In The Age Of Technology Do People Still Matter?

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.

The one experience that lays bare the reality behind the customer talk

So how are organisations getting on with being customer-centric?

When your brush past all the evangelising, the talk and the spin you are confronted with one experience which tells you all that you need to know about the business world.  What is this one thing?  Well after 10+ years of evangelising and $bn of spend on customer systems and consulting services the fact is that you and I still sit up and notice when we have been treated well.   Do you sit up and notice that the sun rises every day? Why not?  Because it happens every day, we take it for granted, it becomes ordinary and falls into the background.  So the fact that you and I notice when we are treated well tells you that being treated well is a rare occurrence.  Which in turn tells you that the vast majority of organisations have not become customer-centric – not even close.

Yet there are exceptions and I want to acknowledge one of those exceptions.   James Watson’s wonderful  blog post got me thinking about the way that I have been treated by a young lady called Shelley Beaumont.  Some of you may have noticed that my blogging slowed down in March and April.  Well that was because I unexpectedly hurt my back and chose to focus on getting myself fit again.   Today, I am almost as good as I was before the problem started and the person who helped me get here is  Shelley Beaumont and she works for a company called HCML .  According to the website “HCML are the UK’s leading provider of professional rehabilitation case management and employment services to the insurance industry, solicitors and corporate clients. We are passionate about ensuring that everyone who requires rehabilitation in the UK has access to quality and effective services.”

Shelly from HCML  has done for me what Heather from Orbitz did for James Watson:  she has taken ownership of my problem!

Shelley has BSc (Hons) in physiotherapy and it shows.  She has also been my case manager – she  is the person that has been there for me at the end of the phone – listening to me and helping me to get the professional services that I have needed.    What makes Shelley stand out for me? Shelley has listened to me attentively and respectfully.  She has empathised with me – both the physical pain and the mental pain I have been going through and by doing that she has made me feel understood and validated.

When I think back over the last three months I am grateful to Shelley for:

  • Explaining the rules of the game and setting my expectations accurately right from the beginning;
  • Finding me a friendly and competent local physiotherapy and chiropractic clinic;
  • Doing all the paperwork (so that I did not have to do it) and arranging my first appointment with this local physio clinic;
  • Finding three back specialist who work in/around my local area and allowing me to choose which one I wish to use – the right amount of choice;
  • Completing ans sending over all the paperwork to authorise treatment and booking my appointment with my preferred back specialist;
  • Arranging an MRI scan for me so that I could get it done at my first visit and so reduce the number of visits to the hospital and the amount of time needed to get a full picture of the situation – Shelley had to go around the rules to make this happen at my request;
  • Regularly calling me to see how I have been getting on and in particular calling me after specific treatments to see how I wanted to move forward;
  • Always, I mean always, doing what she said she would do by the time she said she would do it;
  • Providing my with resources (website / online videos) to help me find and do the right exercises; and
  • Leaving me with feeling that in Shelley I have someone I can count on to make the right things happen (by me and her employer) not a person who is going to find excuses and put barriers in my way.

The lesson for companies who seek to be customer-centric

Hire people like Shelley.  Provide people like Shelley with the environment, tool and training that enables them to be great with customers.   Then ask them to enter into a specific kind of game: the game of providing great customer service by taking ownership of the customer’s problem.  Whilst this may sound expensive it is not.  What do I base that last statement on?  My experience.  By being proactive and getting me the right treatment when I needed it Shelley saved the insurance company many thousand of pounds in additional medical costs.  How?  By doing what she has done she has helped my back to recover naturally thus saving costly consultant visits and surgery from one or more back specialists.

A final word of thank you to Shelley and HCML

Thank you Shelley for being great with me.  And thank you HCML for employing someone as great as Shelley and allowing her to be magnificent.  Finally, HCML if I were you I would make sure that I treated Shelley well and kept her!  If I was in your line of business I would hire her without hesitation.