The Declining Need for and Escalating Value of Human Service
Posted September 18, 2011
Posted in Customer Service, Strategy, Technology, The Future, Trends
By Doug Stephens
Technology has been steadily reducing the number of human service interactions we require in an average day. For at least the last decade, the list of what we as consumers can do for ourselves is growing rapidly. Between kiosks, web based solutions and mobile apps, most routine customer service functions (product knowledge, price checks, inventory inquiries etc.) are now completely do-it-yourself.
With this “self-serve revolution” in place, it’s easy to regard human, person-to-person service as a somewhat archaic commodity for which the market value must be dropping. I’ve actually heard retail executives say as much, inferring that customer service people have become merely low value cogs in the machine. Not only do I completely disagree, but I’d go so far as to say that any company that adopts this attitude is making a colossal and potentially fatal mistake.
There’s no app for empathy
What technology has done is to automate the most routine and repetitive customer service tasks; the real mind numbing stuff that deserved to be mechanized. What is hasn’t done (at least not yet) is automate advanced problem solving skills, empathy and likeability. Hence, customer service as we know it, is evolving to become less about functional skills and more about cognitive reasoning and emotional intelligence – the really hard stuff!
Technology hasn’t lowered the value of personal service, it’s raised it. As the need for personal, human service declines, its value in circumstances where it is required becomes exponentially higher! It’s precisely because we can do so much ourselves that when we encounter something we can’t, it’s literally jarring. Consequently, the stakes are immediately higher. These are situations where the customer has already reviewed your frequently asked questions board, called your automated help line and read your user’s manual. They’ve made every attempt to solve their own problem – all to no avail. The only remaining option is to call an expert who can help. The human being they call or visit at your business is the last and most vital stopping block between your customer and your competitor’s doorstep.
Moments of Truth
A great example of a company that gets this concept is Zappos. 75% of Zappos sales are transacted without any interference from a human being – all totally systematized. Most businesses would invest proportionately in the side of the business that generates the majority of sales – the automated 75%. And yet, Zappos puts incredible emphasis on the hiring, training and compensation of the people who respond to the 25% of sales that do require personal service. The rationale is simple; the 25% personal sales are regarded as do-or-die moments of truth when the system won’t cut it and when the customer needs the brand to truly perform. These are the sales that create memorable experiences and word of mouth. To skimp on talent at these most pivotal circumstances discredits the entire brand.
The best analogy I’ve heard is that the role of the customer service person today is much like that of an airline pilot. The pilot is not paid to fly the plane – that’s almost completely done by the autopilot system. Rather, the pilot is paid to be there in the critical moment when the system fails.