The restrictions on movement and contact imposed in the battle against the Corona virus are forcing consumers to rely more heavily on digital channels and their tools for obtaining products and services. Companies are required to provide and support more extensive digital tools of self-service for customers to be used in their homes. Some companies (e.g., technology, consultancies) and professionals see the Corona pandemic crisis as an opportunity for accelerating and expanding the digital transformation of marketing, services, and commerce or retailing. The current situation supposedly proves how inevitable is the necessity of using digital, automated, sophisticated and self-service tools far more extensively in almost every area of our lives, any time. The reality, when taking into account the human factor, is more nuanced, and the approach to the widespread adoption of digital transformation ought to be more measured and contained.
The crisis situation we live in can be seen as a ‘lab’ for natural experiments with digital channels and tools under harsh conditions, namely the need to enable a fast transition of much greater numbers of consumers to the application of digital, remote self-service tools. The results experienced so far (i.e. March-April) have been mixed, revealing problems in different aspects of life that are important to consider. The situation created novel problems and aggravated familiar ones. The experience has often been that dramatically expanding the breadth of utilisation of online service utilities can quickly create bottlenecks that impair or inhibit the continuation of services. Large public agencies and businesses appear to have managed to increase the capacity of their websites enough to resolve bottlenecks at least partially. The problem is that when they routed citizens-consumers to these services they did not seem to be prepared for the consequences. An even more critical problem, that also seems to be more permanent, concerns the difficulties and complications that some users face in following procedures with online forms or interactive interfaces without being able to get timely human help (a smart chatbot, if available, may not be practical for them).
Here are some examples for where difficulties arise:
Online ordering and deliveries — It is important to note that some services do not conclude in the virtual online domain but follow into the physical domain for their fulfillment. A consumer who successfully completes his or her online order of food and household supplies may still have to wait for the delivery up to two weeks to arrive home, explained by the demand peaks during the Corona pandemic. That is mainly due to shortage in human workforce to prepare and bring the delivery to the customer’s home. As for other types of products, consumers have more free time at home to select products from e-commerce platforms and online stores of traditional retailers and submit orders, provided budget is available; however, deliveries may take longer to arrive (some deliveries, especially of imports, may be completely suspended now due to reduced transportation and Corona-related limitations). Robots for preparing deliveries and drones for bringing them to their destinations are still not commonplace (but autonomous self-driving vans with delivery robots could be coming in just a few years to help out).
Applications submitted online (e.g., services, benefits, permits) — That is where difficulties await especially the elderly, plus those who for any reason are not digital-savvy and do not feel comfortable with online forms and interactive tools. Although more of these people are obliged to join as users of digital tools, they may nonetheless struggle to complete their tasks successfully. Even the more savvy users can be annoyed by unfriendly and incoherent interfaces. Recently, newly unemployed expressed frustration and angst after failing to submit their applications online for benefits (e.g., because of website “jams” or not understanding what they have to do).
Access to banking and financial services — The digital transformation in these sectors is already under way in fast progress. Introducing the transformation deeper and in more functions threatens to detach whole customer segments from their financial assets — cash, savings, investments — by making it more difficult for them to monitor their accounts, and moreover give operative instructions. Banking in particular is built on trust and personal contact of customers with professional bankers that are in charge of safeguarding their assets. Digital banking brought to an extreme may have a horrendous effect on the institution of banking.
Distant learning for school pupils — The effort to get school pupils learn from home is being riddled with technical and pedagogic problems. The idea that school children (mainly ages 6 to 14) can take classes remotely in front of a computer screen by live video, having reduced touch with the teacher and their classmates, is not working so well. Learning is reduced to completing and sending assignments via digital channels. It is difficult enough to deliver courses online on a regular basis in academic institutions for adult students. This will even less likely produce better education for school children.
Calling for assistance by phone — Talking with a human customer service representative (CSR) should be sustained as a support channel in matters that cannot be resolved by customers with the aid of digital self-service tools (e.g., billing, complaints, more complicated technical issues). Handling voice service calls during the Corona pandemic shutdown has not been consistent. Companies with established infrastructure for remote work were better prepared for such contingency and could allow at least some CSRs to reply to service calls from their homes. But many companies told their customers to do whatever they could by using the self-service tools on their websites or apps. Concerns about cyber security also are said to play a critical role in companies’ decisions whether to permit access to their databases away from the call centre.
There is another angle, however, to look at the impact of the Corona pandemic on people. When there are such strict restrictions of social distancing and limited contact between humans, they are likely to seek opportunities to communicate with others. While face-to-face interactions in physical retail locations have been so far very limited to non-existent, and are expected to stay restrained even after lockdowns are lifted, communication modes such as phone calls, voice and verbal (text) chats with human service agents would be greatly appreciated. A chat with an intelligent virtual (robotic) agent enabled by AI is not very likely to satisfy this need. Of all times, consigning customers to interact to an even greater extent with digital tools and robotic devices may strengthen feelings of estrangement and isolation, which would be a tragic outcome of the pandemic crisis.
There are different courses of action in which intelligent robotic agents can be employed in chat interactions with customers — only a chatbot for the more standard enquiries (e.g., answering FAQs), early briefing to identify the issue at hand before escalating to a human service agent, or assigning the robotic agent later in a human chat to complete the job of helping the customer. But the more sophisticated and clever way for managing interactions could be of assigning a robotic agent to accompany a human service agent, to advise and refer him or her to relevant information and tools, during a chat or voice call with the customer. Great diligence should be applied in choosing how and to what extent smart robotic agents enabled by AI should be brought into interaction with customers. The concept of Intelligence Augmentation suggests that artificial intelligence (AI) should be utilised to complement human intelligence — helping the person with enhanced cognitive resources and capabilities, while retaining for him or her the autonomy to manage the overall task and make final decisions.
Digital transformation in services, marketing and commerce can deliver important advantages to consumers by making tasks faster, easier or more efficient to perform in their day-to-day lives. Yet, digital transformation cannot succeed while ignoring or pushing aside the human factor (e.g., needs, capabilities, feelings) of the users, customers and employees, who are expected to benefit from its tools and utilities. Digital-enthusiasts should be careful not to assume that digital solutions can work for everyone and for everything, every time. If the Corona pandemic hardship has proven anything until now in this regard, it is that the digital factor and human factor are strongly inter-related, and an organisation that will try to push ahead with the digital factor while leaving behind the human factor is bound to run into trouble with its customers. The customers should be given enough working options to achieve their goals in a way that suits them most satisfactorily.
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More suggested readings:
“Coronavirus: CIO Areas of Focus During the COVID-19 Outbreak“, Gartner, 6 March 2020
“Adopting Customer Experience in the Time of Coronavirus“, McKinsey & Co., April 2020