Balancing heads and hearts: why digital customer conversations need the human touch

A careful blend of AI and human interaction can take customer experience to new levels, boosting loyalty – and the bottom line

The 1970s phrase “uncanny valley” describes the discomfort people feel when human traits are re-created in forms such as robots and AV simulations.

But consumer sentiment towards AI has shifted. Findings from customer experience platform Zendesk show that most people are positive about the technology and what it can do. Most know that AI is already widely used in daily life and expect it to become prevalent, bringing positive benefits. This reflects a growing acceptance of an AI-powered world. Some 70% of consumers who regularly call on customer service teams think AI will make customer support more personalised and effective.

The Future of Commerce claims that 84% of companies which improve CX see increased revenues, while Zendesk’s research shows that 70% of consumers spend more with brands that offer more engaging customer experiences.

Efficiency vs emotion

Introducing the human touch, powered by new technology, may be the key to providing meaningful and lasting impressions on customers. But this depends on achieving an optimal balance between efficiency and emotion.

AI is emerging as a significant enabler of personalisation for businesses and brands across channels and is a priority in light of Zendesk’s finding that 71% of customers demand natural conversational experiences from their brands. It’s clear, therefore, that businesses understand this, with 81% of leaders viewing customer experience and support as growing priorities over the next year, according to Zendesk’s research.

Evidently, providing a tech-driven, human touch throughout the customer experience pays dividends. More than half (59%) of businesses surveyed by Zendesk say that they are already recording positive ROI on AI investments.

Technology enables businesses to strengthen relationships with existing customers through high levels of digital customer experience, something that’s vital given the ease with which disaffected customers, especially those in the Gen Z demographic, are willing and able to switch service providers in areas such as digital banking and finance.

Also, human and intuitive customer experience enables brands to grow and evolve these relationships, creating interest in new products and services during key moments when customers are most pre-disposed to sales messages.

Good service sparks upselling

Eric Jorgensen, VP enterprise sales EMEA, Zendesk, has experience of working with businesses across sectors to achieve this. He says that ‘conversational commerce’ has the potential to deliver incremental revenue for businesses, because when people are interacting with a bot or conversational widget that solves a problem for them, they are in a good place to take that interaction up a level.

“As a business, I’ve given you a good customer experience in solving your problem in an efficient way,” he says. “Now, based on our understanding of others in that situation, and what they were led on to do, there’s an opportunity to convert that into conversational commerce, an upsell if you like.”

Success here depends on technology that dovetails with the people-based element of customer service, which is enabled by data that flows across the organisation through to the customer team, and back again.

Ensuring connectivity between marketing, sales, customer experience, IT, operations and logistics is crucial. Jorgensen says: “Any AI model is only as good as the data it receives, and particularly in very large organisations that can be quite siloed at times. The risk is that it’s a frustrating customer experience because you’re only able to unpack part of that data. I think consolidation of data is probably the biggest challenge for then delivering a better end-to-end experience.”

Jorgensen says many companies who have been through the initial stage of making their investments in CX are now seeking efficiencies and wish to optimise cost savings in their customer experience provision, while maintaining high levels of service.

“People in businesses are looking at technology to not only improve self-service and either ‘no-touch’ or ‘single-touch resolution for consumers, but to also empower CX agents to deliver more personalised, high-quality content and policies in a timely efficient manner,” he adds.

Authentic and relevant

One way to ensure the success of chatbots and to avoid the ‘uncanny’ feeling that some people experience when unknowingly interacting with chatbots, is to be transparent. Luno, a cryptocurrency platform, tells customers when they are interacting with its AI-driven agent, Toshi.

Jorgensen says: “Actually, they [Luno] have had way better adoption of chatting with their chatbot because they’re upfront about it. Rather than those who pretend and then people know that some part of the language or context isn’t quite right, and [their] perception of the quality of that service drops.”

Blending the old with the new is also effective, for instance by taking a voice experience and combining it with the latest technology. The key here is layering multi-channel conversations - such as automated web, WhatsApp and SMS chat - with a voice interaction for customers that want it.

Jorgensen says voice is still “a really important channel. If anything, we’ve probably seen more importance of voice in the last 12 months.”

He says this rise is linked to the desire for greater levels of human connection following the pandemic: “Trying to provide AI alongside voice to automatically route calls in the right place and understand someone’s intent based on their interaction on the voice channel, is also quite an interesting way of applying this new technology to what is perceived as an old channel.”

This final point highlights that the winners in delivering great customer experience understand that human interaction is more vital than ever. They also know that this depends on using technology to make experiences more personalised, authentic and relevant, while not unsettling their customers.

The intelligent heart of customer experience

Three brands, across the retail and finance categories, have managed to balance the power of technology with human empathy to drive experiential excellence for customers.

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