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With Automation, Don’t Forget Human Connection
This article originally appeared in Randy Wootton’s Forbes Tech Council column.
Ten years ago, someone told me that automation would impact our lives more than the internet had. I scoffed — people have been saying that for years, and it’s hard to think of anything more impactful than the internet. Going into 2019, I’m being proven wrong, and happily so. The hype around artificial intelligence-powered automation these days is white hot and overblown, but there are also real signs of transformation.
Think about experiences like Amazon Go stores, which use sophisticated computer vision and machine intelligence to enable what the brand calls Just Walk Out shopping. In fact, according to a survey of more than 550 senior executives by MIT Technology Review and Genesys, reported on by Tech Republic, “91% of brands use automation and artificial intelligence to improve their customer service programs.”
This kind of personalized, real-time customer service is quickly going mainstream; this year it’s a novelty, but soon it’ll be table stakes for any retailer or service provider.
As someone who has been wrestling with the promise of personalized marketing for nearly 20 years, I believe that the recent advances have finally allowed marketers to execute personalization at scale by engaging prospects and customers with compelling content and relevant offers at just the right moment. In theory, artificial intelligence (AI)-powered solutions have the ability to reduce friction in the buying process, leaving the customer delighted and surprised by a recommendation they were not expecting — book suggestions from Amazon or film picks from Netflix are low-cost ways to harvest easy upsell revenue with no human intervention.
At the same time, my fellow tech CEOs and I face a fundamental dilemma: AI can help our businesses grow, but this success often comes at a societal cost. For example, as chatbots and mobile apps make it easier to order cabs, schedule appointments and hire movers, human-to-human interactions are on the decline. Loneliness and isolation are significant concerns today. And many are starting to hold the tech world accountable for this, particularly when it comes to the psychological impact of social media.
As a tech leader, I think we need to be clear with our employees, customers and shareholders on how we intend to balance technological growth and our responsibility to be ethical operators. I describe this as focusing on both doing well and doing good.
This means embracing automation, not as a means to eliminate human interaction from your business, but instead as a means of building deeper connections with people. Very specifically, when engaging with customers, I would suggest that there are three primary things that successful leaders need to keep in mind in order to maintain this balance.
I believe the level of loneliness and isolation in recent years can help explain the simultaneous rise of the experience economy. With robots and automation replacing human beings at every turn, consumers crave real experiences.
Airbnb, for example, began offering experiences as well as rental properties to travelers in 2016. The company’s efforts show that many consumers don’t just want to pay for a drink in a bar or a ticket to a movie anymore; they often crave interactive theater experiences, bread-making classes and other activities that connect them with new people and activities.
To appeal to these modern consumers, consider building experiences into your product or service offering. This can be as easy as humanizing the customer experience process. For example, at Netflix, customer service representatives are encouraged to adopt movie and TV character personalities to help make the customer chat or call feel like a full cinematic experience.
It’s not just about interpersonal interaction or experience. What really matters is that interaction is meaningful. Every time representatives at your company interact with a customer, they should be considering the potential impact of their words and actions.
At my company, one of the things we tell our employees to ask themselves is if the interaction with the person they’re speaking to will leave that person feeling as though we truly care about their time. Once you begin building this empathetic mindset into day-to-day interactions, customers can start seeing you as a trusted friend or ally. And in a world where prospects use references, Yelp reviews and Glassdoor comments to evaluate you as a company, every interaction matters.
Never Cold Call
Nobody likes blatant advertisements. If your interaction with a customer feels like a pitch, they’re unlikely to find it meaningful — if it even makes it through their ad blocker. To counter this, make it your goal to be seen as a partner, not a vendor. A good way to achieve this is by doing your homework first, and then leading with an inquiry.
The more you can come into a conversation with a point of view about that customer’s business context and problems they are facing, the better. Of course, you won’t have the right answer at the beginning of the conversation, but you will create an opening for a dialogue where you can use active listening to better understand what they really care about. And that can go a long way these days.
As the amount of technology in our daily lives increases, automation and AI are inevitably going to become more prevalent as well. In order to stand out from the competition and connect with consumers, ironically, it’s more important than ever for tech leaders to prioritize meaningful human interactions. To do this, companies need to offer experiences, develop an empathetic approach and position themselves as partners. Doing so will help customers and brands reconnect in a meaningful way — one that portends a future where technology helps more than it harms.