Most savvy merchants understand the importance of human interaction, no matter how strong the investment in multichannel selling and digital customer service. In fact, a recent global study of more than 24,000 consumers and 1,000 businesses confirms the fact in no uncertain terms: consumers everywhere highly value the human element in their interactions with businesses.
The research—commissioned by Verint in June and July 2016 in association with Opinium Research, a UK-based research company, and research and advisory firm IDC—involved consumers in a dozen countries: Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the US.
Key findings from the study include:
- 83% of respondents said they prefer human customer service interactions to digital alternatives.
- For all age groups, the phone emerged as the most popular way to contact organizations and service providers, according to nearly a quarter of consumers. Visiting the store front was next in popularity at 23%.
- Those who receive more human or traditional customer service display more positive behaviors toward brands.
- The more complex the service request, the more likely consumers are to prefer human interaction to digital channels.
- Two-thirds of consumers and 91% of businesses feel customer service online and via mobile devices needs to be faster and more intuitive to serve end users.
Human vs. Machine—Striking the Balance
This study was designed to answer how businesses can strike the right balance between digital and human customer service. The results—summarized in a report titled “The Digital Tipping Point: How Do Organizations Balance the Demands for Digital and Human Customer Service?”—provide insights for merchants and raise an important question. Given consumers’ resounding preference for “the human touch,” are some online strategies misdirected today?
Consider this: when the study asked businesses what channels they are planning to invest in, live chat (32%) and mobile apps (27%) scored the highest. The businesses also reported they are investing least in traditional channels—branch and telephone. This suggests that they plan to guide customers to a digital experience, but at what cost?
Digital—It’s Not All or Nothing
Sure, younger consumers are a major driving force behind the shift towards digital communications. While the survey does show that, on average, the most popular preference across generations is to pick up the phone or go into a store, mobile apps and other digital channels rank much higher in preference for millennials and Generation X than they do for Baby Boomers or the Silent Generation, for instance.
Given that millennials are the long-term customers of the future, it makes sense that digital channels are implemented to appeal to them. However, the research shows that not everyone is ready to embrace digital. Nearly two thirds (64%) of all consumers polled say they believe it is more convenient and they get better service when engaging with organizations on the phone or in a store.
Need for Human Interaction Grows with Complexity
It should be noted this survey is a broad one and reflects customer experiences with a wide range of organizations, from insurance companies to banks, and from travel companies to online and brick-and-mortar retailers. Not surprisingly, the online retail sector bucks the trend of human service preference, with 60% of respondents wanting to interact via their account online or through web self-service. In addition, 66% of “digitally engaged” respondents—those whose first preference is to use a digital channel to engage with an organization—believe digital channels provide a better overall customer experience, compared with the global average of 45%.
Nonetheless, merchants would be wise to heed the overarching message in the study: human interaction counts. For example, with brick and mortar retailers—defined as supermarkets, grocery stores and clothing stores in the study—61% of respondents said they prefer to speak to someone on the phone or in person when it comes to a customer service request.
The complexity of the request plays a role here, too. While 64% of consumers said they would use digital channels for a fairly simple customer service activity, like changing account details or investigating new products and services, the preference for and reliance on human interaction becomes greater as the requests become more complicated, such as asking a question about a bill or requesting a refund.
An Important and Timely Reminder
As this study shows, there is strong support among consumers for all channels to be present in a merchant’s customer service mix. Just as television didn’t eliminate the need for radio, digital will not completely replace the need for humans to play a role in the customer service equation. With every purchase and every need for service, there are times and circumstances when there is no substitute for talking with a real, live person.
Anne Patton is a vice president of marketing for Verint Systems,