While consumer adoption of technology is at record levels, it’s worthwhile to ask the hard questions about our reliance on it. Are we using technology for the benefit of our customers, or merely to lower our operating expenses? Does our reliance on technology to interact with our customers abolish the human touch? Do we really place the user experience at the heart of our technology strategy to build value in our customer relationships? For technology to deliver on its promise, we must know the answers to these questions.

The rise of cloud computing, mobile technology, and state-of-the-art loyalty platforms now give marketers the power to harness customer insight to deliver personalized, relevant offers and experiences at the right time and place, and through the channel of the customer’s own choosing.

When we err in this mission, it’s often because we mistake technology for the ends, rather than the means. No matter how sophisticated it appears, marketing technology is only as useful as its ability to build real relationships with consumers. The danger: that marketers will focus on cost savings, or the ability of technology to deliver short-term promotional impact, at the expense of customer relationships. Customers crave an experience driven not solely by technology, but also by the “human factor” — the sense that on the other side of that digital platform lies a company that offers solutions to improve their lives, cares about them, and values their loyalty.

Today, the integration of technology with the customer experience has reached a tipping point: we can leverage technology either for short‑term gain, or to deliver long‑term loyalty. Technology can make relationships, or it can break them. Our choice is clear: we must keep technology human. We must use technology to build trust, demonstrate commitment, and deliver reciprocity. To that end, marketers must focus their technology efforts on these five best practices:

  1. Collaborate with your customers. Marketers and technology providers must collaborate with customers at each stage of the adoption curve, leverage customer insight to course correct, and implement changes that reflect customer needs.

When it comes to striking the right balance between technology and human interaction, marketers are on a similar collaborative journey with their customers. Mobile wallet technology, for example, is now in a similar position as ATM technology in the 1980s — a solution in search of a problem.  Says Kasey Byrne, Chief Marketing Officer for Atlanta-based Cardlytics, a technology firm offering transaction-driven marketing for electronic banking, “Is it easier to pull out my phone versus just pulling out my card? If you’re going to interrupt a time-sensitive activity like checking out, then it needs to be a really good customer experience.”

  1. Cede control of the experience. For technology to facilitate real relationships, use it to place control of the brand experience where it belongs — in the hands of your customers.

When beginning their travel journey at the airport, the airline offers their customers a choice: interacting with a live counter agent, or interact with the automated kiosk. Need help with your boarding pass, or with finding your gate? A live agent is standing by to help you. Do you prefer to speed through by checking in online and scanning your boarding pass on your mobile phone at the gate?  Southwest has you covered. You choose the experience; Southwest facilitates it. “Allowing customers who want a more tech-centric experience to have it actually improves customer service for everyone,” says Jonathan Clarkson, Director of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards frequent-flyer program. “It means agents can spend more time with customers who need it.”

  1. Practice customer centricity. By focusing your marketing efforts on collecting, analyzing, and acting upon data correlative and predictive of customer value, you can unite technology with humanity to build real relationships.

According to David LaMarca, Senior Director, Retail Innovation and Store Design, CVS/Caremark, customer centricity is essential: “Instead of the product being at the center, in the last five years or so we really started to focus on putting the customer at the center of our strategy. We cluster our stores to fit customers’ needs within those stores, such as with our trip segmentation report, which helps lay out the store based on customer needs.” To practice customer centricity, you must leverage data and technology to enhance and personalize the customer experience, rather than exploiting it solely for short-term gain. In practice, implementing customer-centric technology often means providing options. Millennials may love your mobile app; older consumers may not. Most customers may be comfortable navigating your online customer support; some high‑value customers may prefer speaking to a live human being. Your customers don’t look or behave alike — so don’t treat them as if they do.

  1. Blend technology with humanity. Through the collection and analysis of customer-centric data sets, you can find the optimal blend of technology and humanity for your business — ensuring that you can deliver a consistent customer experience across channels to build relationship value.

The Golden Rule for implementing marketing technology is, “Thou shalt not sacrifice customer relationships on the altar of efficiency.” Whether you’re a bank, a retailer, a travel provider, or any other business besides a pure-play digital native, your customers expect to self-select into the channel most appropriate to their needs at the time. Sometimes customers need help navigating a complex decision tree, and require a little handholding by a live customer service rep. Other times they require speed and convenience, in which case an elegantly designed online interface is just the ticket.  Every business is different, every channel has different challenges and benefits, and every customer will experience a different journey. The key to success, says Avis Budget Group’s Zamore, is to recognize valuable customers regardless of which channel they choose. “Relying solely on any one channel is a mistake,” says Avis Budget Group’s Zamore. “Brands still have to get better at recognizing a given customer in another channel and context. Right now it’s more like they get to know someone in a conference room and have to re-introduce themselves when they’re in the hallway.”

  1. Engage employees in the journey. To infuse your customer-facing technology with the human touch, employee engagement is critical to success. To build strong relationships, technology must empower your employees to deliver differentiated customer service in real time.

For Southwest Airlines, for example, living up to their mantra “If It Matters to You, It Matters to Us” requires them to build a staff of engaged employees who feel ownership of the customer

experience.  According to Clarkson, Southwest undertakes extensive research to help them understand what combination of digital and human interaction best serves their customers’ needs. The airline identifies customer pain points via daily feedback, which is then published and made accessible to front-line staff. In addition to formal research, Southwest Airlines also conducts customer observation and “cocreation” exercises with employees to help staff understand which tool — technology or human interaction — is most efficient in alleviating those pain points. As technology continues to evolve, Southwest envisions augmenting digital platforms with the personal touch to improve the customer experience. “We also really explain the importance of customer experience and the reasons behind any change to our front line employees to help ensure they adopt and champion the changes,” says Clarkson.

To build a future of real relationships, and keep customer experience human, we must always strive to balance technology with the human touch. Achieving that balance requires us to seek and analyze data closest to the customer; use digital tools to build dialog, rather than broadcast one-way messages; and cede control of the experience to our customers.

Excerpts taken from The Human Factor – Five Ways Technology Can Build Real Relationships


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