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Will We Need the Human Touch In the Age of Automation?

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Matt Wujciak


Recently, Popeyes has been all over the media for a series of violent customer service related actions surrounding the release of their new chicken sandwich. Another popular restaurant chain I recently wrote about, Buffalo Wild Wings, has also been under public customer service related scrutiny after a racist incident went viral on Facebook. And CNBC and Forbes recently published studies showing a record breaking amount of customer and customer service related attacks in another hectic customer service industry, U.S. airlines. 

Increase in automation = increase in consumer expectations

The Government Accountability Office said 92% of customer service agents surveyed from U.S. airlines said they were verbally harassed by passengers in the past year and more than 11% said they were physically assaulted.

Read More: How to Manage Different Consumer Personalities: A neuroscience-based approach

Many of these attacks are related to “business practices,” according to interviews the GAO conducted.

If you feel as if restaurant employees and customers, airline staff and consumers, or people in general are becoming shorter tempered, it’s because they are. One of multiple npr studies published this year supporting this statement found that more than eighty percent of Americans believe we are angrier now than a generation ago, and it’s a little deeper than the “business practices” we see on the surface.

There are plenty of reasons  why unprofessional or violent customer and customer service actions have skyrocketed within the past few years, even months. Most of these reasons, of course, can be tied back to an increase in consumer expectations. As technology increases our ability to deliver quality customer service, the expectation for technology driven instant gratification and service has also exponentially increased. Customers want the convenience aspect of automation, yet the personalization of human-based interactions.

"When a negative incident occurs, the negative emotions and dissatisfaction are actually created by how an employee responds, not by the incident itself"

According to Shaun Belding, CEO of the Belding Group, “the mistake most of us make is believing that customers get dissatisfied and emotional because of the problem they are facing. It turns out that this isn’t the case at all. In 1990, researcher Mary Jo Bitner found that when a negative incident occurs, the negative emotions and dissatisfaction are actually created by how an employee responds, not by the incident itself. We don’t, for example, get angry because our TV is on the fritz. We get angry because the person we called about it didn’t seem to care. It’s all about the skill of a company’s employees.”

Belding, referring to customers, states that our negative emotions stem more from poor service after a mistake is made, rather than the initial problem we inquired about. Human-to-human interaction is central to this concept. As a result, businesses that try to distance its customers from other humans are missing a critical tactic — refocusing their products and technologies on services around the power of human interaction provides an opportunity to create customer value. Automation should aid that relationship, not replace it. 

According to research conducted by Harvard Business Review, food delivery service, Caviar, for example, notifies customers at every phase of the order process, from when the order is received, the food is prepared, and the food is picked up for delivery, including the name of the delivery-person, which ensures the customer knows their food is in good (human) hands.

Authenticity translates to higher ratings

Research led by organizational behavior scholar Balazs Kovacs scoured over 1.2 million Yelp reviews of restaurants and found that restaurants that received reviews containing more words relating to authenticity also got higher ratings.

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Given the significance that people associate with human contact, companies can benefit by making the human touch more visible in the production of their goods and services. A human touch (even in a primarily technologically driven process) signals that companies are operating with intentional purpose, working harder, and acting authentically, all of which create meaning in the minds of consumers.