Think of the companies you most despise doing business with. They may include an airline, a bank, a car dealership, or some other businesses. It’s likely that the source of your animosity was a problem with human interactions– an airline counter agent who treated you without compassion during a fight cancellation, call center support agents at your bank who were unhelpful, or a pushy car salesman.
The opposite may also be true. For many of the companies you like doing business with, the source of your loyalty can be traced to human interactions. Maybe there is a restaurant where the owner knows your name and the servers remember what you like, or the clothing sales person who always takes the time to help you find what you want, etc.
Despite all of our technological advances, human interaction is still the main atom of commerce. Nothing can make or break a customer’s relationship with a company faster than the interactions she has with the people who represent that company.
It’s not surprising that human interaction would be such a strong driver of customer relationships. After all, we’ve had about 10,000 years of commerce that have been based on look-you-in-the-eyes-hear-your-voice-clasp-your-hand interactions. We started buying things online in the 1990s.
In his recent book, The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford describes how interacting with the world around us, including other people, is what life and living are really all about. Now that we have new technologies that can mediate our interactions with “the world beyond our heads,” we are often distanced from other people, distracting ourselves from the most basic parts of our human nature. One of Crawford’s most powerful examples was how driver-assist features in new cars can actually make driving more dangerous, as we rely on the car to pay attention to the world around us, delegating this very important responsibility of a driver.
So how do we honor our customers’ human nature, and their need for human interaction, as we try to compete in our new technology-laden marketplace?
First, note that you can divide the technologies you use in your work into two categories:
- Those that bring your closer to your customers
- Those that put a barrier up between you and your customers
For example, if your salespeople use their CRM system to provide relevant information in order to personalize interactions with customers, that’s using a technology to bring customers closer. If the system is just a way to send out mass emails, it’s not bringing you closer to your customers.
If you have a well-staffed chat function on your website, it’s helping bring your customers closer to you. On the other hand, if you hide your customer service phone number on your website, hoping customers will read your FAQs and forums instead of running up your call center costs, you are using technology to distance yourself from customers.
Consider your smartphone. It is an amazing tool that can bring you closer to your customers. You can take their calls, promptly respond to their emails, access documents that can answer their questions, etc. But if it is sitting on the table at a restaurant during a lunch with a customer, it is now a distracting barrier to a good human interaction.
It’s ok to use technologies that don’t facilitate human interactions. We can’t talk to every customer one-on-one, and technologies can help us extend our reach. But let’s recognize the compromise we are making when we employ these tools. When possible, use technologies to generate eventual human interactions. For example, thousands of people subscribe to this newsletter, and it’s impossible for me to speak one-on-one with every subscriber. Yet, my most important measures for the success of a particular issue of this newsletter are not just how many people open the email, but how many reach out to me by phone or email, resulting in personal contact. Yes, I’d love to talk to you– call me.
No matter what new technologies come your way, never forget that human interaction is the key to your success. Before you send an email, think about whether it makes more sense to pick up the phone. Before you dial the phone, think about whether you should be setting up an in-person meeting. For your most important business relationships, make sure you’re doing it with a human.