In the global pursuit of commercial efficiency, technology is increasingly displacing humans. Every time we turn around, a new, ostensibly more convenient device, terminal, or system is designed to accomplish jobs previously performed by humans. Humans – notably front-line customer service people – are being phased out of the process, from pumping our own gas with a swipe of our credit card to checking out our own groceries on a machine to electronic ticketing at the airport.
The business innovation choices are self-evident. Machines do not have a salary or benefits, do not need to be managed, and do not need to be trained in customer service. Transactions can be done error-free and without human error or variance from a quality control standpoint. Machines, on the other hand, frequently fall short when it comes to generating client happiness. The fundamental reason for this is that important aspect of the customer-supplier relationship have been sacrificed.
Suppliers are consciously reducing their commitment to the consumer in order to cut operational costs. Although this may appear to be a conventional business decision with immediate first-quarter savings on the balance sheet, the supplier faces significant long-term risks by missing the opportunity to develop a connection with the customer.
One of the ten predictors of customer satisfaction in my research on the customer-supplier relationship is ‘commitment to the customer.’ The romance in the customer-supplier relationship is customer commitment. How do I convey to you that you are my most important customer, that I care about you, and that I am looking out for your long-term interests? Client commitment entails requesting customer demands on a regular basis and taking responsibility for ensuring that products and services are delivered correctly. Machines can only do a restricted range of tasks and are incapable of interacting with humans. When you return to a business, how many people do you know go out of their way to hunt for a specific service person? This is not the type of interaction that humans have with machines.
Customers do want to build a relationship with their supplier, and it is the supplier that generally messes things up because they don’t grasp this basic human behavior. Enter the impersonal, frigid, and behaviorally restricted machine. Yes, it’s faster. Yes, it’s efficient. Yes, the provider will save money. Is this, however, what buyers actually want? How many people do you know who would prefer to leave a message on voice mail than speak with a live receptionist or operator? I never intended to check and bag my own groceries, but I enjoy chatting with my favorite grocery cashiers while they process and bag my items. Because we have a relationship, I have favorites that I choose every time.
There’s no denying that businesses ‘ competitive constraints are demanding higher and higher levels of efficiency and cost control, but what are the consumer satisfaction implications of the decision to replace humans with automation? What we’re really talking about is the return and recommend rate, which is the number of times a consumer will return to buy from the same provider and suggest them to others. Customers’ loyalty dwindles as they become increasingly unsatisfied, and suppliers become vulnerable to competitors who provide higher levels of satisfaction. Several traditional cashier lines at Albertson’s supermarket stores in California have been replaced with automated self-checkout equipment. I no longer use them and instead shop at Vons, which employs more human cashiers.
Automation can sometimes bring more than just cost savings for suppliers; it can also give additional service and convenience for customers. ATM machines are a good example of this. How did we manage before they arrived? ATMs effectively expand the hours for most popular financial services such as withdrawals and deposits to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Automated processing saves the bank money because the customer enters their own information into the ATM’s computer keyboard, basically doing the teller’s job for them. Customers accept this in exchange for the added convenience of being able to access these machines at any time of day or night, resulting in a real win-win situation. Banks are still available for human-to-human contacts, and ATMs are a supplement to, not a replacement for, the essential services that consumers are accustomed to.
Airline electronic ticketing, on the other hand, is an example of a supplier sacrificing essential aspects of the customer-supplier relationship in the name of cost reduction. Hey, I’m not sure why American airlines are having such a hard time running their operations, but I want the same highly facilitated and courteous customer service that I’ve come to expect over the years. Yes, I want confirmation of my flight, my seat assignment, my bags checked in, and confidence that everything is in order when I approach the gate with my ticket in hand. I don’t want to have to fight my way through a terminal with other passengers, swipe a private credit card number into a machine to identify my reservation and have it spew out an unfavorable seat assignment, or be unable to answer even basic inquiries regarding my flight.
As the level of human customer assistance is reduced, ticket costs do not appear to be decreasing. Although airlines still have human employees working behind the counter to deal with the inevitabilities of air travel, their numbers are shrinking as customers are increasingly routed to automated systems. Most clients dislike this and, on an apples-to-apples basis, would rather do business with a company that provides them with the genuine personal attention they desire. If an American carrier can figure out how to consistently staff service delivery with front-line workers who have good customer service abilities and will give customers the attention they demand, there is a chance to gain considerable market share.
So, what happens when the customer-supplier relationship falls apart due to automation? It’s not uncommon for a relationship to become a battleground. To get their wants addressed, the client must now be more assertive. Customers lie, cheat, cut in line, and even damage the supplier’s equipment on a regular basis. After all, the supplier doesn’t seem to mind, and they don’t have to worry about offending a machine. I’ve seen folks simply drop a gas hose on the ground after filling their own gas tank because it was too much work to put it back on the hook. When their push-button selections don’t provide them what they anticipate, customers routinely kick and strike everything from vending machines to automated car washes. When customers can’t figure out how to use the equipment or something doesn’t work as it should, they go shopping somewhere else. Shopping in the store intimidates and embarrasses some senior consumers who are resistant to technology or who can’t plan their transaction quickly enough for the machine. Is this the effect that the supplier intended for their client?
Communication is reduced as a result of automation. A customer-supplier relationship should be a win-win situation for both parties. Despite today’s technological advancements, the quality of machine communication is, at best poor. This makes the supplier’s machine’s control of transactions, with its limited range of actions or possibilities, more one-sided and increasingly win-lose for the client. This lack of communication is on the supplier’s part, which seeks to resource only the customer assistance that is strictly essential in order to save money. What should a consumer do when the provider tries everything he can to avoid answering his questions and isolates himself from the relationship? When customers are forced to deal with automation exclusively, the message is essential: ‘Give us your money and don’t expect much in return.’
Before deciding to automate product and service delivery rather than resourcing it with human customer support agents, suppliers should evaluate the following questions:
- Is having a long-term relationship with your consumers vital to you?
- What are the value of that relationship’s depth and quality?
- Is the success of your business dependent on the loyalty of your customers?
- Is your competition providing better service than you, or will they if you automate?
- Are there any additional places where you could save money before sacrificing human customer service?
- Are you consciously putting distance between yourself and the needs of your customers?
- Are you underestimating the importance of your front-line employees’ interactions with customers? Have you considered how you could strengthen their customer relationship?
- If you introduce automation, would clients be forced to go quicker or have more limited access?
- Will your customers have trouble comprehending or resisting your technologies in any way?
- Do you intend to use automation to mold or influence your customers’ behavior?
When suppliers select automation over human customer service because it is more cost-effective, the customer-supplier relationship may suffer. However, when it actually solves a customer’s problem or is supplied as a bonus service, it might be considered best practice. Customers want to work with a company that uses the most up-to-date technology and is constantly improving and innovating. Customers will respond positively when automation delivers convenience, timeliness, additional service, and quality. Client loyalty will slip from preference to indifference or from indifference to discontent if it is a weak reason for cost-cutting and undermines the customer relationship. Read More Info