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Seven techniques to humanise digital CX channels


As digital becomes the primary setting for customer interactions, companies must become better at designing and managing customer emotions through these channels.

20th Mar 2020
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How a customer feels about their interactions with a company is a key driver of their loyalty to that company, swaying their future behaviours and perceptions of the brand.

Creating emotionally engaging, memorable experiences will lead customers to return or recommend you to others, whereas delivering consistently negative experiences will lead them to leave you for good.

But designing emotionally positive experiences can be difficult, particularly in an increasingly digital world. Excellent customer experience often requires a "human touch" that is inherently lacking in online interactions. Given how essential emotion is to customer loyalty, how can businesses emotionally connect with people through digital channels? And what's stopping them from doing it already?

Barriers to creating an emotional connection online

People are naturally social, so we find conversing with other people naturally emotional. When a customer complains to a retail manager instore, the manager can use visual or non-verbal cues, such as altering their tone of voice or facial expressions, to communicate understanding and build trust with the customer. Unlike face-to-face conversations, however, digital channels lack this inherent warmth and connection.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that quality digital experiences lag behind those that take place in person or on the phone. 

 In fact, one Qualtrics XM Institute study found that less than a third of companies rated their digital customer experience (CX) as "good" or "very good."

Despite this, customers prefer digital for the majority of interactions. As digital becomes the primary setting for an increasing number of customer interactions (and the feelings that inevitably go along with those interactions), long-term success will require companies to become more deliberate in how they design and manage customer emotions through these channels.

To do this, organisations should incorporate these seven techniques into their digital design process:

1. Intent decoding

Face-to-face conversations are more successful when people are able to use context, content, tone, and shared history to understand the other person's goals for the interaction. To recreate this intent decoding process during digital interactions, organisations need to:

  • Collect and analyse data from a customer’s previous interactions to anticipate his or her likely behaviours.
  • Make educated guesses based on macro trends – customers who previously bought meat-free meals may like a new vegan cheese, for example.
  • Prioritise the top 20% of features and content, as users want these 80% of the time.
  • Question customers and use their answers to narrow down offerings.

2. Contextual framing

During face-to-face interactions, people visually evaluate a person's appearance, age, gender and style, as well as whether they've met before, and then tailor their manner based on these impressions. Without these visual clues, practicing this skill digitally requires companies to:

  • Personalise experiences by grouping and segmenting customers.
  • Customise content by using customer data to display more relevant information.
  • Streamline the onboarding process to guide new customers through initial discovery and decision-making
  • Modulate tones for different customers by changing the visual elements, tailoring tone of voice, and showing different content to different audiences.
  • Look beyond the platform, taking the wider journey and other tech into account.

3. Empathetic agility

In face-to-face conversations, people demonstrate empathetic agility by reading non-verbal information, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, mood and body language, and then adapting their conversational approach based on these signals.

To rapidly respond to customers' changing emotional states during digital interactions, companies should:

  • Observe real-time ‘digital body language’ such as mouse movements, scrolling and backtracking.
  • Use virtual agents and provide chat prompts when a customer’s behaviour suggests confusion or frustration.
  • Make humans easily accessible with clear, specific contact information.
  • Show an exit-intent popup when behavioural cues suggest that a customer is about to churn.
  • Adapt tone to the customer journey by using language and imagery that reflect likely emotions at each stage.

4. Supportive feedback

When people converse with other people in real life, they are able to give small, non-interruptive signs that show they're listening, like saying “mm-hmm”, maintaining eye contact, nodding or asking relevant follow-up questions. To recreate this supportive feedback in a digital setting, companies should:

  • Use responsive sounds to provide a quick sense-check and indicate progress, like the whooshing noise when an email is sent.
  • Include microcopy during form-filling to offer guidance and support.
  • Show progress trackers during multi-screen processes such as check-outs.
  • Signpost next steps at the end of a task to help guide a customer through successfully.

5. Basic manners

For conversations to run smoothly, both people need to adhere to social norms, such as taking turns, staying on topic, speaking at appropriate volumes, and not hogging the conversation. To follow basic manners during digital interactions, companies should:

  • Observe existing mental models such as placing the search bar at the top of a webpage.
  • Give users space to explore without crowding, interrupting or cluttering the screen with pop-ups or prompts.
  • Make information digestible by avoiding dense paragraphs, low-contrast text or busy designs.

6. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is essential to successful conversations as, if someone doesn't understand how they themselves believe, think, and feel, they are likely to behave erratically, confusing and concerning the other person. To show self-awareness through digital channels, businesses need to:

  • Clarify brand identity, tone of voice, company mission and vision, and then use these to shape customer interactions.
  • Develop core brand emotions that they want customers to experience and build them into the design process.
  • Share the brand consistently and persistently to everyone inside the organisation.

7. Emotional reflection

Over the course of a conversation, people will continuously learn about the person they are talking to and naturally feed that knowledge into their own behavior to keep the conversation flowing smoothly. They also use what they learn to inform their future conversations with other people. To demonstrate the skill of emotional reflection through digital channels, companies should:

  • Use experience and operational data (X and O data) to identify micro and macro trends that will affect future customers.
  • Develop customer journey maps with specific emotions mapped onto the touchpoints.
  • Carry out usability testing and user research on a continual basis.
  • Have a CX programme capable of collecting feedback on an ongoing basis and using it to drive continuous experience improvements.

By taking the skills that make face-to-face conversations so engaging and applying them to digital interactions, brands will be able to emotionally connect with customers through these increasingly popular channels, ultimately resulting in more loyal and happy customers.

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