I notice that no customers are present and neither is there voice. How many have set-up a dedicated platform to allow customers a voice? How many executives actually spend time with real customers and walking in the shoes of these customers? Numbers, analytics, can never substitute for nor provide access to that which is fundamentally human and which comes alive through human touch. If numbers is your thing and not people then go and run an investment fund not a business: a business is all about people.
A final thought
Would it make any difference to human relationships and the way that we conduct business if we remembered and acted on the following insight:
“You never know what is going on in people’s lives when you serve them. For all you know it could be someone’s last day on earth.” (Onward, p187)