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3 Strategies for Humanizing the Digital Customer Experience

3 Strategies for Humanizing the Digital Customer Experience

by Vibhas Ratanjee and Teresa Tschida

Story Highlights

  • Emotional connections are what keep customers coming back
  • Brand experiences need consistency across digital and human interactions
  • Digital services should reflect brand values and still feel "human"

Are companies losing the human touch?

Take banks, for example. A recent BAI study of more than 200 financial institutions showed that most feel they are falling "woefully short" of customer expectations -- even though they continue to modernize customer experience (CX) systems and invest in artificial intelligence. Gallup's research on retail banking shows that only one in five customers are emotionally connected to their primary banks.

And it's an emotional connection that keeps customers coming back. Gallup research suggests that these emotional connections with fully engaged customers net an additional 23% of revenue.

Digital experiences will account for far more service interactions in the future than we see now. Innovations like augmented or virtual reality will provide greater opportunities to represent the brand virtually. AI assistants will integrate multiple service offerings into a "single box" interface for customers. Service brands are having to compete within that paradigm.

Your customers will experience less brick and more click. That much is certain.

But what's less clear is how companies can navigate the increasingly complex digital landscape and still deliver a superior CX.

Our work with clients has shown that there are three core strategies to continue to optimize emotional connections as customers go digital.

Clearly Define the Promise of Your Digital Brand

In the service industry, the perfect CX is the result of intentional and purposeful interactions, focused on the outcome, backed by your brand promise and its service values.

But do your customers get that well-cared-for feeling from your digital presence? Is it even possible to engage customers you can't see?

Gallup analytics finds that your digital presence can convey all your service values and represent your brand promise. But your promise and attendant values have to be defined, designed and delivered properly.

But to truly drive emotional engagement with customers, your organization will need to balance user-focused technology and highly-personalized human connection.

Domino's Pizza is an excellent example of a company that permeated its brand through all aspects of the CX -- digital and human. Besides overhauling the system that managed orders, they re-engineered the app to allow customers to track an order from the minute it's placed it all the way through delivery. While this might sound like important process and technology upgrades, they are also very on-brand: "Give exceptional service all the time" is one of the promises Domino's makes to its customers.

This strategy also required significant alignment across different functions at Domino's, and its executives claim the connection between the IT and marketing departments is "probably the best relationship between any two groups in the entire company." The result: Domino's share price shot up from $3.86 in 2008 to more than $250 when this article went live.

Align Your Digital Footprint With Your Brand Promise

Research and advisory firm Gartner says that 25% of customer service operations will use virtual customer assistants (VCAs) by 2020. VCAs like chatbots are indeed the future of service -- in fact, Gartner also predicts that by 2020, the average person will have more interactions with bots than with their own spouse. But good AI is what enriches the service experience. And AI can be a pretty good voice for your brand if it's taught the brand's service values -- consider Amazon's Alexa.

Perhaps the best-designed, most common and least-appreciated service device, Amazon's Alexa was engineered to facilitate shopping. But Amazon's brand promise and service values are so well-defined and designed that Alexa has become Amazon's digital voice. Sure, Alexa places orders for you, but "she" also sings to you, tells you jokes, gives you the weather report -- far more features than you might realize, and all of it perfectly calibrated to align with Amazon's brand promise and service values.

Remember, the customer's experience with Alexa is devoid of human contact, making the device the primary delivery system of brand promise and service values. Amazon's success with Alexa suggests digital channels offer some opportunities to truly engage customers. In the future, customers may prefer a singular platform -- an AI assistant that might very well replace the omnichannel systems companies have heavily invested in over the last few decades. This means service brands have to ensure their platform best represents their brand and services values.

Your customers will experience less brick and more click.

While delivering a consistent brand experience across digital and human interactions will be a priority for service brands, digital interactions require specific strategies.

Start by understanding your entire digital brand footprint. This includes an objective analysis of all the ways in which customers interact with your brand -- browsing your website, interacting on social media, and reviewing user groups, chat-boards and product or service review websites. Then, identify which of these experiences your customers value the most and which cause the most friction. Finally, review how well the channel "lives" your brand promise and values. Checking for a familiar vibe across all channels is essential, but it's more than look, feel, color choice and branding. It's the CX, holistic and genuine.

Optimally Combine Digital and Human Elements

The successful combination of digital and human elements is vital. It can be time-consuming -- but incredibly effective. Especially if it drives subsequent sales.

A Gallup study about service in banking found that positive online experiences are a prerequisite for high customer engagement -- and, incidentally, resulted in more customer dollars: Bank customers who are very satisfied with all channels they use put seven percentage points more of their total share of deposits in the bank and are more than nine times more likely to say they are extremely likely to use their primary bank the next time they need additional financial services. Clearly, all channels, human and digital, need to be firing for customers to be truly engaged.

There are several ways to combine digital and human elements successfully, and the right approach depends on the brand and the customer. And it doesn't have to cost much. It doesn't have to cost anything -- some service organizations encourage workers (and, increasingly, chatbots) to include personal texts and emails to customers because it personalizes an impersonal experience and expands on the brand message:

"Hi! I'm Maryanne, and I see that you're visiting us with your family -- that's awesome! We love kids at the Space Needle Inn! Let me know if you need some tips on the family-friendly sights to see here in Seattle, and if you forget your umbrellas, we've got lots in the gift shop."

AI is shockingly sophisticated, but customers are still human. When customers really want a human connection, chatbots turn out to be poor substitutes. In fact, a PWC study indicates that 59% of all consumers feel companies have lost touch with the human element of the CX.

You need to live your service values in a way that humans can feel. Your digital interfaces can display your service values if they're inextricably woven into the emotional CX.

When your digital channel is a customer's first (or only) experience with you, it creates the first (or last) impression of your brand promise. So, define your brand promise. Design a CX that integrates it. Then deliver on it every time, person-to-(screen-to-bot-to-AI-to-screen-to)-person. To truly drive emotional engagement with customers, your organization will need to balance a mix of user-focused technology and highly-personalized human connection.

As the founder of Southwest Airlines, the late Herb Kelleher, famously said:

"The essential difference in service is not machines or 'things.' The essential difference is minds, hearts, spirits and souls."

Balancing artificial intelligence, traditional work, your brand and your culture doesn't have to be scary. Here are some Gallup resources to help navigate and balance the changing workplace:


Vibhas Ratanjee is Senior Practice Expert -- Organizational and Leadership Development at Gallup.

Teresa Tschida is a Consulting Subject Matter Expert at Gallup.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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