At the start of 2020, the world’s population is more connected than ever. Technology has given us the freedom to access goods and services with ease. We can work, study, shop, eat, manage finances, socialise and be entertained without leaving our house.
Even if we do head out to the supermarket, the bank or the doctor’s surgery, we face self-service machines. We scan our own groceries, pay in cheques (yes, they do still exist!) and sign ourselves in without relying on another person to do it for us.
This digital world can be very convenient. We are no longer tied to opening hours and less of our time is spent waiting in queues. Greater flexibility is at our fingertips. For businesses, technology has enabled them to operate more efficiently, cut staffing costs and be open for business around the clock. It all sounds great, but is there a flip side?
Whilst it makes sense for organisations to invest in technology which supports efficiency and profitability, there should be a balance. The human element remains an essential part of good customer service.
There are times when it is easier to explain what you need in a conversation; not every request will fit into a tick box. The internet is great when we know exactly what we want. There are, however, times when we know the outcome we desire, but not what is needed to get there. We rely on expert knowledge and insight to inform us of what is possible.
In addition, it can be great to talk. Digital technology may have made us more connected than ever, but, ironically, it has also resulted in higher levels of loneliness, depression and emotional isolation. A brief chat with the person at the sales counter or reception desk could be the only personal interaction that will be had that day.
Even with the knowledge and tools to make use of automated processes, I still sometimes choose to be served by a real person, even if I have to wait in line.
Having Customer Service Back-up
There are also occasions when technology lets us down. In June 2018, Visa’s payment system crashed. Suddenly being able to pay by card or withdraw money from the cashpoint left many people stuck. This was a major incident, but on a smaller scale, it is a rare joy when you complete a self-service checkout without needing to request assistance.
Digitally Isolated Customers
The real problem comes when you consider those without the tools or skills to benefit from digital processes. As of March 2018, 5 million people in the UK did not have access to the internet (through choice or circumstance). 8% of the population have no digital skills and were unable to undertake basic tasks. 21% of the population did not have a smartphone.
Without alternative options, these customers are being neglected. They still need to ring the surgery to make a doctor’s appointment, visit the cashier to pay the bills, receive communication through the post. Your fantastic new App is no use to them.
Knowledge Barrier to Accessing Digital Services
It is often the most vulnerable customers that struggle with technology. In an Age UK report, it highlighted that digital isolation was most common in the 65+ age group. A generation who grew up with practical, not technological skills.
Financial Barrier to Accessing Digital Services
For those on a low income, the barrier can be affording to pay for broadband or a smartphone, even if they could use it. Even catching a bus to get to the nearest library to log on can be a stretch on their finances. Having identified the need, many UK social housing groups are now implementing support programmes to help their residents to build digital confidence.
Cognitive Barrier to Accessing Digital Service
For those who struggle to remember information, the need to safely retain a series of strong passwords and pin numbers is a problem. Imagine how stressful it is when you need to process a payment and have no recollection of the number.
The Impact of Digital Isolation
By nature, vulnerable customers are often less confident about asking for help. If there are barriers to them accessing services, they may avoid taking action. If there is no other option available, they may go without. In some cases, the company’s failure to support customers to complete a process can be detrimental to that individual and their dependents.
Informing Customers of the Options
This brings me to the final point. If your organisation does offer alternatives to digital interactions, how is this communicated? Are you confident that all your customers are aware there is another way?
If you move all customers over to new systems and simply provide an ‘opt-out’, how do you know that your customers have made an informed choice? If all bills and statements are now available for those who log in to their account to view, how can digitally isolated customers keep track?
Change is necessary for progress and technology has brought benefits to many customers, but who has slipped through the net?
If there are gaps in provisions, vulnerable customer training could help boost your organisation’s knowledge, confidence and resources for those in greatest need.