The Robots are Coming – Look Busy!

The Importance of Human Connection in an Increasingly AI World

By Amy Knowles, Senior Vice President, Research Strategy Group

It seems like every other post on my LinkedIn feed is something telling me about how AI will take over the world or that chatbots are the future. This got me thinking, what is the role of the human in customer interactions?

Just to be clear, this is not an anti-AI post. I have my concerns about AI – as do so many people a lot more educated on the topic than myself – but the reality is that it’s here and we must decide how we navigate through this new period of technological history. As we grapple to learn exactly what it can do and how, we must also decide what we want our role to be in the new world. What do humans need in order to thrive and get some value from AI?

Chatbots are probably one of the most obvious uses of AI to manage customer relationships and they are growing exponentially. The benefits of chatbots are numerous, or so the experts say. Here are just a few:

  • Chatbots can minimize the effort and time it takes for a customer to resolve an issue.
  • Chatbots are available 24/7, 365 days of the year.
  • They are highly efficient as they bring information from product related website pages direct to the consumer.
  • Devoid of human emotion, they can bring the same measured (and polite) response to customers.

However, all of this ignores a very simple human need: humans need and want to connect with each other. Sociality is at the very heart of human existence. According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, relational and belonging needs are superseded in importance only by survival and safety needs. Just as hunger and thirst motivate the search for food and water, the pain of unmet social needs (i.e., felt social isolation) motivates a search for social reconnection.

At our core, humans are very adaptive, and we create many ways to solve our problems. Technology is one way to do this. E.g. why stand in line at a teller when you can do your banking from the comfort of your own home? But when we encounter a problem with our account e.g. identity fraud, there is only one coping mechanism: to find a person to help you. Chatbots are not enough in this instance; we need a real live human to help us solve this problem. We are socialized to do this from the very first day of our lives – humans are born with one instinct, which is to find mother and get her to take care of you. This is a very basic human need and one we all turn to when we need help and comfort.

In an increasingly automated world, brands and companies that understand this need will thrive. Indeed, those that do understand this are thriving right now: just look at Best Buy.

It was assumed that Best Buy would become a victim of Amazon. However, the company is thriving, and some measure of its success is owed to their ‘Geek Squad’ – agents deployed to people’s homes to help customers with repairs and installations. The advisors act as ‘personal chief technology officers,’ helping people make their homes more functional.

Best Buy has understood one of the key needs of humans. When we don’t understand something or have a problem, i.e. the ‘what should I do?’ question, we seek other humans to help us solve this problem and navigate solutions to these problems.

Here are a few predictions that I expect to see in this new AI world:

  1. Transactional relationships will be owned by AI – if I just need something done very efficiently then a machine can handle it – an ATM is all I need to get cash and moving forward, if my phone can load cash onto it, I don’t even need an ATM.
  2. More companies will employ people to act as ‘trusted advisors.’ These are people with strong social skills who will act as relationship managers. These people are problem solvers and will be needed when customers want to discuss something they perceive may be challenging. The key will be to ensure that this is seen as true advice, and not just a ploy to sell them what you want them to buy. Best Buy succeeds by working to understand what the customer needs and tailoring their advice to these needs, not by trying to sell them some pre-determined piece of technology.
  3. Companies that thrive will ensure the AI and human connection go hand in hand. In the service industry, I expect to see more companies offering a choice between machine vs. human connection. In stores, brands would be foolish to remove all human store staff. Part of browsing a store, for some, is asking for opinions, chatting about your day etc. Offering the chance to interact is going to be critical for a brand’s success.

In my role as a strategic research advisor, I’m often shown new apps, websites and technological interfaces as evidence of how companies are putting the customers first. Often, though, these have been built from the technology up as opposed to asking, “is this solving a customer frustration?” and more importantly “do consumers need this?”. By ensuring consumer needs are at the centre of all technological advancement, companies will ensure that technology serves a purpose to humans. To achieve this, the consumer needs to be brought into the design process earlier. Listen to what consumers need, build to those needs, and then iteratively test to perfect.