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The customer service conundrum: How to balance digital and human support

16th Sep 2016

The more we adopt self-managed, digital channels which optimise our expectations for 'always there', real-time delivery, we are also rediscovering the expectation for human engagement when it matters. We are complex in our needs and so customer relationships are tricky in terms of striking the right balance.

Therefore, effective omnichannel design is an engagement experience that works in any given customer situation. Here’s one example.

Even though John Lewis is recognised for their online successes, they still keep their eyes focussed on what matters to their customers. For instance, online sales grew by 17% in their latest financial year, with mcommerce up by 34%. However they also spotted that their online sales go up in areas where they open a new shop. This is how John Lewis chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield explained the effect:

“Our results were very much a result of the effective combination of shops and online, demonstrated by the fact that more than three-quarters of our customers made a purchase from one of our shops,”

In other words, John Lewis customers recognise they want both convenience and the human touch.

In contrast to the desire to pop in store, Up2Drive, a division of BMW bank North America, had a different omni-channel design challenge. Their business is to loan customers before they go shopping for a new car.

Customer research had told them, loud and clear, that unlike previous generations, the idea of visiting dealerships multiple times during the research phase of their purchasing journey was widely disliked.

All research and decision-making could be achieved online via review sites and social outreach. So the design challenge was how to influence that journey if the f2f touch point was now off limits until the customer was finally ready to purchase?

Conversational style intelligent assistance was their answer. A non-intrusive, yet readily available way of gathering information needed by the customer. Unlike the less appealing format of FAQs, conversational style engagement delivers a huge uptick in terms of engagement and satisfaction. AI-powered smartness to recognise context, intent and then personalise answers is close enough to a f2f experience to satisfy most customers when the task at hand is non emotional and relatively simple. Customer feedback raved about the service, relative to going to a dealership.

In both examples, a balance between online convenience and the ‘human touch’ was achieved in quite different ways that managed to satisfy the customer situation.

How to design effective omnichannel experiences

Bearing in mind our definition that ‘an effective an omni-channel design is an engagement experience that works in any given customer situation’, we have to consider three inputs.

  1. The degree of digital behaviour a customer is likely to adopt in how they want to engage.
  2. The type of customer journey and the challenges this throws up for the customer.
  3. The relative strengths and weaknesses of the voice, text and video channels at your disposal that match the type of digital profile and journey.

Let’s run through each in more detail.

Digital profiling

The context for this idea is to do with the speed of change. Do you know how fast your customers are adopting new digital behaviour? If so, are your customer journeys calibrated to meet these expectations? This is the purpose of tracking their digital profile. For instance, would a Saga digital profile (50+ age group) be different to a Blizzard profile (gamers)? Maybe, but not necessarily.

So how do you research their digital profile?

Some of it can be gleaned from existing research. The rest has to be primary research, which by the way should be considered an ongoing feedback loop until the digital wheel stops spinning and settles down. In other words, it needs to be understood as a commitment for the foreseeable future.

Let’s first tackle existing research. There is a ton of it: from government level, to research firms and individual brands using research to prove a market demand. It’s all useful if you remember the golden rule of customer insight. Use at least three sources before settling on any interpretation of what’s going on. It’s the same process your smart phone’s GPS uses as it locks onto more than one satellite so it can triangulate and figure out where you are.

This type of research is useful for developing foundation insights about customers. For instance, OFCOM, the UK regulator publishes an annual review of our communication habits which according to them are increasingly digital.

The other type of research is what you can learn directly from your own customers. Use the general themes which the published sources provide to build a set of questions that allow you to understand their digital behaviour. Some areas you might consider:

  1. Preferences in their multi-device use.
    1. Online shopping via laptop/tablet/smartphone.
  2. The scope of their ‘on the move’ mobile behaviour.
    1. Information based e.g. maps.
    2. Transaction based e.g. ecommerce.
    3. Interaction based e.g. social network updates.
  3. Channel preferences for key communication tasks e.g.
    1. Buying from us.
    2. Getting an update.
    3. Getting advice from us.
    4. Making a complaint.
  4. Expectations around autonomy and self management.
  5. Attitudes towards the harvesting and use of their own data.

All this then helps build a picture of how they would adopt various service strategies you might offer. Would they use an app, complain on social, watch a ‘how to’ video?

Of course what this recognises is that customers will fall into various buckets of digital readiness. And the interesting thing is that the dividing lines are not entirely generational. Customer experience demands a much more careful review of who is progressive and who is more conservative which will of course evolve annually.

Understanding customer journeys

The reason why we need to think about journeys is that it forces us to adopt an outside-in view of what matters. In contrast there are still too many organisations who think about the channels at their disposal and internal motivations for using them such as cost reduction.

While this is understandable, we all know that customers will adopt the line of least resistance to get what they want: subvert an IVR menu in order to talk to a person, escalate an issue onto social, try to use SMS to text a business. It is all motivated by a desire to find the best option given their needs. So rather than try and out design that instinct, it’s smarter to work with it.

So what influences a customer’s choice of channel? Probably the most influential is the type of task.

  • What is the context of their current situation?
  • Is what they are trying to easy or complex to complete?
  • Do they feel expert or novice trying to deal with it?
  • What emotions are associated with the task?
  • How important is the task in terms of getting it done fast, accurately, effortlessly, privately?

To bring this life let’s compare and contrast two examples. According to SITA research shared during the 2016 Air Transport IT Summit in Barcelona:

  • Almost every flight is now booked using self-service technology.
    • Only 8% had contact with a human.
    • 75% used a website. While 18% of these say they now intend to move to a mobile app, only 4% say they will seek out a human.
  • Similar figures for mobile apps.
    • 91% of those who used self-service technology to check-in saying they will do so again.
    • If a passenger is dissatisfied with the technology, they will seek an alternative technology rather than reverting to a human being.

So, does this prove we are all now app mad and do not need the human touch? Not necessarily. First we should think about the situation. Getting onto a flight at a busy airport is a logistically complex task these days. You are probably carrying stuff as well. Maybe you are with others as well. It is these conditions that drive users to the channel mix just described.

Contrast this with another scenario. 60% of Millennials agree with the following statement “If I had a customer service question, I would rather use a mobile app or web browser on my smart phone than call a contact centre for an answer”.

We have all seen versions of this research which cements in place a general perception that this generation will not use the voice channel under any circumstances. Not entirely so says other research. According to Capgemini research into millennial behaviour in the context of insurance, they uncovered the following expectation:

“When asked to rank what’s important when they interact with an insurer, the top preferences are”

  • Ability to speak to a live person 42%.
  • This goes up to 51% for female Millennials.

Source: Born yesterday: Will Millennials Disrupt The Insurance Industry?

And the reason for this is simple. Having less experience in buying insurance than older generations, the opportunity to talk through options and be re-assured of making the right decision means that live assistance in the form of a voice call was instinctively chosen for this particular task.

So the moral of the tale is to make sure you have an up to date, granular view of what matters to your customers in each of the major journeys you provide customer service for.

Understanding channel characteristics

Hopefully you are now persuaded that the ‘right channel mix’ is based on understanding customer tasks. Our final input is to use what we have learnt about our customers’ digital behaviour and the characteristics of their journeys to choose the most appropriate channel mix.

In simple terms, there are three types of communication channels. Video, voice and text. Our job as service designers is to leverage their strengths and minimise their weaknesses.

If we consider for a moment that face to face is the richest form of communication that yields the best possibility of both parties being able to communicate effectively, then the ‘next best’ hierarchy of channels is video, then voice then finally text.

In each case something is lost. From video to voice we lose facial feedback. From voice to text we lose emotional feedback which incidentally is why emojis are needed in text based communication as a way of reintroducing that feedback loop.

So how do we use this idea of declining communication bandwidth in practice? Here are some guidelines that will help you make the right choice.

  • Video: The key scenario is when trust matters to the customer outcome. Key examples include high value sales, VIP service, escalations and counselling.
  • Voice: The key scenarios are when the situation is either complex or emotional or when the quality of relationship matters. Examples being problems, complaints and customer retention outreach.
  • Text: The key scenarios are explanations, simple advice and escalations, Examples being how to do something, where to find something, moving from self service to live assistance.

Please remember these are guidelines. You can use text to resolve a complex emotional case. But it is harder given the channel’s limited empathetic bandwidth. So it’s better from a design perspective to resource and promote the right channels for the right uses.

This advice of channels is mainly intended for live assistance. Self-service and proactive service obviously need to be considered given customer expectations for instant, always on service. The balance between live service and self service will vary on based on what customers expect and also on the rapid progress being made in intelligent assistance and messaging based bots which is redefining the boundaries between live and self service in quite dramatic ways. But that’s another topic.


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By PaulineAshenden
22nd Sep 2016 17:21

As you say Martin it isn’t an either/or between digital and traditional channels – people use what best meets their needs for that interaction, at that time and place. So you need to focus on the strengths that each type of channel provides and ensure you support both for your customers. There are more tips in this Eptica blog

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