The Human Element Still Has Merit

Experts advise how to empower employees to do what's best for the customer when automation alone won't do.
Customer Service

It may seem counterintuitive, but in today's speed-driven and increasingly digital-first world, human interaction plays a vital role in customer satisfaction.In fact, 83 percent of U.S. consumers prefer dealing with human beings over digital channels to solve customer services issues, according to Accenture. Nearly half (45 percent) of consumers say they are even willing to pay a higher price for goods and services if it ensures a better level of service.

Although technology offers innumerable advantages, it can't solve everything. When it comes to offering empathy or finding intuitive solutions to complex problems, a human worker still beats artificial intelligence. Here, we look at examples of customer experiences that were best delivered with a human touch.

KCL&L Realizes the Power of Empathy
Kansas City Power and Light (KCP&L) serves more than 800,000 customers in 47 northwest Missouri and eastern Kansas counties. Contact center representatives for KCP&L handle a host of issues from calls about power outages to billing questions. While providing fast and efficient help is an important part of an agent's job, the utilities company wanted to elevate its customer experience, explains Erica Penner, performance management manager at KCP&L.

"We want our customers to feel good about doing business with us and we also want our employees to feel engaged in the work they do," Penner says. "I think of it as extending the moment in a touchpoint." Two years ago, after learning about Hallmark Cards' business arm, Hallmark Business Connections, the utilities company launched a pilot program that allows contact center representatives to send Hallmark cards to customers.

Beginning with a test group of 20 reps, the customer care program was designed to let them send an electronic or printed card to customers to thank them for their business, express sympathy, or congratulate them on reaching a milestone like a birthday or buying a new house. It was up to the reps to determine when to send a card and to select the format and message. The representatives could also choose from a template or personalize the message.

The pilot program lasted for several months. During the course of the program, nearly 3,000 printed cards were sent compared to only a handful of e-cards. "What we heard from our customer service representatives was that a printed card was seen as a more personalized and authentic gesture because it's something that customers can touch and retain," Penner says. "We even received phone calls from customers who told us they loved the card and read it back to us over the phone."

Results from a VOC feedback survey validated Penner's hypothesis; that customers appreciate unexpected gestures like a card with a personalized message. Penner didn't share the cost of purchasing and mailing the Hallmark cards but noted that the expense was worthwhile since it "elevated the customer experience and perception of KCP&L as a high-touch organization," she says. The company will be rolling out the customer care program to all of its customer service agents later this year.

And while a bot or algorithm could potentially listen for triggers to send the cards, empathetic robots are still not a reality. A recent study publishedinJAMA Internal Medicine found that smartphone assistants, for example, couldn't appropriately respond to users who complained of depression, physical ailments, or even sexual assault.

Human customer service reps on the other hand, intuitively knew that a printed card would have a greater impact than an e-card and how to respond with an appropriate message. Indeed, many times reps will select a template and "add a few sentences based on what was discussed just because they want to connect with the customer," Penner adds.

Plated Closes the Loop
Plated, a meal-kit startup, is another example of how layering technology solutions with a human touch delivers a better customer experience. Founded in 2012, the New York City-based company delivers recipes and ingredients to customers' homes.

When Plated was featured on the ABC TV show, "Shark Tank," in 2014, the media exposure brought an influx of new customers, and the company had to quickly scale its contact center operations to meet demand. The company selected Genesys, a contact center technology provider, to enhance its customer support system.

A lack of integration between the company's previous phone system and the provider that managedPlated's customer orders was leading to disconnected workflows and unsatisfactory customer experiences. Agents were unable to quickly look up customer and ticket details, which caused service delays and often harried conversations. Staffing the right amount of agents was also a challenge with limited visibility into the reasons customers were calling and whether more agents were needed to handle unexpected issues.

An IVR and analytics solution provided agents with the support they needed to focus on attending to customers. While the customer listens to the welcome message, the IVR system works behind the scenes to direct the customer to an agent. Based on the caller's phone number, the Genesys solution looks up the customer data, automatically creates a new ticket or locates an existing ticket, and routes the call to an agent. When the agent speaks with a customer, a screen pops up with the customer's data.

But while an intelligent automated system can quickly gather the relevant information, a human agent is still needed to connect with customers. For example, agents can use a "Hospitality Pass" to offer "authentic moments of kindness" to customers, according to the company. When one customer called to cancel his service because he had lost his job, the agent gave him an account credit to help alleviate such a difficult time. Agents have also been known to hand-deliver boxes to customers to show their appreciation. "Food is incredibly personal, and we look for amazing employees and partners to rise to the challenge of delivering on our promise to customers," said Plated co-founder and CEO Nick Taranto in a statement.

However, not every interaction must be amazing or heroic. "Sometimes something as simple as solving a customer's problem can be seen as a heroic feat in the customers' eyes," notes Nancy Anderson, vice president of customer support at Verint Systems, a business intelligence solutions provider. "The important thing is to give employees the latitude and resources they need to best help a customer."

While it may be tempting to replace human employees with software that provides 24/7 service for less, companies could ultimately lose if the automated service is subpar. And in today's interconnected world, "your competition isn't just your direct competitors," says Nancy Porte, vice president of global customer experience at Verint. "Customers are comparing the experience they had at other businesses with yours, and you don't want to be the one who comes up short."