When Digital Becomes Human

27th May 2015

Posted In: The Topic
When Digital Becomes Human

Before the movie E.T. came out, aliens were always inhuman. This lack of human qualities had always made aliens “bad” or something to be feared, but E.T. had a friendly face and a warm, human side which made everyone feel sympathy for him and built strong emotional relationship with not only the main characters in the film, but also audiences. This is what made him such a favourite for millions of people around the world.

Words: Prof. Steven Van Belleghem

The same will be true for successful customer relationships in the future. The best relationships can only be built on emotional content, so in an increasingly rational digitised world, the human element will still be required for businesses to create a strong bond with customers. It is something I call “When Digital Becomes Human.”

Technology will become the backbone

All of us rely on technology so much every day in both our professional and personal lives that it really has become a sixth sense for many people. The average family in the UK today has three pieces of technology linked to the internet, but by 2020 this will be more like ten, including items we use every day like our cars, coffee machines or even shoes.

Digitalisation has inevitably changed the relationship between consumers and companies. Interactions become increasingly digitally driven from start to finish for many companies and the distinction between online and offline blurring all the time. With this, today’s consumers are now used to self-service and automation, while smart data use and proactive customer service by some companies is making the battle to keep ahead in customer relationships a difficult one. It is typically companies that started online that currently lead the way, while others with an offline background lag behind in the digitalisation of their customer relations, and this may mean they face an uncertain future.


Digital will become the expected standard

Quite simply, whoever fails to make the transition to embrace digital will struggle to survive. Even companies that successfully make the transition will discover that it may not be enough to just win the hearts and minds of the customer.

It may surprise some, but digital transformation will also force companies to transform their human relations. Many will see self-service, automation and robots as dominating customer relations in future, but it is important to recognise people can still offer something that machines cannot – adding emotion into the customer relationship. For people to continue to play a valuable role in the customer relationship it is important that their focus is set on emotion – a computer cannot (yet) be creative, empathic or passionate, but people can.


Human touch will make the difference

I believe the best customer relationships of the future will be both digital and human. The way I see it, the reconfiguration of the customer relationship will run along two separate axes: “the digital” and “the human,” meaning companies will find themselves in one of four different situations:

1. A quick death

With neither digital nor human qualities at the heart of your customer relationships, I am afraid your business is likely to face a quick death. A good product, a good location and a good price are no longer enough to survive in the modern marketplace.

2. Strong today, not enough for tomorrow

A strong human relationship with your customers may only be enough to maintain a strong position in the market in the short term, as you may face danger from a slicker digital alternative that changes the customer relationship, and even the market.

Basic service provision will unquestionably need to become more digitalised, and that means going beyond simply having a website or social media presence to digitise all facets of your relationship with your customers.

3. A fighter’s market

Many of today’s leading digital companies like Amazon, Facebook and Booking.com are examples of this sector, as they have a strong digital presence but avoid human contact wherever possible. The number of companies that will be able to continue with this business model will be limited, and they will increasingly just be those companies that combine an excellent digital interface with low prices.

Many business leaders argue that companies must choose between operational excellence, product leadership or customer intimacy. However, as a strong digital relationship becomes the new norm for operational excellence, companies must also strive to provide excellent service and user friendliness. When an optimised digital interface becomes the expected standard (as it will), price may become the only remaining differentiator.

4. When digital becomes human

This final quadrant contains the new superstar companies that are transforming the digital world, like Uber and AirBnB. A recent study compared the customer perception of classic hotel booking sites like Booking.com with AirBnB, and while customers were satisfied with both AirBnB and Booking.com the intensity and strength of the customer relationship was far higher with AirBnB. The reason: because AirBnB offered a human connection.

I strongly believe that businesses must focus on combining a digital and a human customer relationship in order to thrive in the future. We are already seeing evidence that success is achieved through linking digital perfection with human emotion and the stronger the emotional relationship, the greater the success.

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is the author of ‘When Digital Becomes Human’, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99.