The first time I recall obsessing over it was the late 1990s. businesses were increasing geometrically.  The banking industry hurtled toward Y2K.  It seemed that everyone in the banking industry was building business cases for investing in online banking platforms.  Business cases were aspirational on revenue growth – who really knew if people would pay extra for online access?  Tight-fisted finance types smelled the uncertainty.  They wanted cost take-outs.  Branch rationalization, headcount reductions – things they knew they could control.  It was a dilemma of technology and people: drawing the lines in delivery for the perfect blend.

What Will Customers Do?

Over two decades have passed since those early debates.  From a banking perspective, what is clear is that customers will not pay a premium for online access to accounts.  They expect the convenience.  But they are capable and willing to perform basic functions on their own in an online session that reduces the cost of human interaction for banks.  While not what they may have thought originally, it must be a good deal for banks.  I see them continuing their investment in online capabilities, testing the limits of what customers are willing to do for themselves if guided properly.

My personal experiences with technology outside the banking industry over the past ten years have not been as pleasant.  I remember finally jumping in to Facebook at the urging of my family, only to discover that Chip was not a “real name”.  I still do not understand the security or image concerns, especially after discovering some of the other names in use on Facebook.  Some of them were a jumbled mess of connected words at least thirty characters long.  No way to contact a human being to plead my case.  Just a jumbled up set of FAQs that effectively screamed “NO!” at me.

Artificial Intelligence Not Quite There Yet

I imagine that advances in artificial intelligence will ultimately eliminate that helpless feeling of being lost in FAQ world.  For now, the business community has engaged in wishful thinking.  I speak speaking only from my personal experience across many providers including website hosting, conferencing technology, other social media platforms, and video production platforms.  When it comes to technology and people, certain segments of the business community have refused to accept the relevance of human beings as an essential element of the client experience.

The COVID economy has pushed industry sectors with low historical technology usage into the technology and people dilemma. The hardest hit sectors have been the most innovative and aggressive in exploring what clients are willing and capable of doing on their own leveraging technology.  At least from my perspective.  Online ordering platforms have taken root at coffee shops, bakeries, and even restaurants suited for takeout.  My best experiences have been those in which the human touch have not been forgotten despite the efficiency and effectiveness of the technology.

A Recent Personal Experience

Just this past weekend, I went to place a substantial online takeout order for a family gathering at the legendary Germantown Commissary in Germantown, TN.  The online ordering system had all kinds of combinations available.  I felt a bit overwhelmed and called my wife in for a consultation to get the best offering for our group.  I worked my way through the order screen and got to the final screen – select your pickup time.  Unfortunately, the calendar date was dark – 24 hour lead time required.  Scarred by too many online service nightmares, I grimaced that I had blown it for my family.  Everyone was excited to get some Germantown Commissary.  Then, just a faint sense of hope…knowing the Commissary the way I did, I wondered if they would be open to a phone order.

I called directly, got a human being on the phone on the second ring, and had the most pleasant and helpful selling experience.  My wife and I had put together two combination packs to meet the needs of our guests.  The phone host reviewed the order and asked “why don’t you just buy this combination over here?  You get all the same meats at a lower cost, and you will not have twice the amount of sides that you could ever use?”  Wow!  And, no problem picking up at 6:45.  We will see you then!

The Equation Changes as Technology Changes

I imagine at some point in the future, someone will have figured out how to program order maximization into online ordering systems.  Help me figure out best price for the right quantity with as little waste as possible.  Maybe they already have, and Germantown Commissary is just not using that specific one today.  All I know is that I was so happy to talk to a human being at that point and gain the benefit of their expert menu knowledge.  It seemed a perfect recipe of technology and people.  Whatever work I had done online on my own certainly expedited the phone experience.

Do Not Forget The Unique Client

Every business has clients with unique needs, ones that cannot be anticipated by FAQs and current programming use cases.  If we can be realistic about the capabilities of technology and draw an appropriate line at which a transfer needs to take place to human interaction, the client experience is actually enhanced.  People are glad to use technology for convenience and accuracy, until it is not convenient or accurate.  At that point, the client defection risk rises to an unacceptable level.  Hang on!  In this economy, we cannot afford to lose anyone.