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How can brands design 'human' customer experiences in an AI-dominant world?


By 2030 two-thirds of digital customer engagements between a brand and consumer will be completed by smart machines rather than human agents. So understanding how to design customer experiences that use AI technology will be critical to brand loyalty.

19th Mar 2021
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By 2030, according to the SAS “Experience 2030” report, “67% of customer engagement between a brand and consumer using digital devices will be completed by smart machines rather than human agents. And by 2030, 69% of decisions made during a customer engagement will be completed by intelligent devices.  

So where does this leave the human experience?

For years, technology has paved the way, opening innumerable possibilities for solving issues and creating sufficient experiences for customers, while leaving one important ingredient behind: the human touch. Can the path to customer satisfaction and loyalty really be as simple as activating the basic elements that define us as humans?

The answer, simply put, is yes. Provided brands adhere to three key components through the course of the customer journey: empathy, anticipation and authenticity.

Start with empathy

Let’s start with empathy, and the ability to make our customers feel heard and understood.

Two years ago, I brought my mom to California for a long and well-deserved vacation. She planned to bask in the beautiful Bay Area weather, sightsee, and indulge in local food and wine.

Instead, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We had to experience firsthand the arduous and exhausting process of the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.

Her limited English added another layer of stress, since most of the interactions with the numerous specialists, doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and social support groups were in English. Therefore, I was her designated “person”.

Each time I connected with someone on the phone, by email or on the web - I got the same level of attention.

While the technology enhanced our tough journey, it was the patience, compassion and empathy of those we worked with that was the hallmark of our experience.

There were times when it was so overwhelming and honestly, moments where it was quite desperate, but each person, each interaction, was met with understanding. The staff were trained to be genuine and empathetic with my mom’s situation and also truly wanted to assist.

During in-person interactions they even brought an iPad to do a video call with a translation agency contact centre to help with her communications. Their communications were impeccable - proactive reminders and follow-ups, personal messages, and progress tracking.

They harnessed the power of technology so that their staff could get back to doing what they do best, providing excellent hands-on care and service to their patients. While the technology enhanced our tough journey, it was the demeanor, patience, compassion and ultimately the empathy of those we worked with that truly was the hallmark of our experience.

Anticipate need

The second key component is anticipation, or the ability to know what a customer needs before they even realize it. Here I am reminded of my local barista before the COVID-19 pandemic – John. John knows I prefer coffee in the morning and tea in the evening. Before I even reach the counter, my drink is ready. Not only does this make me feel special, it also gives us time to talk about things that really matter, beyond what I would like to drink today. John and I chat about his classes, stories from the day, the shows we are bingeing.

But how can you make a similar personalised connection in the digital world?

Anticipation becomes natural when you have an in-depth understanding. When you can tap into your natural empathy, you can build a sense of connection and anticipate what the customer wants or needs next.

Think about it this way - when we have a deep level of connection with close friends, we can finish their sentences. That’s anticipation,

You cannot deliver on anticipation unless you are genuine with your customers and interactions, which brings me to the final key component: authenticity.  

Be authentic

At my coffee shop, John, my barista, isn’t just preparing my drink order. He’s also actively engaging me in real and meaningful conversations, making me feel like we’ve known each other for a long time.

At the hospital, both my mom and I noticed the intentional way each staff member, from the nurses to the doctors, interacted with us. They made us feel comfortable, listened to, and truly cared for during such distressing times.

Humanising AI

Empathy, anticipation, and authenticity are at the core of what creates memorable, genuine, and valuable experiences.

In order to increase customer engagement, loyalty, and advocacy to your organisation or company, it is imperative that your employees truly know the customer, and use this knowledge to deliver a personalised experience. The most successful organisations and brands are those whose employees know their customers’ preferences, their complete history, and their previous buying and services. Gathering this information allows employees to deliver a customised and personalised experience.

The more consistent you are with your engagement across channels (web, mobile, voice, chat/bot, social media, email, etc.), the more meaningful the connection with your customers. It’s a fine art of blending technology and humans to create lasting and meaningful experiences.

Designing human experiences                                         

We know advanced technologies are part of our daily lives, from smart devices to social media and beyond. That means our experiences are constantly changing, rapidly and instantaneously. Our expectations are influenced by the next new gadget or trend and we expect our human interactions to be the same. But we, as humans, were not born to be digitally connected 24/7 and consume information at the speed of light.

Thus, designing the future of customer experience requires the delicate and balanced dynamic of blending technology and human behaviour. Doing so will enable us to create immersive experiences that are well integrated into the human experience and ones that both brands and customers embrace.

Beloved brands use customer behavioral data and AI to effectively personalise experiences so that customers feel a deeper connection to the brands and services they use or consume. They also create better and efficient user experiences when customers interact with the brand, regardless of the channel.

Only by fusing these human and technological components can we create lasting and meaningful experiences.

Sometimes, brands overfocus on efficiency and deploy technology that brings the cost down but creates friction in the experience. The best examples I think of are chatbots and IVR. Last month, I had to deal with a billing issue with one of the USA's biggest mobile providers. The experience I had was hellish. I was kept in a loop in a chatbot on the mobile app, on the website, and on the phone. As it did with me, this generally creates an annoyed customer with a ruined day.

In the meantime, SAS predicts that by 2025, two-thirds of all consumers expect to be engaging with chatbots, rising to 81% by 2030. How then are you going to design experiences that connect and empathise with the customers?

Understanding how to design experiences that use AI technology, as in the case of my example chatbot in customer service, is critical to brand loyalty. You want to understand customer behaviours as well as customer journeys to enable real-time delivery of tailored, personalised human experiences. I see three design principles in this scenario:

  1. Proactive Design: The chatbot should be intelligent enough to request intervention from humans based on where the customer is in the journey, along with their personalised preference. They must proactively connect to a human and avoid friction in delivering your human experiences.
  2. Integrated Design: Chatbot-empowered AI works alongside customer service representatives and presents real-time customer emotional state, customer history, personalized preferences, and decision tree best options to solve the issue. This will enable her to communicate with empathy and understanding and connect on an emotional level with the customer. This also makes her the hero. 
  3. Journey Design: Use AI-powered automation to help identify critical touchpoints and streamline the internal processes associated with those touchpoints to deliver connected and rewarding experiences for both employees and customers.

We are at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution. As we blend human, digital and AI power to process information and make data-based decisions with machine learning, we should remember lessons from the previous industrial revolutions and not discount the human experience.

As humans who are training those machines, we must teach them how to care and be compassionate, and enable brands to begin to understand their customers' feelings.

Replies (2)

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Aki Kalliatakis Photo
By aki.kalliatakis1
19th Mar 2021 12:13

Great post, Musa. The three pre-requisites of empathy, anticipation and authenticity offer brilliant advice, but, after all these years in CX, I remain completely pessimistic that most organisations will get this right. There simply isn't a desire to do anything more than just save money. Is it just me who sees the irony of "authenticity" being on your list? If you are authentic, then you won't resort to replacing human contact with AI. By its very nature, AI cannot be empathetic, and, without intentionally hurting the feelings of people who write the algorithms for AI, the designers/code-writers themselves are not empathetic people. That's why they chose this career - so they wouldn't have to deal with the complexity of people. Shifting to AI and technology in CX is unavoidable - but I will resist it and avoid the companies that force me to use this.

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Replying to aki.kalliatakis1:
Musa Hanhan
By Musa Hanhan
19th Mar 2021 18:09

I appreciated and thank you, Aki, for the feedback, I understand your pessimism, and I see we have the opportunity to ensure the new smart technology doesn't go deep into the dark side. By designing human experiences and bringing the human factors upfront, adopting AI and ML will help us and not hurt us.

Part of the learning is to make the technologists aware of the side effect that might create during the process.

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