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How to maintain human connection with customers in an AI world

It sounds counterintuitive, but in today’s always-on world consumers are placing a premium on human connection.

Among headlines about households spending more online than ever before, traditional bricks and mortar institutions moving to online- and digital-only models, and the general buzz for AI, two-thirds of Australian consumers still prefer to engage with brands via human channels (64%) instead of digital (36%). On top of this, two of consumers’ biggest concerns using AI-powered services are a lack of human connection and the possibility people will lose their job.

None of this is to say shifting to digital or using AI in customer experience (CX) is a misstep. Far from it. Despite the reservations mentioned, Qualtrics research shows the majority of consumers in Australia (41%) are optimistic about AI’s ability to improve customer service, citing faster service times, better help solving queries, and faster delivery times as the reasons why.

Rather, the importance consumers are placing on human connection during their interactions with brands highlights the critical need for organisations to know the levels and types of support, abilities, and engagements people want at every stage of the customer journey.

Human support vs self-serve CX? How to know when to step in

While consumers have a preference for human channels on average in Australia, there are specific parts of their experience where they would opt for self-serve options first.

Self-serve channels are the go-to for simple engagements, including getting an order update (55%) and booking a plane ticket (60%). When choosing a self-serve option, consumers are more likely to use their mobile or a computer rather than chatting with an automated system.

In contrast, consumers tend to prefer speaking with a representative for more complex, high-value consumer goods purchases, and sensitive engagements – such as getting tech support (80%), resolving billing issues (79%), buying a TV (77%), selecting a phone plan (61%), and opening a bank account (58%) – according to Qualtrics XM Institute™ research.

Knowing how and when customers want to engage across the entire customer journey is a hugely valuable insight for any brand committed to delivering a human touch in their CX; especially today when consumers have more choice and greater access to information and reviews. It allows brands to optimise and personalise each interaction; focus investments and resources to have the greatest impact; and identify customers encountering issues so that representatives can quickly step-in to help.

Helping customer-facing employees deliver great service and support

Unsurprisingly, customer-facing employees are an integral part of providing customer experiences built around human connection. However, Qualtrics research reveals customer service representatives – including cashiers, retail workers, and restaurant staff – have some of the lowest levels of morale and satisfaction in the workforce. In particular, this type of frontline-worker is more likely to say they do not feel their basic pay and benefit needs are being met, they’re less likely to trust leaders, and don’t feel they can propose changes to the way things are done.

To improve the employee experience for customer-facing employees, organisations need the ability to understand how engaged individuals in the workforce are, what they are thinking and feeling, and identify what support and tools they need to be successful in their role. It’s similar to how organisations need to listen and respond to the needs of their customers.

It’s long-been said happy employees equal happy customers. It’s true. And the benefits are twofold. Organisations that prioritise delivering great employee experiences tend to cultivate engaged, high-performing teams, which in turn can translate to satisfied, loyal customers who spend more.

One of the world’s leading sports brands is a valuable example of why improving employee experience results in better outcomes for customers and the bottom line. Using employee insights, the brand identified how well-trained employees that understood expectations and received frequent manager feedback delivered better CX. This enabled the company to confidently and precisely focus its efforts and investments on things that positively impact these.

The business impact of this focus was obvious – stores with employees positive about their experience achieved NPS scores 22 per cent higher than those where employees were negative, had customers that were 18 per cent more likely to be a promoter, and delivered almost two times higher average sales.

Bringing more human connection to digital engagements

Improving the level and quality of digital support available is another opportunity to bring more human connection to a customer’s experience. And it’s one of the most impactful.

Delivering good digital support is a bigger drive of consumer loyalty than human support. Yet, customers are less likely to be satisfied by digital customer support experience compared to if they’d engaged a human. With the majority of brands expecting the revenue generated by digital channels to continue growing, ensuring customers can quickly and easily find and access the information they need is imperative. Solving this challenge goes back to identifying and resolving unmet needs and points of friction along the customer’s journey.

Listening is at the heart of human connection

At a time when customers are prioritising human connection in the brands they engage with, the most important step brands must take is to continually listen to the needs of their customers and design their programs, offerings, and journeys accordingly. For example, when it comes to AI a degree of uncertainty and hesitancy remains among customers and employees. But one area each group sees the value of AI is in its ability to help individuals quickly find the information they need. This is why the most successful AI use cases today are centred around augmentation rather than automation, and why AI is critical to cultivating human connection.

Importantly, to treat customers like humans, brands need to listen to their customers like real people too – and this means listening to feedback in all the places it’s being shared, such as through the call centre, in online reviews and forums, on social media, and through traditional feedback surveys. This approach empowers organisations to build more credible, complete understandings of their customers by understanding the emotion, intent, and effort behind every interaction – which in turn results in tailored human customer experiences, and ultimately positive business outcomes.

Ivana Sekanic

Head of CX Solution & Strategy at Qualtrics. Through her career Ivana has a proven track record in helping organisations design and implement large-scale CX programs that improve decision making, prioritise resources and drive superior customer outcomes. She has held a broad range of business transformation roles across the Australian Energy and Financial Services sectors.