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Why smart companies refuse to make technology the superstar

I ordered a bike for my grandson from my favorite bike shop. I called a few weeks later to get an update on the delivery date.

The employee who answered didn’t say, “Hello.” She didn’t say, “(ACME) Bike Shop.”

Nope. “Hi Jeff,” she said. “Are you calling about the 24-inch Trek bike you ordered?”

“Um, actually… yes,” I stammered.

“We were going to call you later today,” she said. “We just found out it should get here next Wednesday. We’ll assemble it and have it ready for you by noon on Thursday.”

“Great,” I said.

“I know it’s a long trip for you,” she said. “Is there anything else you need while you’re here? I know we performed our Service Special A on your Cannondale last year, and we’re running a special on it through the end of the month.”

“No, I’m okay,” I said. (I’m the king of reflexively turning down sales offers.) But that sparked another thought. “But I did get a new bike recently and I’m not happy with the setup. When I come in next Thursday afternoon to pick up my grandson’s bike, could Tim do a bike fit for me?”

She was quiet for a couple seconds. “It looks like Tim is available between 2 and 4,” she said. “Does anything in that window work for you?”

“How about 2.30?” I asked.

“Done,” she said. “We have your measurements your last bike fitting, so that will make this one go faster. I’ll send you an email the day before reminding you to bring your cycling shoes and the different pedals you use.” She paused for a second. “Hey, are you riding the Gran Fondo next year?”

We talked about that event. We talked about an upcoming manufacturer demo day. We talked about rides I had done, and she shared a cool route she had discovered.

It was both a professional and a friendly call. Rarely are both the case: At least in my experience, people ill equipped to help you tend to try to mask that fact with forced geniality. People who can help tend to be brisk and matter of fact, as if effectiveness is sufficient.

After I hung up, I said to myself, “Wow. She’s a superstar.”

But then I thought about it. How many people could be superstars if they had the tools available to allow them to leverage their intelligence and expertise?

The shop’s system recognized my phone number and loaded my CRM data. She instantly had access to my current order, my past orders, my past service history… and even a few personal details. She could instantly check the bike fit specialist’s calendar and book my appointment.

Providing her with the right information allowed her smarts, friendliness, and emotional intelligence to shine.

Technology Should Never Be the Star

Oddly enough, though, technology is usually the superstar.

Take Amazon. Ordering is easy. Checking order status is easy. Returns are easy. A variety of processes are reliable and intuitive.  Amazon’s site is a superstar; it’s clearly best-in-class.

But when you need to talk to a person? Ugh. The two times I contacted customer service were painful. Dealing with the website is exponentially easier than dealing with a person.

That’s true for many businesses. I’ll often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out a problem using digital tools in order to avoid contacting a real person, whether on the phone or through chat.

Partly that’s habit; if nothing else, long wait times have conditioned most of us to avoid contacting customer service.

But that’s also because we don’t expect real people to be able to actually help us. And if they do, it’s only after a long and painful series of canned responses.

(My least favorite script recitation is when a customer service rep who has failed to resolve my issue asks if there is anything else they can help me with. “Why would I bring up another problem when you didn’t help me with the first one?” I always want to say.)

Those businesses see customer service as a cost center. They know they’ll get calls or chat requests. They know some people want to talk with a real person. The bottom-line key is to handle those interactions as inexpensively as possible.

Others see customer service as a sales opportunity. The cable company rep who won’t let you off the phone until you’ve heard all about the latest promotion.

The insurance company rep who uses the time “while he waits for the system to update” to try to sell you an umbrella policy.

The manufacturer rep who offers you a one-time special on an extended warranty. Since the rep has quotas to meet or incentives to earn, the focus is much more on sales than on problem resolution.

Even though no one experiencing a problem is in any mood to make an unrelated purchase.

Nope: Technology is usually the superstar.

Which makes no sense.

People buy products and service from companies, but ultimately people do business with people. Brand loyalty can result from convenience. Brand loyalty can be “purchased” through deals, discounts, and rewards.

But true loyalty, a genuine allegiance to a brand or product based on an incredible level of satisfaction — and even feeling a personal connection to the people behind the brand or product – is the ultimate goal for any business.

And is a true competitive advantage.

As Pete Hanlon, CTO at Moneypenny who answer outsourced calls, live chat and digital comms for businesses globally says: “It’s certainly true that technology is getting ever better at enhancing the human communications experience. At Moneypenny we build technology that leverages the latest in AI in order to make our PA’s the very best they can be.

“We’re working with systems to bring information to the PA in real time during conversations so that they can concentrate on the customer rather than searching for information. What is important is that tech enables rapid, efficient communications through real human beings, rather than replacing them.”

That’s why, even though I like the bike shop’s products, and I value their service, I’m not loyal because they give me deals. Or because they’re convenient; I now live three hours away.

I’m loyal because they’ve always treated me like a person, not just a customer. I’m loyal because the relationship feels like it’s more than just business.

In part, their technology helps them create that relationship. It’s superstar level.

Because, like other smart companies, they make the technology takes a back seat to their people.

Because your people should always be the stars.

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