Can technology replace humans to provide a better customer experience?

This has been an ongoing discussion for the last year or two, especially as technology evolves and new tools surface: can technology alone deliver a customer experience that is as good as, or better than, what a person can?

Last August, Bob Thompson of CustomerThink reached out to several customer experience thought leaders to get their opinions about technology and the customer experience. I was among the group that contributed to his post. Part of my response: “In order for technology to come close to delighting, you have to first train it or teach it what will delight you.”

Technology is an experience enabler, a “supporting cast” of sorts. I think there are definitely times when customers need that human touch, that warm smile, the ability to reach out and touch someone, should they have a question or an immediate need, especially one not easily solvable with technology. I don’t think the need for relationships or the human experience will go away. Sometimes you just need to have a conversation.

In order for technology to fulfill that need for a personal/personalized experience, it needs to be trained or programmed. You need to tell it what your preferences are; while we need to do that for humans, too, in theory, humans already come wired with compassion and some common sense (hopefully), such that we don’t necessarily need to reprogram/train them. At the very least, we can hire for the right attitude.

I’m not an Ally Bank customer, and I’m not necessarily a fan. (They used to be GMAC. Remember them and their reputation?) But I laugh at their recent/current commercials (“Your Money Needs an Ally”), especially the one that touts: “Helpful People. Not Machines.” Without a doubt, every time I see it, I remember some of the conversations being had around this topic.

 For a little background, Ally is a branch-free bank; this fact alone automatically makes one ask: “If they don’t have branches, then they’ve just eliminated all human interactions, no?” According to their website, though, they do offer 24/7 live customer support by phone. And Money Magazine has rated them Best Online Bank for two years in a row. They have won a ton of awards, including Forrester’s 2013 Outside In Award, so they must be doing some good things.

But this post isn’t about Ally Bank. I simply used the video to demonstrate my point. Technology (the right technology, i.e., not a blender) alone cannot deliver what humans can for the experience. Do we think that technology can  meet all of these qualities of a great experience:

  • Personalized
  • Memorable
  • Remarkable
  • Emotional
  • Consistent

Can technology provide experiences that clearly demonstrate the company’s focus on attention to details? Can it build customer trust with/for the organization? Can technology create an emotional connection for the brand? Can it be flexible and adaptable, given the varying needs of customers? Can it read human emotions and diffuse a volatile situation?

I have definitely seen some advancements in tools and technology that have helped to better the experience. Self-service as a result of this is only going to become more prevalent. I know technology will become a large/larger part of our interactions and overall experiences with brands in the future, but I hope we never see the day where this (see video) is real.

Where do you stand on this topic? Are we in for a future where we’re only interacting with iPads, IVRs, and robots? Or are human interactions still a requirement for ensuring great experiences? Do you have any examples of cool new technology that really added an element of delight to your experience?

One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man. – Elbert Hubbard