News & Views


by Georgia Malden

Prioritise technologies that maximise, rather than minimise, human input when developing digital services

Surprise, surprise, I’m having a nightmare with my mobile phone provider. It seems that as a corporate customer, I have the privilege of benefiting from reduced customer service hours, no one being able to help me in-store (even if they wanted to), and – to add insult to injury – I’m not even eligible for online support. (Boy, business customers get a raw deal.) The sad thing is, everyone’s got their own telco customer support nightmare story. And most of these hang on the fact that people can’t bloody well get to speak to anyone anymore.

So I was surprised to read in McKinsey’s research this month (‘Why companies should care about e-care’), that telecom customers are 20% more satisfied when they use digital-only service channels than when they use traditional channels (76% to 57%). I’m suspicious of stats like this. They ignore any nuances that might lie behind the responses (do digital channels deliver higher satisfaction because they’re used for problems that are more easily solved? Do people who use digital channels generally prefer to self-serve?). But most importantly, these stats mask the world of pain (and, let’s not forget, the terrible brand experiences) that we’ve all suffered, and heard others suffer, at the hands of service providers who are too swift (on the back of data like this) to migrate customer service queries to digital channels. It’s no surprise that some of the most innovative new mobile providers, such as Ting in the US, combine simple self-serve digital tools and online community forums with a helpline that promises a human response within a couple of rings.

Telco e-care is (you might argue) at the bottom end of the digital service spectrum. We are getting pretty clever elsewhere at building smart digital assistants. Siri’s had an upgrade (though it's still most fun is to ask her, ‘What does the Fox say?’), Microsoft’s Cortana is giving her a run for her money (even without the pixelated curves of her namesake) and Jaguar Land Rover is even working on an in-car Smart Assistant that will not only recognise you and learn your driving style, but work out (from your calendar, the time etc) who’s in the car with you and then personalise the experience accordingly. Smart Assistant will play your kids’ favourite music as you take them to school, for example (even if that's the last thing you feel like). 

The fact is, while these smart digital services are getting better at predicting our needs and adapting to our context and behaviour, we’re not at the stage where algorithms are capable of human empathy (despite recent excitement and argument over a computer program potentially passing the Turing Test). I was struck by what Mark Curtis of service design company Fjord – experts in ‘living services’ and the team behind brilliant predictive apps such as Garanti Bank’s iGaranti – said at our Contagious Now Next Why event in April. He warned against this myth: ‘If a system can detect enough data about a person, it can understand them and create a better experience.’ He pointed out that the problem with this assumption is that ‘it ignores human traits such as culture, mood, etiquette – and pure human weirdness.’ It’s such an important note of caution. Don’t go thinking all the data will enable you to design the perfect human experience. JLR’s Smart Assistant may get you to your meeting on time, but it probably won’t play you Janis Joplin as it takes you the long way round because it knows what you really need right now is a bit of a weep.
Amidst debates about the potential impact of Artificial Intelligence on the future of jobs (some respondents to Pew Research Center’s survey predict a leisure-filled utopia, while others are harbingers of mass unemployment and civil unrest), I am most sympathetic with this view, offered by Pamela Rutledge of the Media Psychology Research Center:

‘Advances in AI and robotics allow people to cognitively offload repetitive tasks and invest their attention and energy in things where humans can make a difference. We already have cars that talk to us, a phone we can talk to, robots that lift the elderly out of bed and apps that remind us to call Mom. An app can dial Mom’s number and even send flowers, but an app can’t do that most human of all things: emotionally connect with her.’

Which is why what excites me at the moment is the development of digital services that use technology to harness human insight, knowledge and connection to make us more useful, rather than more redundant. 

Take Zappos’ new personal shopping assistant Ask Zappos. Users simply snap a photo then text, email or Instagram it to the online retailer, and one of a small team of stylists will help find the item for you, in any store. What I love about this (once they’ve sorted out their resourcing issues – it seems other people love it too) is that it plays to new behaviours (snapping pics of the things we covet) and uses technology to combine visual shortcuts with the kind of human-powered service proposition upon which Zappos has built its brand. It’s the human equivalent of a raft of image recognition apps Contagious has seen, such as SnapFashion, which compares pictures of clothes to a database of items from partner retailers to find the closest match, but it prioritises human knowledge over algorithms. For Zappos, it’s the service element, and the experience the customer has of the brand, that counts here as much as the ensuing sale (which may happen elsewhere than Zappos). 

Or the brilliant new app PS Dept, which is essentially a text equivalent of personal shopping, providing a direct line between shoppers and sales associates in a range of high end US fashion and homeware stores, and in so doing using technology to bring what’s traditionally been a luxury service for the few into the mainstream.

But the poster child for technology providing a shortcut to a personal one-to-one service comes, of course, from Zappos’ parent company Amazon. Its Mayday button, installed on Kindle HDX devices, connects users to a real live human being, 24/7, who will talk them through any difficulties they’re having with the set up process (thereby helping to remove any barriers to people getting on with the business of downloading). In a press release from June, Amazon announced that 75% of all customer service queries on the Kindle HDX now come through Mayday, and the average response time is 9.75 seconds. What’s more, there are sweet stories of the Mayday button being used for personal and quirky requests too – like asking the advisors to sing happy birthday to the new owner, or to adjudicate on the best method of preparing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Amazon may not be to everyone’s tastes when it comes to the commoditisation of human endeavour (you know, distribution centres, Mechanical Turk), but in terms of e-care, Mayday is hard to beat. Personal, one-to-one service, delivered at the touch of a button in less than 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, human weirdness included. Eat your heart out, Vodafone. 

(Illustration: Andrew Rae)