By Ian Whitworth
Audio version read by realistic voiceover robot: 6 mins
Hello, fellow human.
(That’s just how an AI writing bot would open, so don’t feel too reassured.)
If you own or run a business, you’re wondering: how do you stop the AI invasion replacing you and your soft, puny, carbon-based staff?
Other than by rehearsing the line “I for one welcome our new robot overlords”?
Here’s one thought: teach your front-line people to break the rules.
Process Makes People = Robots
The traditional and still popular approach to business is: develop a bulletproof process that you can scale. So management becomes a task of machine-like adherence to the rule book. Variations are measured and logged. Errors are punished.
If you program your staff to behave like machines, why on earth would you be surprised when they get replaced by robots?
I’m an optimist, and not super-worried that AI will destroy all our jobs. There will be new jobs. But I have absolute faith in the ability of big business to take new technology and turn it into an annoying experience because they’re focused on its awesome cost-cutting features.
This is your chance to stand out from their robot army. Give your staff the freedom and the skills to step outside the flow chart when it doesn’t matter.
Because lots of processes are written for the lowest-common-denominator. Applying them uniformly to all your customers sends them a message: you are no different to our worst, stupidest customer ever.
Make People Feel Like Individuals
You can’t break the rules all the time, or your business will be a total monkey-house and you’ll lose money.
But only a human will ever be able to look someone in the eye and make an exception to the system. The judgement call that makes that moment more convenient, and makes your customer feel like an individual.
Hire the sort of people who will look at the mother struggling with shrieking kids on a wet day and go: I’m going to cut you a break here. She will tell others.
Your staff become experienced judges in the Court of Customer Service, with the wisdom to know when to go lenient (and when to hand down zero-tolerance to scammer clients).
While your cost-cutting competitors become more like your US airport security experience, crushing customer spirits with no-exceptions process assisted by ever-more-intrusive technology.
Humans = Accountability
The bigger theme is a decline of responsibility in business. If you have a face-to-face conversation with a person they are taking some sort of responsibility. They’re less likely to go back on their promises, and they can be held accountable.
Accountability gets harder to find. Go to the contact page of any big company website now, and good luck finding a phone number, you’ll need a Dark Web browser for that.
Everyone focuses on Apple’s nifty product design and branding as the foundation of its success. But their huge, underrated benefit is when stuff ain’t working, you can always talk to someone who cares.
I recently heard someone spruiking a “disruptive” financial planning service which keeps fees low with “advanced software that saves on the expense of staff and branch offices”.
Translation: you’ll be trapped in a AI rat maze designed to block your attempts to talk to a human. This isn’t buying a t-shirt. This is the management of your life savings, and they want you to trust the machines all the way*.
When, inevitably, there is trouble, nobody is there to hear your story. “Please, tell Ms Perky Chatbot your long history of service nightmares for the third time, after the beep.”
If that advisory firm gets into financial trouble, where do you go? Who do you call? Without offices, old-school though they may be, how we know it’s not just a super-professional, long-game Russian hacker scam?
Plenty of people are prepared to pay over the odds to avoid this dystopian anti-service future. Time is money. Or for working mothers, time is a distant memory. If you can save people from being dicked around for hours, they’re interested. It’s never been so important that your people remember those customer conversations and promises, and deliver on them.
AI/digital experience designers are getting better at faking the human touch with customer service avatars and the like, but people still instinctively know they’re dealing with code, and that’s OK.
Customers are just fine with code for routine transactions, and it’s vital to embrace that inevitable change.
Build your business advantage around the non-routine, and find the gaps robots can’t get through. They will always exist.
Never Forget Hairdresser Syndrome
If you have a personal relationship with a business, you feel bad about dumping them.
So many people live with awful hair, thanks to the fear that if they dump their hairdresser, the one they have nice conversations with, they will run into them in the street one day and have to explain why they don’t go there any more.
Replace that front-line human touch with automation, and from an emotional viewpoint, you’re just a vending machine.
Consider the role of robots in movies: to get killed in vast numbers, and nobody gives a damn. That’s the marketplace of tomorrow. Another automated supplier comes along that’s 0.5% cheaper and your robots get dumped cold, and left to rust out in the badlands.
Start training your human resistance fighters now.
* You could argue that robots don’t get hidden kickbacks either. I’m not saying all humans are good.
If you liked this, you might also enjoy Positioning: Why Should Your Business Even Exist? on building a foundation that will make you stand out from the vast herd of competitors.
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