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GUEST COMMENT Why internet retailers shouldn’t be sacrificing human interaction in favour of technology in customer contact

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For internet retailers, the application of technology has helped shape the industry into what it is today. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are now some of the most popular shopping days of the year, and the popularity of Christmas purchasing on the internet grows year-on-year. Online shopping is showing no signs of slowing down.

Technology continues to improve, with customers now being offered more options than ever when making purchases and communicating with online retailers, so why have customer satisfaction levels fallen in recent years? Figures released by the Institute of Customer Service this year revealed that customer satisfaction on the whole peaked three years ago, and has since flat-lined.

In addition, our own research report, looking into what customers want from customer service providers, saw consumers score the overall customer communication experience with retailers at 6.5 out of a possible 10 – below other everyday providers including holiday companies, financial institutions, and healthcare companies. While not terrible, these figures suggest room for customer service improvement within a sector which has traditionally been a top-performer in customer satisfaction charts.

So where does this drop in customer satisfaction levels leave the world of online retailing, where customers are increasingly switched on when it comes to communicating with retailers, and constantly demanding more when it comes to customer service?

Increased reliance on technology leading to a drop in consumer satisfaction?

Some blame the drop in customer satisfaction levels on a heavy reliance on technology when interacting with consumers – this is often particularly relevant to online retailers, who rely on the help of technology within a great deal of their customer contact.

And while technology is being embraced, and does work well in some circumstances, in recent years it would seem that customers have grown frustrated about being directed straight to automated messages, or other artificial methods of communication, when they’re attempting to have a complex enquiry answered, a problem solved, or simply want or expect to speak to a person.

This customer frustration is often escalated in times of peak demand – in seasonal periods, or around key events such as Cyber Monday and Black Friday. Around these events it’s not uncommon for customers to become annoyed when a website has gone down, or web pages are unresponsive, for example. It’s in times such as these where methods such as web-self serve just won’t do and a proactive approach to keep customers informed becomes important.

Technology vs. the human touch

You can appreciate why it might be easy to sit back and let technology take on the bulk of the workload. It saves costs and resources, works quickly, and copes well with simple enquiries. However, for more complex or sensitive enquiries, it’s human interaction that can really add value.

Indeed, our research found that 53 per cent of consumers prefer telephone or face to face contact with everyday service providers. Automated call and text messages were preferred by a tiny one per cent of respondents for each, and social media was preferred by just three per cent of those we spoke to.

Clearly, using intelligence to understand when different contact channels should be used, and what value they bring to different customers, is crucial here. And it’s important to remember that some customers still prefer interaction with a human, even when presented with multiple channels to contact. Being forced down a self-service route can frustrate customers and result in dissatisfaction. Digital contact channels should be introduced where there is customer demand and with the aim of improving service, not reducing costs. It’s all about deploying the right channel, at the right time, for the right customer.

When technology alone won’t do

Undoubtedly, technological advancements will mean customer service will continue to focus on technology in 2016 and beyond. There are lots of exciting and disruptive technologies emerging – IBM Watson, for example – but as the information above proves, investment in people must continue to happen in parallel with investment in technology. Maybe machines will increasingly replace humans in the future, but at the moment there is still a significant need for the human touch.

As the volume of calls into contact centres declines due to technology handling more of the simple enquiries, the complexity of customer contacts that advisors will be handling is only set to increase. For this reason, it is likely that the average handling time of a call will increase, and require a more personal touch.

Customer service advisors will increasingly be required to deal with issues that can’t be resolved through advanced self-service options, and deal with the more complicated ‘off-script’ scenarios. As the availability of the internet and social media means that customers can always turn to this first, many consumers will increasingly be resorting to using a telephone call when they’ve exhausted other options. As a result, retailers should ensure their customer service advisors are both highly skilled and empowered, and possess the appropriate soft-skills to deal with this type of enquiry. Empathy, for example, is a skill that is hugely overlooked, but can make the difference between a happy, and a dissatisfied customer.

Of course, it must be recognised that there are many instances where a carefully balanced mix of human interaction and technology can produce great results…

Mixing technology and the human touch in online retailing

A great example of where a mix of technology and human interaction can really come into its own is social media – an important communication channel for many online retailers. The public nature of this channel and the type of enquiry coming through it means that it is essential that it is managed from the customer service function of a retailer, not the marketing department.

Social media channels like Facebook and Twitter are quick and effective ways of answering customer queries and solving problems. They need to be monitored and answered promptly (sometimes around the clock) though, to avoid a frustrated customer. Many online retailers have targets in place for how long customers should wait before they receive a response, as well as having rules around the tone of response. Here, the human touch is still very present, just funneled through a digital channel.

Larger online retailers tend to have high customer service success rates with Twitter. This is great considering their general customer demographic, however, on some of their Twitter pages it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to find information on alternative contact channels. Frustrating for older generations, who struggle to navigate the internet, or even those with a visual impairment, perhaps. Again, it comes back to offering customers a variety of contact options and allowing them the option to select the one most convenient to them.

The future of customer communication

Whilst the benefits of technology are clear in terms of costs and time saving, it cannot cover everything, and online retailers must concentrate on balancing this with the human touch. Whilst contact channel choice is important, and is being embraced by businesses and consumers alike, at the end of the day it’s the customer experience that really matters.

Despite technological advancements, people continue to make a difference here. Each consumer is unique and ultimately businesses should offer them a range of contact channel choices and let them decide which suits them best.

The best online retailers are now realising that they can’t simply use technology over the human touch and it’s a mix of the two that leads to the most success. Remember that great customer experiences are the key differentiator in this highly competitive market.

Chris Cullen is head of sales and marketing at outsourced customer contact specialist Echo Managed Services

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