Human vs the machine: which way for better CX? 

Digital technology showcased new ways for brands to communicate successfully with consumers during the pandemic, even removing the need for human input in some areas. But which changes here to stay? 


When it comes to picking the brands you support, many factors can come into play. Sustainability and ethical consumption might be high on your list of priorities. Alternatively, low costs and quick delivery times might be the number-one factor for you. 

However you feel, the pandemic changed how we interact with brands, as we had no choice but to go online for everything. As companies have necessarily responded to the influx of online shoppers over the past two years, our relationships with brands and shopping have also evolved. 

“Most brands realise that customer experience is part of the competitive landscape, so they need to constantly adapt to changing customer expectations,” says Philip Graves, founder of behavioural insights consultancy Shift and author of Consumer.ology.

“Tech has played a major role in the changes we see in customer behaviour. Consumers don’t want technological change but if it brings a better experience, they are drawn to it for the psychological reward,” Graves says

Consumers don’t want technological change but if it brings a better experience, they are drawn to it

This is confirmed by the findings of an Acquia consumer experiences trend report, Digital Experiences in Disruptive Times, in which 77% of UK respondents said their digital experience with brands has changed, with 43% of UK consumers buying more online than before the pandemic. The fact that 48% of organisations surveyed said they created more content for customer engagement is revealing. According to a survey by the McKinsey Institute, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of digitalisation in customer and supply-chain communications by three to four years. 

So, what does a digitally transformed customer experience look like? When you’ve found the item you’ve been looking for, click Pay and receive your order confirmation, what do brands want you to feel? 

“Perhaps the best answer is, ‘nothing’,” Graves suggests. You don’t necessarily return to a brand because you like it but because its shopping process is quick, easy and effortless. Graves argues that, rather than developing a customer experience that people actively enjoy, brands want digital solutions that allow shoppers to move through their websites without much thought. One-click ordering, saved payment details (such as Apple Pay) and retailer apps are key to smoothing the customer journey.

“The familiar and frictionless nature of the purchase means that little conscious effort is required to make it,” he says. 

Yet, it takes a lot of effort and digital innovation for users to feel their shopping experience is effortless. And while most, if not all, brands focus on making it as speedy as possible for their customers to complete a purchase, that doesn’t look the same for everyone.

Andy Hunter is the founder and CEO of Bookshop.org, the online bookstore that links thousands of independent book retailers with readers around the globe. After launching in the US in early 2020, the pandemic forced the company to quickly adapt to changing customer expectations. The company has since expanded with the launches of Bookshop UK and Bookshop Spain.

“Many of the bookstores we service had to lay off staff in April and May 2020. So, rather than outsourcing, we hired a team of these newly available booksellers,” he says. “We had to pay them more, but they offer book recommendations, contribute to social media and have a real dialogue with customers because they’re book-lovers, too.” And rather than using algorithms for recommendations and workers outside the company to handle any customer complaints, Hunter believes the community-based model that Bookshop.org relies on leads to a much better customer experience.

The best thing a brand can do is give a customer the sense that it reflects their identity 

“We call it the human touch,” he says. “We try to be as generous as possible with our customers even if it isn’t always the most cost-effective route. But in the long run, we’re building loyalty.”

Do consumers want more from brands in 2022?

Creating a customer experience where shoppers can buy into a brand’s mission, feel they’re talking to a like-minded person and have as personable experience as going into a shop, might be the reasons they return. In a 2020 survey by Zendesk, 57% of consumers reported that good customer service is vital to earning brand loyalty. Resolving customer complaints swiftly is another big win for brands and an ongoing poll by Khoros reveals that, for 83% of customers, good customer service heavily influences purchasing decisions.

This raises the question of whether people expect more from brands than they did. “In 2022, the best thing a brand can do is give a customer the sense that you’re reflecting their identity and their identity is aligned with your brand’s values,” says Hunter. “If you can tap into customers’ aspirations and give them an authentic experience then I think you’re in really good shape.”

This desire to connect brands with consumers through aspirations isn’t new. However, technology and social media have made it easier for companies to start conversations with potential shoppers, communicate brand missions and outline just how easy it is to use their products.“Social media is about driving awareness and saliency. Brands need to go wherever people are and that’s getting harder because of the way that media has fragmented,” says Graves. “There may be a small unconscious ‘trust’ element from increased familiarity. Generally, people prefer the familiar – even if that familiarity is not something they process consciously.”