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 future of retailing: is it really all about technology?

I recently viewed the following slide deck (PSFK Future of Retailing Report 2011) and was struck by how the introduction focusses upon the human, the social – shopping as a social experience as much as an economic one, and yet the rest of the report focusses almost exclusively on the wonders of technology and the difference it will make to the shopping experience.  I believe that the report implies that by putting an array of technologies into the retail stores less staff will be needed and possibly these staff need to have less product knowledge because they will be able to access that information through handheld devices connected to the right systems.  Let’s just take a look at these assumptions.

Do you find that life is more complicated or less complicated?  Do you find that you are more time or less time?  Would you prefer to spend your time doing research, talking with your social network, evaluating options, find the right products and then making the purchase?  Do you do that voluntarily or out of necessity because either you do not trust retailers or find their staff to lack the product knowledge?  Do you do that for all product categories and before every single purchase?   Do you look forward to serving yourself through the website, the IVR and FAQ’s never encountering another human being at the company your are doing business with?  Can you really imagine turning up to the retail store, scanning in the bar codes, reading the reviews, reading how the product was manufactured, getting your friends opinions…..?  How long will that take?  Do you have the time?  Can you do that standing up in the store with lots of other shoppers jostling around?

What would it be like if you trust the retailers?  Retailers that stock products that you can trust – the quality is sound, they are fit for purpose; the products are appropriately priced; there are plenty of welcoming, helpful and knowledgeable staff who can and do help you with making the right choice including selecting the right products.  What if these staff are also enthusiastic about the products that they are selling?  Do you think some of that enthusiasm will rub off on you?

Allow me to share a personal story with you because I believe that it illustrates another perspective on why and how we shop in the retail stores.

I was handed an iphone 4 and told that I needed to get a protective cover for it – sound advice given that it is an expensive advice.  Yet, I had never owned an iphone and so did not know what kind of protective cover to get.  So I started by observing and noticed that different people had different covers and so I wondered which one would be right for me.  I even asked a couple of people for recommendations yet the recommendations landed as lukewarm to me so I lacked confidence on those recommendations.  Then I turned to the internet and there were all kinds of covers and all kinds of reviews.  At the end of this process I simply felt that I had wasted my time – too much choice, too many opinions and fundamentally I could not touch/feel/use the cover to see what it added to the weight, bulk and use of the iphone.  So what did I do?

As the retail centre was only five minutes walk I went shopping.  Where did I go?  Carphone Warehouse.  Why?  Probably because I have a mental map that says ‘independent advice’, ‘friendly in the past’ and ‘stocks lots of accessories’.   I walked over to the accessories section and started looking.  That did not help me because the signposting was poor – I simply could not find the iphone4 covers.  So I turned to the three people on the counter and asked them for help.  One young man stepped forward with enthusiasm.  He showed me the iphone covers and there was considerable choice.  So he asked me what I was looking for and I explained.  He then made his recommendation with conviction and enthusiasm yet he did not stop there.  Without asking he opened up the packaging, took out the cover and snapped it into place and invited me to feel it and use the phone.  I did and the cover did the job perfectly and it was reasonably priced as well.  So I thanked him for his help and bought the cover – all of this took less than five minutes; I had wasted some 3o+ minutes shopping online.

Insights into the shopping experience

There are some categories of products that we simply have to see, touch, hear, feel and experience in order to know if a particular product is right for us.   And this is where offline retailers have an advantage over etailers.

Sometimes it is really hard to choose because we have no prior experience and there are so many products to choose from.  This is where knowledgeable, enthusiastic, helpful staff can make all the difference: right there and then they can learn what you want and let you experience their recommendations.

There are occasions when you simply cannot wait a day or more to get your hands on stuff that you need.  Again this is where offline retailers have a great advantage because we can turn up and walk out with the stuff that we want when we exit the store – clearly not so for all products e.g. fridges, washing machines etc.

Convenience matters.  The fact that I could easily pop into the shopping centre made it that much more likely that I would do so when I needed to buy something quickly – on that day.

I enjoyed the human interaction with the young man that sorted out my problem for me / helped me find the right cover.  He is no longer just another face he is a human being to me: I know that he has an iphone, that it is white, that he had considered buying the cover he recommended to me but did not do so because it did not go with the colour of his iphone…… Put differently I was enriched by the social encounter (in the real world) which simply would not have occurred in the online world. And this social encounter matters to many people – the challenge is to get it right by retailers investing in the right people and the right number of people.

Conclusion

The basics of good retailing have not changed: location, merchandising, knowledgeable staff, great service, value for money….  Some retailers are suffering because on the whole many retailers have forgotten these fundamentals especially the human and social aspects of the shopping experience. Despite the lure of technology what really matters in the offline retail world is the human to human encounter:  the people that we meet in the stores, how helpful they are and how they make us feel about ourselves, our fellow human beings and the world that we live in.  The proper role of technology is to add to this hi-touch not to detract from it or to replace it.   I can imagine that there is a consultant or IT vendor out there selling the fact that with the right technology in place the retailers can dispense with their human staff: the customers will simply turn up and serve themselves or maybe robots will do the work of the human beings. To be in love with this dream is to be fundamentally mistaken about human beings and shopping.

Are you using the right lens to design the customer experience?

How do you view your business, your industry?

One of the most useful posts I have come across recently is one by Mark Hurst at Good Experience.  It gets to the heart of the matter quickly and I encourage you to read it: “Your industry has the wrong name”

Mark’s key point is worth memorising: “To create a good customer experience, you need to see your job as dealing with people as they deal with your field of work.”

Now if your job is dealing with people then it really helps if you understand a little about people.

There is a big difference between Expectations and Needs

Let’s start by distinguishing between Expectations and Needs.  Too many people lump them together and that is a mistake: they are not equally important and violating Needs has very different consequences to violating Expectations. 

When you are dealing with people then you have to cater for both Expectations and Needs.  Why? Taken as a whole they determine how people (your customers) approach events and situations. And how they are likely to behave in response to events and situations.

Yet, there are also big differences.  Expectations are wrapped around daily events, specific and much more readily available to the conscious mind.  For example, you will have an expectation as to how long you should wait to get your meal at McDonalds.  And this is likely to be very different to your expectations as to how long it will take your main course to arrive at a fine restaurant.  Furthermore, when you make comparisons you will compare McDonalds with other fast food restaurants.  And you will compare the fine restaurant with other fine restaurants.

Needs on the other hand are much more global and they tend to be hidden from view: submerged in the subconscious mind.  Needs arise from our existence as human beings: they concern issues of life and death and how we see ourselves (our identity). If your job is dealing with people as they deal with you field of work then you need to pay attention to three needs in particular:

  • security – the need to feel secure and as such not threatened by harm (physical, economic, psychological);
  • esteem – the need to maintain and enhance one’s self-esteem and social standing; and
  • justice – the need to be treated fairly as a human being of worth.

Why am I making such a big fuss between Expectations and Needs? Two reasons:

First, if you dissatisfy customers by not meeting their expectations, you can still recover.  Whereas, if you dissatisfy customers by violating their basic needs, you are likely to lose them.  Would you do business with a dishonest supplier?  Would you do business with a supplier that made you feel stupid or lose face in public? Would you take the family car in for a service to the garage who failed to tighten the bolts properly last time and as a result your front wheel dropped off whilst you were driving (with your young children in the back)?

Second, I believe that too many customer experience efforts are overly focussed on Expectations and are neglecting the Needs. Even worse, some customer experience designers are improving performance against Expectations at the expense of Needs.

B2C: what matters most to your customers?

So what matters most to customers when it comes to the B2C space?  All kinds of research has been done and you can choose your favourite one.  Personally, I find the following table useful:

At the very top of the wish list is caring helpful staff.  Why is that?  Because caring helpful staff tend to deliver on the three key needs simultaneously: security, esteem and justice.  Put differently, caring helpful staff get that their job is to deal with customers as people whilst these customers deal with your field of work.

The flip side is that if you want your customers to look for another supplier and to speak badly of you then employ uncaring, unhelpful staff.  Or, employ caring helpful staff and then put them in a culture that prevents them from being caring and helpful by tying them up with unfriendly business policies and practices.

For the record, I am of the view, that the real culprits are unfriendly business policies and the associated culture (rather than the employees who serve customers).  You don’t have to take my word for it, read this post from the highly ranked 1to1 Blog: “Do Your Policies Work Against Your Company?”


Putting people back into the customer experience equation

One of the biggest issues that I have with the customer experience movement is that the process, technology, efficiency and standardisation mindset that is appropriate in the manufacturing environment is being applied to the services industries and the service environment. And in the process the very best of what people have to offer (the human touch, flexibility, improvisation, creativity…..) is being taken out of the picture:  the opportunity to create that emotional bond is sacrified for efficiency.

At the same time, today, I have not been able to do much today (back is playing up) and so I spent some time re-reading an old book (published in 1999) and called “Market Leadership Strategies for Service Companies”.  As I have spent the bulk of my life working in, delivering and advising companies with a heavy service orientation the following passages speak to me and I want to share them with you:

Employees are not the problem, management is the problem

” Over-engineered employees desperately need to once again pursue the most personally satisfying work goal: doing things that make a difference in the eyes of customers.  Employees intuitively know that their core mission should be to provide the kind of help to customers that is truly needed …..Their company’s seeming indifference to being perceived by customers as unique frustrates them……..The net effect is that millions of employees feel robotic in their daily execution of quality, cycle time reduction, re-engineering and a host of other operational activities that perpetuate rather than improve the company….”

Employees are incredibly important and yet misunderstood, under-utilized and over-structured

“Employees are often the most misunderstood, underutilized, and over-structured assets of a service companies.  But next to customers they are the second most valuable asset that companies have.  The problem lies in the perception of the role that employees play in the customer experience.  Many service companies view their employees simply as part of a process that produces an end output – a physical product to be delivered to a customer.  If a customer’s primary focus is on functional performance of the physical product, the employees generally do not need to be involved with the customer experience.  But with services the situation is different.  In fact, in service companies the employees are very involved in the customer’s experience.”

Big mistake: dehumanizing people all in the mistaken (manufacturing) view of quality

” The mistake made by well meaning and well schooled managers is to dehumanize their people – all in the name of quality control.  Service managers attempt to make employees interchangeable.  Although industrialising the service may be important and even necessary, taking the “performers” out of the equation leads to a neutered, indistinguishable experience for customers. ”

Product and quality through people – not by replacing them with self-service technology, standard processes and scripts

“Productivity and quality improvement come from having people involved with customers – people who want the responsibility, can manage themselves, respond well to pressure from customers, and who are highly motivated through skills, job opportunities and pay advancements.”

My conclusion, my interpretation

People – customers, employees, contractors, suppliers, partners matter.  In fact they are critical to business success in service intensive operations and industries.  If you are worthy and you have the know how you can tap into the very best of what they can offer: energy, enthusiasm, passion, creativity, flexibility, discipline, intelligence, wisdom.  And that in itself is ultimately the source of competitive advantage, ongoing renewal, new product development, great customer experience, growth and profitability.

Yet as a very wise French teacher told me when I was about 10 years old: “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink”.  I believe that is the case with many companies, many CEOs and many management teams.  If they do not value their employees, you cannot make them value them.  Which means the door is wide open to those that get the message and are willing to blaze the trail. For example, John Lewis – who recently delivered a great set or financial results when many other retailers are struggling and blaming the weather.

Self service is not an easy fix or why I love Kylie

Yesterday I read an interesting article on self service (well worth reading) and this got me thinking about my recent experience with the Home Delivery Network, a parcel delivery firm that operates in the UK.

One day I was handed this card by wife.  She told me that it looked like a parcel had come for me and as no-one had been home the driver had not been able to deliver the parcel.  The first thing I noticed was that the card had not been completed and so I was not able to tell:

  • who the parcel was for as there are five of us living at this address;
  • when the delivery firm had attempted to deliver it and failed;
  • what had actually happened to the parcel –  taken back to the depot or left with a neighbour etc.

What I did notice was 8 digit parcel ID and the instruction to look at the back of the card for contact details.  Reading the back it became clear that I was being urged to go to the website.  I did exactly that and entered both the parcel ID and my postcode.  The website responded with the following message: “Your parcel(s) cannot be rescheduled for delivery, please contact customer services on 0871 977 0800”.  Just to make sure that I had not made an error, I had a second go at entering the parcel ID and postcode and found that I got the same message.

So I called the number and found that straight away (no waiting) the IVR kicked in and once I had entered the parcel ID it spelt out when I could get the parcel delivered.   As it was a Tuesday, I requested delivery on the Thursday and left my home number so that delivery firm could ring me back if there was an issue.    At this point I was happy with the experience as it had been easy to schedule a delivery.

Thursday arrived and departed: we did not get the parcel delivered and we did not get a phone call to let us know that there was an issue.  So I contacted customer services (the IVR) and proceeded to listen to the option and select another date for delivery.  That date came and went: no delivery, no phone call.  Then I made a third attempt and met the same fate.

At this point I became rather frustrated even angry.  Why?  Because I wanted to get my hands on the parcel and I could not.  Every time I dialled the customer services number I found myself faced with the IVR which spelled out the dates when I could reschedule delivery.  I was wondering: how do I get through to a human being who can help me with my problem?

Then I made another attempt to contact customer services.  This time I listened to the IVR and did not opt for any of the delivery dates and found that right at the end I was given an option to speak to a human being.  I selected that option and found myself talking to Kylie.   She greeted me warmly, took my details, looked at her system and was able to tell me that the parcel was addressed to (my wife) and sent by Republic (the clothes retailer).

Kylie also told me that the delivery drivers handheld had failed and so he had not been able to upload the information into the system.  As a result I had not been able to find and reschedule the delivery of the parcel.  Then she went on to tell me that the notes on her system were telling her that the parcel had actually been delivered the very first time.  And clearly that might explain why I had a lack of success in getting the parcel delivered!

When I told Kylie that my wife and I had not received that parcel (despite what her systems said) Kylie went on to clearly explain what I need to do.   She was great and she completely changed my mood and my attitude: she took away my frustration because she had shed light on my situation and provided me with a clear path that I needed to follow to close the matter out.  Above all she had a friendly, helpful disposition throughout our conversation: she made me feel that she was on my side.

So here is my take on self-service technology:

Your self-service technology is only as good as the people, processes, technology and data that sits behind your self-service technology

If you consider my experience, you find that the driver left the card behind even though he had delivered the parcel according to Kylie.  Second, the delivery driver did not fill in the data fields in the card: either he should have filled in the data fields or the data fields should not be there.  Third, his handheld failed to update the data into the delivery tracking system.  Fourth, the IVR allowed me to schedule a delivery even though there was no parcel to be delivered as it had already been delivered.

Give customers an incentive to use the self-service technology: make their life quicker and easier

At first I jumped at the idea of rescheduling the parcel delivery through a website.  Why?  Because, in the past I have had to make a number of calls and/or wait a long time to have delivery depots answer my calls, find my parcel on their system and then reschedule a delivery.  Even when the website did not work, I was happy to use the IVR to schedule the delivery as it was quick and easy.

Give customers an easy way to bypass the self-service technology

It is necessary to give customers an easy to find option to bypass the self-service technology.  Why? Because the self-service technology can fail and does fail as it did in my case where neither the web nor the IVR was able to tell me that there was no parcel left to deliver or to deliver that parcel.  In my case, I made four failed contacts with the delivery firm before I was able to figure out how to get through to a helpful human being – a customer services agent called Kylie.

Also because not all customers can or want to use self-service technology.  A case in point is the UK supermarkets replacing cashiers with self-service tills where the customer has to do the work of the cashier.  I am in that segment of people who do not agree to the proposition that I should do the work of the supermarkets especially as the two times I have made the effort the process has not worked and I have had to wait for one of the supermarket staff to come over and sort out the issues.

The more you replace human-human interactions with self-service technology the more important human beings become

Why?  Because human beings are usually the best at dealing with and sorting out the problems that you create for your customers through the introduction of self-service technology.  This is where Kylie was great: she simply defused by frustration and anger by listening to me, getting where I was at and then helping me through to the solution.

Whilst self-service technologies can improve the functional experience it tends to be at the cost of the emotional experience

At a recent conference I heard several female customers mention that whilst they appreciated the ease and convenience of banking electronically with First Direct they did not feel any emotional bond with First Direct because they never spoke with a human being.   This points to a truth: whilst technology can make life easier it rarely makes human beings feel acknowledged, appreciated, respected, valued.  This is why I love Kylie:  she made me feel all those things when the self-service technology had left me feeling insignificant, neglected and helpless.