Customer Engagement: Does Talking To A Human Still Matter?

Whether having your passport validated at the airport or specifying which toppings you want on your pizza, it is becoming increasingly common to pass through a customer service experience from beginning to end without ever encountering a human being. Customer engagement is undergoing a quick revolution, following the customer where he or she lives — into the realms of chatbots, instant messaging, social media and artificial intelligence.

Customer Engagement
Photo by edisona (Pixabay)
Customer Engagement

Something is clearly gained by interfacing virtually, but the switchover also brings the risk of losing something. Customer loyalty is at a premium in an age of intense competition for market share. And while channeling customers through social media may be efficient, it comes with the potential for loosening the customer-company bond.

“The challenge is, how will that effect your interaction with the customer?” asks Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger. Many industries are in the early stages of integrating these technologies into the customer experience, and sometimes things don’t go well. “People get upset. They say, ‘I have to navigate this myself? That doesn’t make me feel valued.’ The challenge for these companies is how to do it in a way that allows them to save money but doesn’t degrade the customer interaction. If people feel like they are getting a poor response, they are less likely to stay with the company.”

And yet, trend lines are clearly leading away from traditional human-to-human interaction.

“I have a son in college and he doesn’t want to communicate with anyone except through Twitter,” says Chris Haerich, senior vice president of the Professional Association for Customer Engagement, which represents about 10,000 members who come from places like Bank of America to much smaller firms. “The majority of companies we have in our membership have some level of chat or social media integration for sure. They’ve had to for at least three or four years now. And there were some that were reticent for a long time about wanting to move to that until they finally realized that millennials were out in the workplace and becoming the customer, and these were the methods they chose. It was a real eye-opener.”

“The challenge for these companies is how to do it in a way that allows them to save money but doesn’t degrade the customer interaction.” –Jonah Berger

Getting Stuck with Virtual Help

Customer service encounters through social media don’t always leave customers feeling great confidence. When a political consultant got stuck in an Amtrak elevator at BWI Airport last February, she used the Amtrak Twitter account to get help, and help soon arrived. Seven months later, she received this Tweet from Amtrak: “We are sorry to hear that. Are you still in the elevator?” Wags had a field day with the episode, which emphasized the very public aspect of using social media as a customer service intermediary.

This writer tried using Verizon’s online “virtual agent” to get a neighbor’s phone repaired. The chatbot opened an online repair request form, but the form asked for an email address for the customer — and the customer, who is elderly, does not have email. When the chatbot was presented with a question about this hurdle, the conversation went like this:

Ask Verizon: I am designed to answer questions one sentence at a time. Please try rephrasing your question in one concise sentence.

Customer: The customer does not have an email address, so I cannot fill out the form.

Ask Verizon: I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to help you. Could you tell me why this information didn’t help you?

Customer: Your answer did not match my question.

Ask Verizon: Thank you for your feedback; we will use this to improve my knowledge. Please ask a question if you would like further assistance.

If virtual interactions like this become the primary or sole avenue for customer contact, the industry might expect to see the introduction of regulation, says Haerich. “I will tell you that this industry, especially on the telephone side and the inbound and outbound side, is highly regulated,” she points out, “so as we move to different media it just makes sense that those would be highly regulated as well,” possibly by the FCC or FTC.

Companies have an incentive to deploy more virtual customer service tools because it saves them money. But customers also appear to be propelling the migration. About 64% of customers participating in a ubisend survey said businesses should be reachable via text messaging apps, and 50% said that a business should be available to respond to queries every day, 24 hours a day.

Customers who use Twitter to communicate with a company want fast action, and are quick to punish. More than half of those responding to a survey by digital marketing firm Millward Brown Digital and social software firm Lithium Technologies said they expect a response within an hour, and when they don’t get it, 60% said they would take action such as shaming on social media.

When non-human customer service works, it works extremely well; but when it works poorly, it works extremely poorly, says Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed. “When a human is in the interaction, there is an opportunity to course-correct, and that’s less the case with chatbots.”

“When a human is in the interaction, there is an opportunity to course-correct, and that’s less the case with chatbots.” — Americus Reed

“Many companies say they want to interact with customers on social media, but they don’t mean it — they don’t want to make the investment of resources to do it,” adds Berger. “You can Tweet at an airline that they have no Wi-Fi, and they send back a Tweet that they have a lot of plans to put in more and they have the most of any fleet. But they aren’t actually listening. They are using a stock response, and until companies are willing to listen and have a conversation engaging with social media they are never going to reach the goals the company has or the customers have. Customers are expecting real-time, one-on-one interaction, and if the company isn’t giving it to you, you’re going to be disappointed.”

Still, chatbots are clearly not going away. There is a cost-savings factor that’s hard to ignore, says Reed. “Bots work 24 hours a day and they never complain. Like most things that are technical innovations that seep into the marketing space, there is always a kind of immediate surge of implementation before understanding. Companies are learning this on the fly, testing and retesting in real time. We have this awful experience with Verizon, and then we see Verizon trying to figure out what specific interaction will the AI technology work for versus not.”

In the meantime, companies that have figured out when, where and with whom to use automated interface are operating at a tremendous advantage. “That’s the opportunity to go back and from a competitive advantage perspective to differentiate,” says Reed. “When I get electronic email cards from people and I click on it and it says ‘Happy birthday,’ I would almost prefer that you did nothing, because I know it took a microsecond to do. Customers are aware of

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