(Image/Colin Shaw)

What happens when you take the people out of an experience that was traditionally a human-based interaction? Does it make it better or worse? And what does this mean to the future of Customer Experience? Amazon and Uber might soon have answers for us on these questions.

Amazon and Uber have been making headlines by eliminating the humans from areas of the Customer Experience where a person is usually involved. Amazon is promoting its Amazon Go stores that don’t require checking out with a person. Uber is fighting with the DMV in California about the legality of testing its driverless taxis in San Francisco.

However, the move toward automation for traditional human interactions doesn’t stop here. There is talk about computers replacing lawyers in the day-to-day legal work and systems that can predict treatment plans for cancer patients almost as accurately as a doctor can.

Addressing Pain Points in an Experience Is a Good Thing – Usually.

While it’s intriguing to consider each of these experiences, it’s also raising important questions about whether humans enhance or detract from the Customer Experience.

Who hasn’t waited in an interminable check-out lane at a brick and mortar retailer and wished for a better way? Who hasn’t queued up, unloaded the trolley onto the counter behind a person only to realize with dismay that the object in that person’s hand is not a credit or debit card but instead a check book? The very thought makes me cringe. Ever sat near a weirdo on public transportation or ridden with a cabbie that makes you uncomfortable? Don’t get me started on the people skills of some cab drivers in certain cities!

Both examples are well-known pain points in a current Customer Experience. Slow check-out lines are a reality in many retail experiences (*cough*, Walmart).  The troubles with cab drivers and fellow transit passengers are so common that they are a staple punchline for movies and television.

Addressing pain points is a good thing, usually. Entrepreneurs have made billions doing just that, fixing the unpleasant or problematic moments in an established experience with a new solution.

But what does it mean when the new solution is to remove the human touch? What effect will that have on a person’s assessment of his or her experience with you?

Not Every Experience Can Afford to Lose the Human Touch

Accenture Strategy says that eliminating the human touch results in a “Digital Disconnect.” Their survey of nearly 25,000 people worldwide and across industries revealed that customer satisfaction relies on human interaction. They reported that 83% of U.S.-based customers would rather deal with a person than a digital solution. Moreover, 45% say they would pay more for better customer service. Accenture concludes that companies would be best to balance their automated solutions with human ones, giving their customers the option for either type of interaction.

Let me tell you a personal story. Back in the day in England ( it seems a very long time ago now!), we used to have our milk delivered every day, to the doorstep. Every week our milkman would call for his money, Lorraine would chat and have a laugh with him. Despite me often saying “Come on Lorraine, let’s move with the times and get it from the shop. It must be cheaper!” we continued with the delivery and stayed loyal to the dairy! We felt we were getting a personal service and didn’t want to contribute to the milkman losing his job! However, when ‘our milkman’ left and was replaced by someone else, things changed. He no longer called for his money. Instead, we found the bill on the doorstep and a scruffy note asking us to leave a check out for him the next day. There was no ”Hello, I’m your new milkman, hope all ok with you, anything else I can get for you?”. No chat, no laughter. Nothing, just a bill. Needless to say, after a while we got our milk from the grocery store like everyone else!

I don’t know about you, but when I have a problem, I usually try to fix it myself online. However, if I am unsuccessful, I then resort to getting some help. However, I don’t picture getting help from a bot. I imagine a person!

Since so much of what makes a Customer Experience successful is how a customer feels about it, does it make sense to hand that over to a machine with no feelings whatsoever?

When designing an emotionally engaging Customer Experience, it only makes sense to have human beings involved. Will a bot be able to tell I am hassled and frustrated when it “takes my call?” Will it respond with an appropriate empathetic response that convinces me that it is listening and ready to remedy the situation to my satisfaction? Can it exemplify excellence in customer service that is such an integral part of a Customer Experience? Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t.

I, for one, am intrigued and would like to try the Amazon Go store. I would also like to take a ride in a driverless car. They sound interesting, and, of course, as a Customer Experience Consultant, I want to know what the experience feels like. Or most importantly, how I remember the experience made me feel.

But am I ready for all human interaction to go away? Am I ready for a computer to fix my computer instead of a human genius? Willing to fly on a pilotless airplane? Or to get my Starbucks delivered by drone (no, it’s not a thing…yet!)? I don’t think so. If the report from Accenture is accurate, neither do the other consumers out there.

So, is removing humans from Customer Experience the best way to improve it? As of now, I say nope—at least not as a rule. There are individual experiences better made automatic, e.g. checking in for flights, paying tolls on the motorway, etc. But there are others where flesh and blood human is best, e.g. the oncologist’s office and, well, defending oneself in a court of law. I am not comfortable with a different solution. My guess is a lot of you aren’t either?

As it pertains to Customer Experience, humans are in the main an asset. Some might say they are the main asset. Just not for every part of a Customer Experience. Having options is key, and at least one of them should be human. It makes people feel more comfortable to have a person’s help than not to have it. For now, anyway.

What do you think? Is removing humans from the checkout and the driver’s seat a step in the right direction or a bridge too far?

Originally published in LinkedIn Pulse

Learn more about the psychology behind customer behavior and other compelling concepts for improving your Customer Experience with Beyond Philosophy’s suite of training courses – get 10% discount with promo code HOLIDAYS.

If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in the following blogs:

Industry Secrets Leaked: Predicting Customer Behavior

Astonishing Big Gains from Little Changes

Trade in Old Thinking for New

Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of five bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX


Woodard, Benjamin. “Will ‘Amazon Go’ make the grocery-store checkout line a thing of the past?” www.seattletimes.com. 5 December 2016. Web. 20 December 2016. < http://www.seattletimes.com/business/amazon/will-amazon-go-make-the-grocery-store-checkout-line-a-thing-of-the-past/>.

Coppola, Frances. “California DMV Is the Latest Regulator to Stamp on Uber, Says Testing Self-Driving Taxis is Illegal.” www.forbes.com. 15 December 2016. Web. 20 December 2016. < http://www.forbes.com/sites/francescoppola/2016/12/15/the-state-of-california-stamps-on-ubers-self-driving-cars/>.

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