Technology Changing the Face of Customer Relationships

“Our business is about technology, yes. But it’s also about operations and customer relationships.” – Michael Dell

It would be normal to expect that even customer service would be affected by technology, given its permeation in every aspect of life. Companies are increasingly delivering service through technology, and most of the ‘requests’ are initiated by the customer. Technology has changed the face of customer relationships, since now most transactions and interactions do not require the presence of an actual person / service personnel. There are several such instances – withdrawing money at an ATM, retrieving account details via the phone, getting basic information about services via the IVR, and other such activities, that do need customers to interact with a representative of a company. Such ‘digitized interactions’ have significantly cut down on the kind of social and emotional connections customers had with companies and their representatives.

For companies too, technology has changed the face of customer relationships, making it more challenging. In the past, there were but a few ways for customers to interact with companies. However, now there are an innumerable number of channels and devices, through which customers can connect with companies, and do so at any time and from anywhere. Technology seems to have blurred the lines and transcended boundaries of time, location, and other such constrictions. While this may have added to the challenges of companies of serving customers well, it has also opened new avenues to improve the face of customer relationships and significantly increase business by adapting to this dynamic technological era. In addition, delivering customer service through technology-based methods, such as self-service, is more beneficial to companies than customers. These methods are efficient, reliable, and definitely cheaper for the service providing company. An IVR for example is available around the clock – no breaks or holidays, allowing customers to access these systems anytime and from anywhere. This has changed the face of customer relationships, since it puts control of the interactions, in the hands of customers, a lot more than they could ever have over service representatives. Of course, the challenge for companies is to ensure that the systems work efficiently all the time.

If companies were to make consistent efforts, it would be possible to change, for the better, the face of customer relationships. It is required to ensure that the support services, systems, and people providing the customer service, function efficiently and consistently. The systems must be accurate, the service employees should display empathy, courtesy, knowledge, and a genuine desire to help, which in turn would create emotional bonds with customers. In whatever manner a company decides to assist its customers, it must ensure that customers perceive and receive value at every interaction with the company. The expectation is that technology should, if working efficiently, improve the quality of interactions and overall customer service provided by a company. For customers ease and comfort of these interactions is paramount, and companies must understand the needs and expectations of its customers in order to deliver effective and efficient service.

Systems based on technology can create value and change the face of customer relationships, by empowering customers to conduct certain transactions and interactions on their own, without having to wait for service representatives to be present or for a company to begin its hours of operation during the day. When the systems work well, they help customers to complete their interactions and get what they want in a timely and efficient manner, leading to positive feelings about the company, which in turn changes the way a customer may begin to interact and conduct business with the company. However, on the other side, technology changes the softer side of customer relationships. The prevalence of technological systems eliminates or leaves very little opportunity for a customer to have a personal interaction with the company and its employees, and as such, these system-based interactions do not take customer emotions and feelings into account. While a real person can feel or judge the customer’s emotions, and do something about it, system based service is incapable of doing so, which could leave the customer feeling uncared and unimportant.

We know that one of the top priorities and expectations of customers today is to receive personal attention and have humane interactions with companies in which they invest their time and money. However, systems do not afford such ‘emotional exchanges’, which could negatively impact the face of customer relationships, and despite a company’s best efforts, could leave customers frustrated. It is important for a company, as mentioned before, to make customers feel special and valued in every service interaction, and through every touch-point of the company. However, with the increasingly pronounced use of technology-based ‘interactions’, the emotional and social factors are completely negated and missing. While technology may enhance efficiency and accuracy, it ignores the special human connection that customers want to experience with companies.

As mentioned, while technology can change the face of customer relationships from efficiency, accuracy, and speed levels, it does not promote the creation and sustenance of an emotional connection and bond. For customers, it is important to be able to trust and know that they can depend on a company, if they are to remain loyal and profitable for it. Technology does not incite and encourage feelings of friendliness, empathy, appreciation, or even customization. Customers, who may be loyal to a particular company or brand, would speak about how they ‘feel’ about the company in terms of its service, the pleasant interactions with the representatives, and other such ‘soft’ aspects. How many times have you heard customers say that they feel connected to a company because the IVR works efficiently? While efficiency may contribute towards changing the face of customer relationships, it is but a portion of the overall warm emotions, feelings, and connection that customers have towards a company because of the direct and personal interactions they may have. To achieve the highest level of customer relationships and bonds, a company would need to strike a balance between technology and interpersonal interactions that it provides to its customers.

The fact is that technology seems to be evolving and developing faster than companies can keep pace – meaning that they are unable to ramp up their service quality and enhance customer relationships to match the pace of technological advancement. What this means is that while new customers may be able to take a number of actions and engage in self-service, the opportunities to personally interact and feel connected to a company are few and far between. Is it surprising then that feelings of loyalty and emotional connections are fast dwindling, and customers stay on with a company only as long as they get better deals from some other?

Hence, while technology may have changed the face of customer relationships, the point to consider is whether the erosion of personal contact and emotional bonds will benefit companies. Companies will soon be relegated to ‘opportunities and things’ by customers since they would not have any emotions and feelings for them in the absence of or reduced numbers of personal interactions. Is your company too at risk of being vulnerable to being taken for granted, and always at risk to losing customers to another company offering something better at any given point of time? Customers demand attention – hence companies would need to understand whether technology is changing customer relationships for the better, or would they need to use technology only to complement their efforts towards creating and sustaining emotional bonds and connections with customers.

 

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