• April 22, 2022
  • By Adam Young, director of solution architecture, PFL

5 Factors for Balancing Automation and the Human Touch for Superior CX

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One of the biggest challenges related to digital business is finding the balance point between automation and the human touch. Various digital tools—business intelligence, machine learning (ML), and customer relationship management (CRM) systems—can help scale marketing initiatives, but they also can lead to impersonal and misdirected communications and poor service.

It’s far from an abstract problem. Businesses that rely too heavily on technology and over-automate processes put themselves at risk. The thing that consumers value most—feeling respected and appreciated—all but disappears. Not surprisingly, the total of bad experiences—everything from irrelevant emails to the inability to reach a human when necessary—undermines loyalty, drives customers away, and torpedoes profits. 

How can an organization maintain the human touch with automation? How can it put technology to work in ways that resonate with customers? While it’s tempting to view these two things as opposing forces, in reality the concepts are complementary. With the right business framework, processes, technologies, and data, it’s possible to transform automation technology into an ally.

The secret? Orchestrating your different technologies and data points with processes.

Stepping Off the Automation Treadmill

Finding the sweet spot between automation and human touch isn’t easy. Consulting firm PwC found that about 80 percent of U.S. consumers desire speed, convenience, knowledgeable help, and friendly service. Technology alone cannot address all these things. The good news? About 40 percent will actually pay more for the privilege, and 88 percent indicate that they are more willing to share data with companies they trust.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has made things even more challenging. Reliance on digital technology is greater than ever. Market research firm IPSOS reports that nearly a third (31 percent) of consumers report their primary transaction channel is now online. Yet it notes: “Convenience, the dominant motivation behind most online shopping, does not necessarily equate to humanity. And in fact, it may be the reverse.”

To be sure, it’s incredibly easy to focus on automation as a way to speed processes and control costs. In fact, automation is a valuable tool for achieving advantages, but only when it is used smartly. PwC notes that consumers aren’t as enamored with shiny new technologies and leading-edge features as many businesses believe. Consumers want a fast and frictionless experience. What’s more, they typically don’t notice technology until it doesn’t work right.

At the center of this is the creation of value in the way that works best in a given situation. In a best-case scenario, an organization combines technology, processes, and the human touch to create a superior experience.

Humanizing Business

What exactly does all of this mean in the real world? Five factors are crucial for balancing automation and human touch. 

Factor No. 1: Consumers crave personalization. Personal and contextually relevant messaging is vital for connecting to customers. Unfortunately, many organizations continue to get things wrong. They blast emails and other messages without regard to whether the messages make any real difference. They adopt a “more is better” mode of thinking, and people will remember the brand with enough exposure. Frequently, the opposite is true. The consumer tunes out. You have to hit people with messaging that really matters. This may include a hybrid experience that combines digital messaging with direct mail pieces and even physical items. When companies use data and various approaches effectively, interactions feel natural, and they are appreciated.

Factor No. 2: Every experience must be frictionless. It’s tempting to think about marketing and other business tasks in terms of channels. Clearly, channels are a crucial element of business, but they are not discrete entities. An organization must weave them together to create a seamless fabric. This makes it possible to start and end a task anywhere and on any device. It makes it possible for marketing, sales, and customer support to function in a highly orchestrated way. With a focus on data, an organization can pinpoint where a customer resides at any point in the product life cycle and deliver appropriate web pages, app messaging, emails, and more. 

Factor No. 3: Shoppers want technology experiences to feel humanlike. The desire to shop online or use a chatbot for support doesn’t mean that consumers want a sterile experience. What’s more, slapping a name on a chatbot doesn’t humanize it by itself. The key to effective automation is to harness machines for what they do best—process data, deliver information about a product, or answer basic questions—and then make a seamless handoff to a human, if and when it’s necessary. It’s vital to think through the customer journey and put the right processes and workflows in place.

Factor No. 4: People sometimes want or need a real human. Too often, businesses create websites and smartphone apps that make it difficult—and sometimes impossible—to connect with humans. Sure, a handful of companies can get away with this approach, but the vast majority fail. While human representatives increase costs, they typically boost brand loyalty and fix problems machines can’t. They can deliver empathy and understanding. This leads to repeat customers and long-term revenues. In addition, when employees are empowered to make decisions, they can transform a problem—anything from a defective product or a bad experience with the brand—into a win. They can offer a customer a coupon, apply a partial or complete refund, offer loyalty points, or send someone a replacement. Not even the best AI can figure out how to appease an unhappy customer. 

Factor No. 5: All technology must add value. PwC found that only 3 percent of U.S. customers desire fully automated experiences, and 64 percent think that businesses have lost touch with the human element. Cool technology—say, virtual reality or augmented reality—might appeal to a subset of a customer base. In some cases, it may even appeal to the majority of customers. However, people—as PwC points out—almost always value simplicity, convenience, and easy resolution over bells and whistles. Also, don’t overlook employees. Tools that support effective human interaction pay dividends. Eighty-two percent of U.S. workers want tools that help them better interact, according to PwC. In these scenarios, metrics are crucial, but they must be tied to the value proposition for both the company and the customer.

Getting to Success

In the end, IPSOS says that these five questions can lead organizations to greater success:

  1. What are the new consumer journeys and experiences, and how do we win across them?
  2. How should we innovate accordingly across products, services, and business models?
  3. How do we effectively and consistently communicate with consumers?
  4. How do we optimize engagement and conversion across ecosystems?
  5. How can we differentiate against our competitors through the service and experience we deliver across touchpoints and channels?

To be sure, balancing automation and the human touch becomes much easier when businesses approach the task with the right mentality and framework. The digital and physical worlds aren’t discrete things. They are connected. Businesses that create a hybrid strategy that takes advantage of the best of each are positioned for greater success and higher levels of loyalty.

Adam Young is the director of solution architecture at PFL, a marketing technology company that orchestrates impactful direct mail in an ecosystem fueled by data. Young leads teams that bridge the technical gaps between what customers want and where core technologies fall short. He helps build solutions that allow PFL to win new business and expand its footprint within its existing customer base, serving internal and external customers so that everyone can achieve their goals. 

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