Do customers want you or a chatbot?

Marketers are having to tread a fine line between increased automation and maintaining a strong connection with consumers

Consumers want it all. They want faster, more personalised digital experiences from a brand, without their privacy being invaded or compromised. At the same time, they want a face-to-face or human experience with a company when it suits them.

This requires businesses and chief marketing officers (CMOs) to engage in a difficult and fast-changing balancing act.

Technology such as chatbots that answer a customer’s basic queries, machine-learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are making it easier to serve consumers and, in many cases, to give them a better customer experience.

But brands must also be careful not to force the pace of automation or to focus too much on potential cost-savings because they run the risk of alienating new and existing customers who want or value a human experience.

Customers increasingly want instant communication options

Les Binet and Peter Field, two of the UK’s foremost experts on advertising and marketing, have produced research which shows consumers have both emotional and rational considerations when they make a purchase or engage with a brand.

An emotional consideration can be crucial because long-term brand-building “involves the creation of memory structures that prime consumers to want to choose the brand”, according to Mr Binet and Mr Field.

However, the recent Chat, Talk, Touch Deloitte survey on how companies interact with their customers says the way consumers use technology in their private lives is changing their expectations about how a brand should act.

“Customers are increasingly demanding instant forms of communication – messaging apps and social media have replaced emails and phone calls – especially in personal life,” according to Deloitte.

This has encouraged companies to introduce apps as well as chatbots, voicebots and even biometrics to identify and help customers who might want to buy something or get a response at any point throughout the day or night, Deloitte says.

The survey found the primary reason for introducing such technology is to improve customer experience, not to save money.

Switching to digital contact improves customer satisfaction

“Customer acceptance” is the biggest obstacle, with 48 per cent of those surveyed by Deloitte warning that reluctance on the part of consumers was affecting their ability to introduce AI tools.

Still, there has already been rapid change in the customer experience compared to even two or three years ago.

Many companies are pushing basic customer interactions into digital channels, while handling more complex customer needs through human interaction.

Sky, the European pay-TV arm of Comcast, talks about switching from direct contact to digital first.

Astonishingly, Sky told investors that it deflected 26 million calls to digital channels in 2017, the first year of its new strategy.

It means more than 50 per cent of all customer interactions are now digital, which has led to “enhanced customer satisfaction while reducing costs”, according to Sky.

The pay-TV firm says it will “increasingly use bots to further automate customer messaging” and this is “freeing up our service agents’ time to work on solving more complex customer issues”.

Customers are willing to move online because it often gives them more control and offers a personalised experience, usually by signing into a company’s app or website.

How banking is embracing digital customer service

Retail banking, where customers want instant access to financial information in a secure environment, is a sector where there have already been clear benefits from digitisation and automation.

Lloyds Banking Group, owner of Lloyds and Halifax, says in its most recent annual report: “Customer behaviours continue to change, with an increasing focus on personalised customer experiences and convenient, instantly accessible services, with these developments enabling customers to exert greater control over their finances than ever before.”

The UK’s biggest bank says it met more of its customers’ simple needs via mobile than any other channel for the first time in 2018.

“Customers continue to prefer face-to-face contact for more complex needs,” Lloyds Banking Group adds, insisting it remains committed to maintaining the UK’s largest branch network despite closing about 500 branches on high streets since 2011.

Are travel customers looking for less human interaction?

Travel was one of the first sectors to embrace online and the vast majority of airline and holiday bookings are now made through digital channels, but there is scope for much greater use of automation to improve the customer experience.

easyJet says 30 per cent of its customers now use an automated bag drop service where they weigh and tag their checked-in baggage themselves at the airport, rather than having to queue up to see a member of staff.

The low-cost airline also claims to have improved customer satisfaction scores by introducing self-boarding gates to speed up boarding times and using push notifications on its app to ensure passengers are better informed if problems such as flight delays occur.

The easyJet experience is proof that less human interaction with a brand, and more automation and digital interaction, can lead to higher customer satisfaction. The key is the experience was better for the customer.

CMOs must learn to balance new tech and human interaction

While consumers are often wary of new technology at first, they will adopt it quickly if they can see a benefit.

Voice assistance, such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, is still relatively immature, but is likely to improve significantly in the near future and has the potential to be a game-changer for customer experience.

Vodafone has already introduced a chatbot, called Tobi, in eleven countries and the mobile network is planning to launch it in another five markets in the coming year.

“Processing the written word is much easier than voice, but the quality of speech-to-text and text-to-speech solutions is rapidly increasing,” Deloitte says. “The value seen by respondents in external and internal usage is pretty similar, both above 80 per cent.”

All this presents challenges and opportunities for the CMO, the leader in the C-suite who is most likely to have responsibility for the customer experience.

Brands must embrace the many benefits of digitisation and automation, while also ensuring they maintain a strong human and emotional connection with consumers.