What do consumers really want? It's not technology, and it's not people. It's both.

Prior to 1969, the only way you could withdraw cash from a bank was to wait in line for a human teller.

By 2015, it was estimated there were approximately 3.5 million Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) worldwide. Four years later ATMs are on the decline, replaced by cashless payment systems and mobile payment services.

Thanks to technologies like Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology, I’m convinced my children will tell my grandchildren about the hardships they endured having to pay for goods or services at a “cash register.”

So, how far will technology’s displacement of human service providers go? Will we ever hit a point when all service will be provided by machines?

As a customer experience consultant, I spend a lot of time with leaders in small, medium, and large companies who are trying to plan for the future of human service delivery. Unfortunately, research on the issue is mixed.

Undoubtedly, consumer behavior has changed dramatically thanks to smartphone use. For example, a LivePerson study of Millennial and Generation Z customers shows:

  • 65 percent communicate digitally more than they do in person
  • 42 percent consider it acceptable to text at a family dinner
  • 70 percent sleep with their phone within arm’s reach (if they wake-up in the night, 52 percent check their phone)

The most head-scratching finding from that same study is that 29 percent even bring their phone into a shower or bath.

This type of data certainly foreshadows a world where all service is delivered through mobile and digital technologies. By contrast, however, a 2018 PwC study titled The Future of Customer Experience conducted across 12 countries suggests that, globally, consumers feel “businesses have lost touch with the human elements of customer service” and they “want to interact with a real person more as technology improves.”

Looking beyond conflicting research findings about the future of human service can be inferred from businesses who are achieving meteoric success through the service experiences they provide. One such business that has disrupted the travel industry is Airbnb. The company went from three air mattresses to a valuation of 38 billion dollars in just over 10 years. Airbnb leaders carefully stewarded the company’s success by maintaining a delicate balance between technology and people — what I call “technology-aided/human-powered” service.

At first glance, Airbnb can be viewed as a technology company. The founders (two design students and a software engineer) created a technology platform that serves as an easily accessible marketplace between people with spare living space and people looking for affordable, unique, or varied travel accommodations. However, a deeper analysis of the company reveals that Airbnb optimally leverages digital assets to create human connections that are personalized and memorable.

Airbnb demonstrates that like other “either/or” and “chicken or egg” debates, it is a mistake to assume people want either “technology service” or “human service.” Airbnb guests (like any customers, I suspect) want both technology and human service, depending upon the need state of the moment or the circumstance. Lessons from Airbnb are consistent with what we know about human behavior and what our business should be doing when it comes to deploying the best elements of technology and people:

Create options for your customers.

Provide technologies that enable self-service, effort reduction, and convenience.

Train your people to add uniquely human value.

To date, technology can’t approximate the warmth of an enthusiastic human greeting, the power of an authentic thank you, or the empathy of a person who seeks to truly understand another person’s needs.

Use technology to deliver practical value.

Technology can streamline business processes, increase efficiency, reduce duplicative effort, and expedite service access.

Position people to drive emotional value.

When technology glitches, customers want well-trained people immediately available to understand their frustration and create a solution. Customers also want to be seen, heard, understood, valued, cared for and cared about by other people. And they want people to help them feel a part of something bigger than themselves (community), and help them know that they belong at your business.

Efficient transactions on the Airbnb booking platform are essential, with quick load times, ease of navigation, and secure transactions. But the “memorableness” and “specialness” of an Airbnb stay ultimately relies on the quality of the product, the value for price, and the care and compassion of the Airbnb host. That’s the mix that will work for nearly any business, not just Airbnb.

Joseph Michelli

Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D., C.S.P., is an internationally sought-after speaker, author, and organizational consultant. His insights encourage leaders and frontline workers to grow and invest passionately in all aspects of their lives. Dr. Michelli is the author of numerous national bestsellers, including “The Starbucks Experience,” “The New Gold Standard,” and the New York Times #1 bestseller “Prescription for Excellence.” He was named as one of the Top 10 thought leaders in Customer Service by Global Gurus. His new book is “The Airbnb Way: 5 Leadership Lessons for Igniting Growth through Loyalty, Community, and Belonging (October 2019, McGraw Hill). Learn more at www.airbnbway.com.

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