Is digital replacing the human touch?

handshake with person using tablet in foregroundDigital products and services are changing the nature of the relationship between customers and suppliers. Increasingly, customers are able to access an organisation’s products and services without entering one of its stores, calling its contact centre or meeting with one of its employees.

Whether it is via a website, mobile app or sensors built into a device, car or machine, interactions between customer and supplier are being enhanced, streamlined, automated and, in some cases, eliminated altogether by processes that make the consumption of products and services a seamless experience.

For customers this brings many advantages and not least the ability to browse, compare, personalise and consume products and services at a time and place that suits them. For offerings that cannot be consumed immediately customers can monitor the progress of their request, make changes to their order and schedule delivery times with a few swipes on their smartphone. Digital can also remove the need for them to do anything at all as devices, sensors and supplier systems share data and automatically respond with actions such as ordering replacement goods, scheduling appointments or adjusting the settings of the customer’s equipment in real time. And, if a supplier does not meet the customer’s expectations or if the customer wants to take advantage of lower pricing, special offers or better service, they can easily switch to an alternative supplier in the time it takes to install a new app.

Businesses also realise many benefits from digital; self-service, automation and streamlining customer interactions reduces costs and improves consistency of service. Digital products are also easier and quicker to scale in response to variations in demand and can be launched, modified or removed altogether more quickly than traditional products and services. And, perhaps most importantly of all, organisations get data, and lots of it; digital businesses can generate significant amounts of information on customer behaviour, preferences and personal characteristics together with real time data on how their products and services are performing, whether and how they are being used, and how they compare against their competitor’s offerings. Used correctly this data can generate valuable insights that can be used to adjust supply or pricing, create tailored offers, improve existing products or create new offerings.

With so many of these benefits being realised through apps, automation, sensors and sharing of data it would be easy to think that in the digital world, the value of human contact is diminishing and that for some industries it will disappear altogether. For certain types of product and service there is no doubt this is the case; removing the need to visit a store or make a telephone call has without doubt improved customer experience and satisfaction in sectors such as banking, retail and home entertainment.

But what about industries where human interaction is currently a fundamental part of the sale or consumption of the product or service? For companies operating in such markets the quality of their people and the level of personal service they provide to customers is often a differentiator. Does digital not apply to these markets? Or will they lose the competitive advantage that the human touch currently gives them, as automated or online alternatives become available?

This is an issue that some businesses are already tackling successfully. Take for instance GE Digital Energy which has equipped its sales representatives with a tablet-based app that contains a catalogue of all its products, including a three-dimensional view of each item that can be “pulled apart” to show the customer how each product is built. Not only does this give the customer a much better understanding of each item, it also means the sales representatives do not have carry the actual products. The app also allows sales staff to configure the product to the customer’s requirements and generate an order in real time – a process that can sometimes take GE’s competitors six weeks to complete.

Retailer Nordstrom has developed a solution that enables staff in its stores to access information about what a customer has bought in the past, what they like and what they shopped for online but could not find. A mobile checkout app also means that the sales person can stay with the customer throughout the process instead of passing them on to a checkout to pay. This enables staff to create highly personalised, end-to-end shopping experiences for customers that visit their stores.

Meanwhile fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger has built a digital showroom that allows buyers to digitally view every item in the company’s seasonal collections and create custom orders with all product categories laid out across a single screen. They can view head-to-toe key looks, zoom in to see unique design features, and click on a garment for specific information such as colour offerings and size ranges. The system allows in-depth discussions on styling, merchandising and deliveries that are tailored to each customer in a way that would not be possible with traditional sales tools.

In each of these examples, the companies in question are using technology to enhance the personal interaction with their customers instead of replacing it altogether. The result is a richer and more rewarding customer experience and one that is realising significant benefits for these organisations.

It is true that in some cases digital solutions are replacing direct contact between customers and suppliers. However, in markets where personal interactions are still an essential part of the offering, technology can be used to enhance this interaction to create richer and more rewarding customer experiences. When used in this way digital can actually make human touch more of a differentiator.

If your organisation wants to develop a strategy for becoming a digital business or if it wants to generate a pipeline of ideas for digital innovation within its products and services then please contact me or visit my website, axin.co.uk.

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