Technology, Service, and Dehumanization

My pal the great Paul Hebert had a fantastic piece over on Fistful of Talent titled 'What HR Should be Thinking About in 2013', an examination of some of the most important and interesting business and product/service challenges facing organizations, and how HR departments can or should be responding to these challenges. The entire piece is excellent, and I encourage you to read it all, but I wanted to call out two (related), trends Paul highlighted and compare them to another, different example where business, policy, and pragmatism seems to be at odds with what we 'know' to be sound business advice.

Retro Robot

First - the two bits from Paul's piece at FOT:


The crucial element in any customer experience is still people, no matter how much technology has transformed the landscape. The larger an organization, the more it relies on the thousand tiny decisions its frontline employees make on a daily basis. And listening to their collective wisdom is more important than ever.

NOTE TO HR:  Nothing really to add here – just go read that paragraph 100,001 times before starting your next initiative.


There’s almost no transaction that can’t be automated today, from buying groceries to learning about health issues. And customers are starting to resist. Look for places to act more human. 2013 reverses the trend toward automated everything, as humanity becomes the crucial differentiator between a beloved brand and a commodity.

NOTE TO HR:  This is my mantra for 2013 and on. Just change the word customer to employee in the previous paragraph.  It truly is about BEING HUMAN.  And you all SHOULD be the experts at it!

Both of these trends or areas of focus boil down to essentially the same thing - the return of the importance of real and human interaction at the most important customer touchpoints -, which for many kinds of industries are often the responsibility of the most junior and lowest-paid employees. Think call center reps, cashiers, customer service agents, food service folks, the guy who parks your car at the valet - you get the idea. So the advice from both Fast Company and Paul makes perfect sense - listen to your front-line staff, make your organization more 'human', don't jump to automation just for its own sake, etc. 

Hard to disagree with that line of reasoning. Or maybe not so hard. Take a look at an excerpt from another piece from the Wall St. Journal online titled, 'Can the Tablet Please Take Your Order Now?':

"Carla Hesseltine is considering buying a few tablet devices for her bakery so customers can place orders for her signature M&M cupcakes on their own, straight from the counter.

The reason: She fears the $7.25 an hour that she currently pays her 10 customer-service employees, mostly college students, could rise, perhaps to $9 an hour under a pledge by President Barack Obama earlier this month.

In order for her Just Cupcakes LLC to remain profitable in the face of higher expected labor costs, Ms. Hesseltine believes the customer-ordering process "would have to be more automated" at the Virginia Beach, Va., chain, which has two strip-mall locations as well as a food van. Thus, she could eliminate the 10 workers who currently ask customers what they would like to eat."

Did you get all of that? A local cupcake shop thinks it smart, cost-effective, and beneficial to replace their front-line, low-paid workers, the ones that make up the vast majority of customer touchpoints, with a couple of iPads and a custom menu app that will allow customers to place orders without having to actually talk to any of the staff.

And Ms. Hesseltine's cupcake shop isn't the only one thinking about how technology and automation can reduce or even eliminate or at least reduce the human interaction between customers and front-line staff. More from the WSJ piece:

"Tarang Gosalia, of Cambridge, Mass., hopes he can get away with having fewer employees waiting on customers at the three hair-salon franchises and one frozen-yogurt outlet he owns by using Square, a three-year-old technology brand designed to streamline credit-card transactions. He is planning to test it out starting in June to see if it will make accepting payments easier and faster for his staffers—and therefore allow him to downsize. About 70% of the 35 employees who work for his combined businesses currently earn $8 an hour, the minimum pay required in his state. Raising prices to offset the higher payroll costs strikes him as too risky, because he worries his sales may suffer.

Some entrepreneurs see a promising market in selling technologies to small businesses that might help them to streamline operations and do away with low-wage workers, or retrain them for higher-skilled jobs. An automatic hamburger flipper currently in development could replace low-wage line cooks at a beachside burger joint, for example."

FastCompany could very well be correct, that '"2013 reverses the trend toward automated everything, as humanity becomes the crucial differentiator between a beloved brand and a commodity", but as the examples from the WSJ piece tell us, at least for small businesses, (and I bet many large ones as well), cost, compliance, and even the lack of available talent are still conspiring to drive organizations to at least consider further automation and technology-driven substitutions for human interaction.

Technology can be liberating, it can free up time and resources for people and organizations to actually provide better customer experiences, but it also can be really dehumanizing at the same time. When tablets replace counter help, when robots are the new short-order cooks, when the check-in, check-out and everything in between becomes just a series of user interfaces, touch screens, and customer-machine interactions, we are moving in the opposite direction from humanity as a differentiator.

I think the real challenge for HR and business in 2013 (and beyond) isn't deciding whether or not to automate, but rather making the critical decisions about where and how the organization can afford to automate and where it can't.

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