Technology has become the backbone of how modern businesses function, with all types of organizations using tech applications to manage nearly every aspect of operations, from customer service to employee engagement. Whether using smart tech to enable communications, support security and privacy, enhance efficiency, aid employees or support operations, it’s no wonder startups rely on these solutions to increase productivity and enhance overall efficiencies.
And while technology is vital to so many business processes, many savvy business leaders understand that it’s also crucial to find a balance. This balance between leveraging tech to support your business and knowing when to use human touch points and find ways to make things personal for customers and employees alike can be a challenge.
For example, Emerald-Jane Hunter, founder of MyWhy Agency, captures the struggle when stating, “Technology is the reality of our world, and, the ability to use it to schedule meetings and to manage workflow is a huge lift for smaller businesses. However, technology is not always smart enough to replace the human touch when it comes to customer service, human resources or new business development. Relationships reign supreme in all of these areas, so you have to know when to turn technology off and when to turn human interaction on.”
“A phone call, face-to-face meeting, or a personal note or gift dropped in the mail are still key to maintaining client relationships and developing new ones. And for HR, it’s imperative to personally engage with employees to ensure the culture of your business is thriving for all.”
And while we refer to much of automated technology as smart tech, the reality is that it can sometimes lead to dumb decisions if you lean on it too much. When incorporating artificial intelligence and machine learning into technology, it relies on good data and sound programming. But sometimes, the concept is better than the execution. There are troves of stories where tech failed to work as expected and, in some cases, the outcome can be disastrous for the business involved. For instance, one mistyped phrase led to a company losing $1 billion in 2012. Misconfigurations and misunderstandings that are not caught by the tech itself can lead to major business mishaps, often accompanied by a loss in consumer confidence and goodwill. The bottom line is that smart tech doesn’t always have a positive impact on your company’s operations.
Interestingly, for Stormy Simon, the previous CEO of Overstock.com and new founder of Mother Rugger, she understands that businesses can make mistakes but doesn’t like to use the word “dumb”:
“For me, I don’t like the term ‘dumb decisions,’ especially in the startup world, if you’re a leader, you are going to have to be OK with being wrong sometimes. Just be sure to fail forward, meaning that a bad decision doesn’t hold you back but moves you forward. You own it. You move on. You make adjustments where needed.”
Simon said she faced a challenge when she first started in customer service at Overstock before becoming president. She launched an automated voice tech that would respond to customer inquiries, but the new tech was frustrating customers who experienced challenges since it would not connect them to a live customer service representative quickly enough. Faced with the business risk of frustrated customers, she made the decision to turn off the tech so customers could actually speak to a live person. This human touch point made all the difference in keeping customers happy and loyal. Of course, now these automated solutions are more sophisticated to better able to manage customer needs, but the threat of tech failing in a way that alienates customers is ever present.
This example demonstrates why effective leaders shouldn’t leave all aspects of operations to tech solutions. While these solutions can improve many aspects of business performance, it’s still vital for leaders to trust their gut and intuition to make wise choices that will improve the operation of their organization.
And while this concept is fairly straightforward, it gets a bit cloudier when trying to determine when to use a personal touch point and when smart tech solutions are beneficial. There are several tips that can help business leaders determine the best path forward, such as:
- Account for market dynamics. Consumer preferences are constantly evolving. It’s vital to have a finger on the pulse of your customers and how their expectations may shift due to certain circumstances. For instance, during the pandemic, everything went virtual quickly, which led to high levels of uncertainty. In turn, customers and employees wanted a more personal touch. In this climate, your business may have fared better by adopting more personal approaches.
- Look for ways to integrate both. A recent study looked at whether customers benefitted more from interacting with tech or with human customer service representatives. The results showed that a combination of both was often the best approach. This strategy looks at instances where one method outperforms another. For instance, smart tech may be preferable for standard ordering, but personal touch points are better for dealing with unsatisfied customers. When you combine your approach, you may be able to come up with a better solution than pursuing one or the other.
- Know your goals. In today’s highly digitized climate, it’s easy to get caught up in the wonderment of what smart tech could potentially accomplish. But far too often, leaders implement tech without taking the time to explore how this particular application may benefit the business. Understanding your goals at the outset is vital in determining whether a tech application can suffice or if you need human interaction. If you are looking to deliver a personalized experience, you may need both approaches. However, if you are strictly looking for efficiency, you may want to consider tech solutions (just don’t overlook the value in other performance indicators).
There is no denying that tech is here to stay. And its role in business will continue to grow as more and more functions can be handled by smart tech platforms. However, it is no substitute for human interactions – and this aspect of making leadership decisions should not be underestimated. Sometimes, customers just need to see the human face of your company. They need to feel heard and valued. As of right now, smart tech won’t deliver on this goal. It’s worth reflecting on any decisions you make as a leader and ensuring that they support the goals you are trying to achieve.