SOCAP International

Which Comes First—the Car or the Driver?

Organizations are relying more on systems and less on the people who operate them. Here is why that may be a mistake.

Self-serviceDid you know that 81% of customers—regardless of industry—attempt to resolve issues on their own before trying to contact a customer service representative, according to recent Harvard Business Review research? Eighty-one percent. Naturally we’re inclined to cater to this 81%, to allocate our budgets largely to building automated systems that handle the vast majority of customer interactions. At first blush, this makes sense, because can we really sink too many resources into handling the lion's share of our customers?

Stop. Imagine the fastest-looking car you’ve ever seen gliding down a flawless straightaway at top speed. The engine is roaring with almost otherworldly power…but something’s wrong; the driver’s seat is empty. The lightest breeze caresses the vehicle from the left and you watch it drift slowly, excruciatingly slowly, towards the right shoulder. You bite your nails. Finally, the wheels slide gracefully off the shoulder and into the gravel and this fine machine turns into a tumbling cloud of metal and glass, the pieces getting smaller with each subsequent roll, until what once was a thing of beauty is reduced to a 100-foot long patch of sparkling dust.

You had such a good thing going! It was almost perfect. Now look at it!

Here’s What It Means for You

Keep it personalThat car is your business. The engine is your customer engagement systems. And that breeze that set this chain reaction in motion is the other 19%: the customers who would rather contact a real, live person than try to navigate a website or a chatbot or an instruction manual. That empty driver’s seat is where a fantastic customer service professional should have been sitting.

The point is this: If a company wants to win the customer service race, the systems have to be stellar, but they can’t exist in a vacuum. The key to victory is leveraging technology to empower the driver. Put another way, robust and evolving systems are a necessity, but it’s the way the systems drive human interaction that gives a company the best shot at developing satisfied, repeat customers.

As a professional concerned with customer relations, you fight daily to improve the experiences your customers receive, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because customers who are treated well, with both care and competence, can transform from satisfied customers into loyal customers. That, as we know, is customer retention, and research conducted by Frederick Reichheld of top business consulting firm Bain & Company indicates that increasing customer retention by as little as 5% can yield between 25% and 95% higher profits.

We all know that customer retention is key, and that our systems and our frontline staff both play some role in it, but it’s clear that the trend in 2017 is for organizations to lean more heavily on the systems while deemphasizing the operators. For some organizations, this can be a mistake.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of, told Harvard Business Review that “our belief is that as unsexy and lowtech as it may sound, the telephone is one of the best branding devices out there. You have the customer’s undivided attention for five or 10 minutes, and if you get the interaction right, the customer remembers the experience for a very long time and tells his or her friends about it.”

In an era of highly sophisticated websites and the words artificial intelligence (AI) being tossed around quite seriously in the customer service world, these human interactions can be the real retention drivers.

From my experiences as a consumer and as a sales and customer service professional, I believe we all face certain universal challenges that require constant attention, and I think that the data backs it up. Here are some key obstacles that we can’t afford to lose sight of on the customer experience road:

human interaction1. Disconnection between automated systems and service professionals: I spoke to the national sales manager for a rapidly growing company that makes a product that over a million musicians use, myself included. This company is one of the three largest in its primary product category and I was told that each department of that company used a different database and CRM-type system, with little to no integration between each.

This isn’t uncommon; we experience it all the time as consumers and it’s obvious to us from that perspective. “I can’t access that part of your account, I’m in sales. I have to get you over to tech support.” “Oh I’m sorry, that’s actually the account management department.” “They sent you here? I can’t see any of that information, you need somebody in sales.”

As professionals, we would do well to walk a mile in our customer’s shoes and see our own company from their point of view. Are frontline employees in various departments equally equipped to handle customer inquiries? How streamlined is the experience once the customer exhausts our automated systems and depends on a human? How much time does it take to resolve an issue?

Taking it a step further, do we give the interfaces our frontline employees use the same attention as those we provide to customers? Do we do a good job of optimizing internal systems to allow our employees to rapidly gain the data they need? We might not realize the impact that the employee/system interface has on the customer experience.

One approach of answering this questions is to shop your company. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and purchase from your company, call your service department and even return a product and truly become a customer of your own business.

contact2. Changing preferences regarding method of contact: When it comes to really taking care of a customer, especially one with a complex issue or an elevated heart rate, I’m going to argue that the phone is king in terms of handling the situation to both parties’ satisfaction. A University of Chicago study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicates that the tone of an email is misinterpreted roughly half of the time, resulting in frustration and misunderstandings. There is a fine balance between using digital tools such as text communication or web chat to solve a customer issue.

True, data shows that many customers under 40 prefer text or email to phone calls, but we have to be aware of the real costs we can incur when customers misinterpret our tone. We can lose a customer for life. This applies not only to personalized one-on-one messages, but also to automated scripts and form letters. A phone call with a customer service professional on the other end, who empathizes and advocates on behalf of the customer, could be the differentiator.

chat3. Determining which resources get allocated to each channel: Have you ever been unable to reach a company by phone only to get instant assistance via web chat? Have you ever been unable to get a company to answer an email, yet you get immediate attention when you visit the branch in person? Your customers have had these experiences.

As we explore the very real potential of chatbots, web chat and AI in the consumer affair world, we need to realize that a poor experience through any user portal reflects poorly on the company as a whole. We may be tempted to open the floodgates and accept customer inquiries in every possible form, but we run the real risk of forcing our customers to choose which of our contact methods are “second rate” and which ones get instant attention.

Ultimately, time marches on and the proverbial car has to get faster, leaner and stronger if we want to compete in the marketplace. None of us would argue with that, and we have to do all we can to explore the new world of customer contact methods, decide which ones make sense for our business, and commit wholeheartedly to the testing and subsequent implementation of any system we deem worthy for our model. Please don’t forget, though, that our customers are begging us not to forget about the driver.

Nate EdwardsNate Edwards is a sales manager at Sweetwater Sound, the nation's leading retailer in instruments and pro audio equipment. Also a freelance composer and sound designer, his mission is to remove barriers between people around the world and the inspiration that music and sound provide. A steadfast believer in the unique power of one-on-one connection, he encourages everybody he works with to leverage technology to enable more frequent—and higher-quality—human interactions with customers and associates.