In the increasingly technical world we live in, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality, Bots, and other technologies are dominating much of the conversation around how to improve customer experience (CX). Already we’re seeing automated technology embedded into the consumer journey and an increasing expectation for this to be the norm. Research from Gartner says that 25 percent of customer service and support operations will integrate virtual customer assistants or chatbot technology by 2020.

However, as the lines continue to blur, there is an inescapable truth that becomes clear – at the heart of any interaction is a person. It sounds obvious, but customers will continue to want to be valued and understood, as much as businesses want to be trusted. All are human emotions currently beyond the reach of even the most sophisticated algorithms.

The argument therefore stands, that boosting the effectiveness of old-fashioned human interactions may actually be the most important focus for CX. In this sense, technology should be seen as a way of enhancing human interaction, rather than replacing it.

The importance of the human element

Time is the new customer currency and commodity that is ushering in automated technologies ranging from mobile banking deposits to Google Mail’s new autofill feature. A recent Gartner survey found that 58 percent of respondents would use AI if it helps them save time. But as customers put greater value on speedy automated solutions for minor tasks, there remains a fundamental need for human interaction on more important issues. A Pegasystems survey found consumers cite a lack of intelligence as their top complaint against automated bots, with 65 percent still preferring a human agent.

Ultimately, customers want to know that a company care and will take the time to understand their needs. It’s a modern balancing-act of staying up-to-date with AI automation while maintaining a human approach to the emotional environment we live in.

This is confirmed in our 2019 CX Trends Report which found that consumers still consider better service from staff to be the key driver of better CX. This is especially true of Aussie consumers who rated the importance higher (50 percent) than US (42 percent) and UK (30 percent) consumers.

These insights highlight an intrinsic link between customer and employee, whereby for a company to really drive their CX, they also need to address their employee experience (EX). Hiring, training, and empowering the right kind of employees to deliver memorable experiences doesn’t just make for happier, more generous customers. According to Jacob Morgan’s Employee Experience Advantage, companies that invest in employees are four times more profitable and have two times the average revenue.

Striking the technology balance

Brands should look at how technology can help them to both identify what customers want and serve customers better at their point of need. Deploying the right balance of machine and human interaction at the same time can prioritise customer needs to ensure your human talent spend their time where they’re needed most.

In our 2019 CX Trends Report, we asked about the most important thing brands can do to capture how consumers feel about them and the experiences they are providing. Options included monitoring their posts, capturing conversation with staff, as well as monitoring digital behaviours. Overwhelmingly, customers chose ‘something else’ – asking them directly. Nearly 78 percent of customers selected this option. With this insight in mind, technology should actually focus on enabling direct, intelligent conversations between consumers and brands at scale.

Where automation is concerned, there are too many interactions across the omni-channel environment for manual processes to keep up and deliver adequate personalisation. The inherent risk of personalisation is that the moment the perception of authenticity disappears, the CX bubble bursts. A prime example of this is brands using targeted advertising for something a customer has already bought. ‘Personal experience’ needs to mean the same thing to marketers and customers. Adopting automation techniques affords companies the scalability to understand trends and distribute customer intelligence as needed.

When the customer reaches the point of human engagement, customer service agents must be ready to provide the tailored service expected, in whichever channel chosen. Avoiding customers having to repeat their issue is a key CX challenge. Companies should have customer context which follows the customer as they are transferred from one agent to the next. For the next generation of consumers, AI will allow organisations to automate, yet personalise, ensuring consistency and allowing real trust to develop.

Future-proofing your business

AI technology should be an asset that enables smarter, more informed interactions. Automated services are valued by customers for the time they save. However, in the end, tech can’t have the final say, the technology simply doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to meet the customer need. For important decisions, a human touch is still what’s valued most.

To deliver the quality of interaction expected by today’s customers, it’s not enough for companies to ‘improve’ CX and EX in disconnected silos. Today’s top brands are aligning these entwined audiences, creating cross-functional teams that deliver consistently, and continually listening to customers to ensure brand actions are aligned with their expectations. For companies looking for ways to reap more from their customers, they may want to start by addressing the employee experience.

Combining technology with an enhanced human touch and delivering at the precise time of customer need is key. It shows a deep understanding and commitment of care that resonates and drives trust with customers. A consistent and intuitive customer journey that elegantly combines both technology and human interaction — in ways deemed valuable by the customer — is the key to keeping the CX bubble intact. Those brands that can deliver on this will hit the elusive sweet-spot for future-proofing their business.

Andrew Park is Vice President – CX Strategy at InMoment