How Automation Can Make Us More Human

When we consider the positive aspects of automation in our lives, we tend to think of the speed and access to information that it provides us—a kiosk at check-in, directions on the highway, automatic reminders on the desktop, or mobile apps that help us accomplish mundane tasks. When we consider the negative aspects, we tend to think of the exclusionary nature of automation, pushing us further away from human interactions.

Can automation take a step in the right direction for efficiency and still have a human touch? It is possible, but it requires automating the right things and freeing employees to have more human interactions with their customers.

Think of automation in customer service. We first use self-service through the Web, mobile apps, and phone menu systems and, then, if our questions remain unanswered, we are suddenly connected with an employee at a store or contact center who may be uninformed or poorly trained and who has a plethora of running applications, documentation, and screens to navigate at the moment of truth. According to a recent survey, most customer-facing employees deal with six or more systems when interacting with customers. Add compliance requirements and upselling to this mix, and you can easily create an environment where employees are more concerned about their "systems" than they are about the human on the other end of the phone.

Savvy organizations are realizing that automation isn't just for self-service; it can also be incorporated into the everyday interactions we have with customers. For example, I was traveling in Los Angeles earlier this year and used a car service. The driver was pleasant, but was completely preoccupied with an old-fashioned map book; he dodged cars while looking at his map and then collected my credit card information manually with a device he had in the front seat. Later that week, I was in New York City, and my driver used a GPS for directions and had a point-of-sale payment collector available for me to use. We had a nice discussion about his company, and I even arranged a time to use his service again later that day. While each scenario got me from point A to point B, the human element was greatly enhanced by the automation available to the driver in New York. The driver in LA would have never had time to upsell, nor impress me with his services. One trip ended with a paper receipt and headache, the other with an automated email receipt and a safe drive home later that day. By automating the processes along the journey, the second driver was more human, leaving the complexities to his technology.

The same is true in the contact center. The idea behind automation is great, but most people don't like to talk to machines; they like to talk to people. And when they do, they appreciate the human touch of an agent who listens, not one who is distracted by multiple screens and applications. The best type of contact center automation provides agents with easy access to the most relevant information about the customer, and allows the service to be more consistent and streamlined across multiple touch points, such as the Web, social media, and self-service.

In addition, automation can actually increase personalization by providing agents with such information as:

  • Detailed preferences of VIP customers
  • Customer intent and value
  • Feedback from previous interactions that could affect the current situation
  • Life-changing events (marriage, children, new home purchases) that could be detected in conversation but never collected in any system

For the sake of humanity, our interactions shouldn't be automated, but the information used in the process shouldn't distract us from the task at hand. The idea is to optimize service—this means that with the help of automation, agents can spend more time creating rapport, gaining trust, and getting closer to their customers.

For the record, a personalized, automated, and friendly car service in Manhattan isn't easy to find. But with the help of technology, I guess even the grumpiest driver can make the streets of New York a friendly place to be.

Matthew Storm is the director of innovation and solutions, corporate marketing, at NICE. He has held marketing managerial positions at Quality Plus and Autonomy eTalk, and was also a technology manager for Dell Computer Corporation.

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