Don't Send Technology to Solve a Human Problem

This piece was originally published in LinkedIn.

When I was 22, it was 1974 and American ingenuity was on fire. It was the dawn of voicemail, the Post-it Note, and microprocessor—innovations that would dramatically change office communication forever.

The 1970s also gave rise to one of the most annoying inventions of all time—interactive voice response menus. You know the ones—those robotic voice recordings you get when you try to call your bank or your power supplier with a billing question or a service issue. These systems are seemingly everywhere now.

Companies love them because they save money. Why send a person who requires pay and dental when you can deploy a machine to help a customer? And for routine matters, such as hearing a company’s operating hours, these response systems can yield a quick answer. But after five minutes of menus, how many of us have found ourselves desperately shouting “REPRESENTATIVE!” at our phones in the hopes of getting an actual human on the line? And worse, how many times has the automated response been “I’m sorry. I don’t understand”?

These companies certainly don’t understand. They think they’re helping customers with these menus (or my other favorite—the contact page that sends customers to an online FAQ in lieu of real contact information), but how would you like to be the rep who has to handle these aggravated callers? The odds are not in the rep’s favor. If anything, the experience will probably demoralize the customer and the rep, and hobble the relationship.

Thinking back on my 22-year-old self, it was hard not to be in awe of technology and its possibilities. I imagine that feeling is even more intense for 22-year-olds today, for whom life without the Internet is unimaginable. But technology isn’t always the answer.

Just as “friends” on social networks aren’t always your closest chums, companies can’t develop strong customer relationships using mobile apps alone. Cultivating the deep loyalty that turns customers into passionate advocates requires companies to truly listen and understand their patrons, and provide the experiences that suit their specific needs. It helps when companies have a feedback system that turns customer input into meaningful operational improvements.

Banks, retailers, and companies in just about every industry are expanding their online and mobile tools and finding new ways to serve customers through screens rather than at a counter. Without a doubt, a strong digital presence is critical to success in today’s business world, but it’s not enough. Some customers will always want to talk through complicated problems with another person, especially when the questions are sensitive and personal.

The smartest minds in business know which customer interactions benefit from a human touch, and the best companies know how to blend the best aspects of the digital and physical customer experiences. My Bain & Company colleague Darrell Rigby refers to this as a “Digical” experience.

Since I graduated from college in 1974, I’ve seen too many companies use technology in ways that ultimately undermine their customers and their businesses. That’s because machines and code can never fully replicate the nuances of the customer experience. It’s a truism that I predict will still hold even in 2074.

Fred Reichheld is an Advisory Partner at Bain & Company, Boston. 


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