Who are you implementing digital technology for?

The trump card in any debate around the challenges of doing business today is digital technology. Whatever the question is, the clever use of technology will solve that for you! I've said it myself multiple times, from making decisions in unpredictable times, and achieving a better work-life balance, to squaring the economics of the four-day work week and even going solo as an accountant. What a shame then, that so many companies, and especially big companies, are hiding behind the cloak of new technology and innovation to cut expenses at the cost of customer satisfaction.


Chat not

A glaring example of this is the chatbot. This technology is intended to improve customer service by providing 24/7 availability to help and information. And in turn, free up customer service teams to help customers with more complex questions than “what are your opening hours?” Unfortunately, if your query does not fit into the straight jacket of questions the company is happy to answer, you just simply don't get anywhere. Too often, at no stage are you offered actual human interaction.


Limitations with AI and natural language processing aside (if you don't magically happen upon the exact trigger phrase, the response you get is seldom better than random, but this is likely to improve) it sometimes feels that chatbots have been designed to be as unhelpful as possible. It's as if the lens used when designing the conversation flows is “what can this investment in technology do for our bottom line?” instead of “what can this technology do for our customers?”


It’s not good to talk

To be honest, this is just the tip of the iceberg is it not? We see the same thing with interactive voice response (IVR) systems. Again, these are supposedly put in place to help customers get the information they need faster and free up customer care to deal with more complex requests. In other words, let the machines do the things they're good at – repetitive, clearly defined tasks – and let the humans step in where they are best suited – engaging with empathy, offering human connection and understanding exceptions.


But it seems as if IVR systems are designed to never let you speak to a human, to the extent that you begin to wonder if a helpdesk behind the scenes actually exists... You get shunted into logical cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac with no back button. If your request doesn't fit into one of the preset scripts then, sorry you’re out, thanks for playing.


And what about don’t Contact Us

It used to be a simple matter to find the details for the company you wanted to contact. You’d go online and check out the “Contact Us” page on the company’s website to find a telephone number, email address and physical address. Today though, how many sites have a phone number or even an address? At best you get a form to fill in with an undertaking they will get back to you. Unfortunately, the response is often from a “this is an unmonitored mailbox” so if the reply does not answer your question, you are back to square one…


And if you do get a response from an individual, it is usually from a generic mailbox and signed by an identity-less Trish or Pete without a personal email address or telephone number.


So once again it is almost impossible to have a 30-second conversation with a real human who would be able to answer your question immediately. Instead, you are forced into an endless cycle of “customer service innovations” – driving you to distraction and, it seems, almost deliberately obstructing you, the customer, from access to the business. And they call this progress?


Self-congratulatory sleight of hand

Then, to add insult to injury, those same companies release self-congratulatory press releases telling the world about their innovations and the digital technology they have deployed to benefit their customers. They add a ticker tape to their websites displaying exemplary customer service response times which in no way reflect the experience of anyone trying to speak to them in real life.


Look, at a very literal level, this strategy (because I do feel it is a deliberate strategy) does deliver on one of its promises: cost savings. With a strategy like this, you can reduce your customer service team, relocate them to Timbuktu, and de facto dismiss any customer query that doesn't fit your ideal profile.


But at what cost? Your brand reputation, customer loyalty and trust will inevitably suffer. The rule of thumb is that it costs five to seven times more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. So best those cost savings from cutting customer service be redeployed into sales and marketing, else your business is going to go into reverse pretty quickly.


But more than this, if your approach to digital technology at a systemic level is not balanced between customer service and cost savings, what does this mean for the potential of technology to build the workplace and business of the future? Will these companies ever unlock the efficiency and productivity gains promised by technology if their motivations are so far from the mark?


Real customer service

Companies need to end the charade that the technology they implement makes things better for their customers if they are not going to implement the technology correctly and with that motivation. Just because the bar is low, it doesn’t mean the smart thing to do is to match that, especially in an economic downturn. Instead, take the opportunity to do things properly, and win and retain loyal customers. This is likely to result in a far bigger boost to your bottom line, which will continue well beyond the current tough economy.


As published in AccountingWeb - 28 September 2022