Article Modern Retail Q4 2021
By John Ring*
Have you heard the one about the man who drove his Ford Fiesta down a railway line and explained to the police that his sat nav had told him to take a right at the level crossing? It’s not a joke, actually, but a true story. And it demonstrates a couple of points. The first is that common sense is less common than we’d hope. The second is that automated systems – who knew? – can be fallible. If only the sat nav had said “take a right after the level crossing” and not “at”. But the thing is: automation is only as good as the people or budget that creates it.
To bring this round to what you care about: we’re currently in a mad race to crush cost out of ecommerce fulfilment. I know of some leading carriers who are cutting themselves to ribbons on price in order to secure UK market share. It’s good for people who want cheap fulfilment for the time being, but it can’t last because it’s unsustainable, and the endgame will be fewer players who can carve the market up between them and who’ll all want to charge more.
But they’ll still strive to keep costs down – and margins up – by embracing automation. Which raises the question: how much customer service automation is too much? In my view we’re already close to the point where ecommerce fulfilment is over-automated, to the detriment of the customer experience.
Computer says “no”
One of the big problems with automation, of course, is that it’s a blunt tool. Who among us has not wanted to tell a courier that we’ll be home until 11am, but then we have a dentist’s appointment and will be back by 1pm, but that depends on the dentist, and we might need a lie down afterwards depending how things go, in which case we’d rather not be disturbed? But try explaining that to an automated system and the computer will say “no”. Automated systems fall over as soon as it gets complicated.
Automated systems are also insensitive. Hence you get the automated delivery notification systems that give customers a blow-by-blow account of the journey of their parcel, by text and email, whether they want it or not. The irony is that these over-zealous updates are masquerading as “good customer service” when in fact they’re just more noise in a noisy universe that eats up people’s time to no benefit and can begin to hack them off.
But worse still, these systems are often inaccurate. They predict a delivery time, but don’t anticipate and allow for adverse weather, traffic accidents, or Bank Holiday weekends. Nor do they anticipate a really common issue: that the delivery driver can’t find the address when they’re within the last mile. This is why you need a telephone number and a sentient human being. Otherwise the customer experience is that the automated system is lying to them – meaning the automation utterly fails to achieve the result it claims to deliver.
Nine circles of hell
Another issue is that customers get burned so often by automation that they begin to expect poor customer service. Who hasn’t dialled a customer support ‘helpline’ in hope and anticipation, and quickly realised that instead they’ve plunged headlong into one of the nine circles of hell?
It begins with some oddly chosen music on a short loop, and then the chance to select from an extensive menu of options (“Dial 1 if you’re a potential new customer and we want to butter you up; Dial 2 if you’re an existing customer and we’re not fussed”).
You then kiss the next 20 minutes of your life goodbye hearing over and over how much your call matters to them, interspersed with: “By the way, it would really help us out if we can fob you off to the Q&A on the website.” By now you’re highly exasperated and ready to put the phone down. The result too often can be very unhappy customers – not at all what the automation aimed to achieve.
So what’s the solution? Well, ultimately, it’s better ecommerce fulfilment automation: systems that can not only process natural language but also pick up and respond appropriately to emotion and nuance. But that’s expensive. Most current mainstream automation is around 70% effective. Getting that up to 99% takes a huge investment and won’t happen for some time.
In the meantime, there’s considerable competitive advantage to be gained from actually delighting customers by answering the phone using a human being who can respond intelligently. Who can have a conversation about the range or suggest alternatives for something out of stock and build some human rapport. It has almost the same novelty value as receiving a handwritten letter in the post.
But perhaps you’re saying, “Ah, but how much does that cost?” Well, the fact is it doesn’t have to cost more. Lean, as a management philosophy, teaches us that we can deliver perfect value to customers through creating zero waste. Extraneous alerts and the non-resolutions generated by automated systems waste time and energy. Instead, create zero waste by using experienced people to make sure that every step in the process adds value and that there are no errors in the first place. Do things quickly, accurately and well. Anticipate problems and head them off. This is how you assure customer delight.
If you know anything as an ecommerce retailer, it’s that retaining customers costs less than acquiring them. So keep the ones you have by ensuring a top-quality customer experience that is driven by humans. By all means use quality ecommerce automation where it works but use people to help build the customer relationship and add value, rather than kill the relationship with clumsy automation.