Is Human Interaction Becoming Irrelevant?

Many of us already have entered a season as full of stress as of promise. We have gatherings to plan, tickets to book and gifts to buy. Added to everything else, it can be overwhelming.

Our modern society promises us less stress by allowing us to accomplish these tasks online while sitting in an easy chair, cutting out the middleman entirely. In fact, there are more ways than ever to ask questions, get answers and place orders without ever interacting with another human being.

But is that what people really want? Well, it depends.

Earlier this year, an HRC Retail Advisory survey found that while retailers have stepped up human interaction in brick-and-mortar stores to enhance the customer experience, 95 percent of consumers say they want to be left alone.

By that result, you could conclude that consumers no longer want to talk to a human being as part of the customer experience. But that’s not what researchers are finding when they look a little further.

A global study earlier this year by customer experience consultant PwC found that more than 8 in 10 U.S. internet users do want to interact with a real person, even as they adopt ever-more sophisticated digital tools.

A significant 55 percent disagreed with the notion that, as technology advances, we won’t need people for a great customer experience.

What do customers want most? “Speed, convenience, knowledgeable help and friendly service,” the report says.

More than retail. Greater than automation.

Not all of us manage retail brands, but the lesson is broadly relevant as marketing, public relations, internal communications and sales channels become more tech-oriented.

Most of us know from personal experience that bots are a poor substitute for a live person running interference on a customer problem. And we know from our own frustration that a pick-a-question menu and canned, automated answers fall short of the more valuable and appreciated, tailor-made answers only humans can provide.

New York Times columnist and author Tom Friedman, who has written extensively on how technology is changing our society, described it this way to Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson in a conversation posted:

“All the things that are important today are the things you cannot download. It’s all the things you have to upload the old fashioned way: one human being to another.”

In short, consumers today want to engage companies on their own terms. Sometimes, a digital or self-guided solution will do. Yet when a customer decides it’s necessary, nothing contributes to an exceptional experience and customer loyalty like an old-fashioned human being. 

In what sometimes seems like an impersonal age, this is comforting news.