'Success in business is all about people, people, people.  Whatever industry a company is in, its employees are its biggest competitive advantage'.

I came across this quote from Richard Branson in a Linkedin post this week, a timely reminder as the debate about automation replacing humans in customer service continues.
History is littered with examples of human resource being replaced by technology or process change; typing pools being a recent but significant example.  With 70% of a customer service budget associated with employing people in contact centres, it is tempting to remove large swathes of this cost through automation. The multi-million dollar question for just about every large organisation in our network is how to effectively replace human voice with slick self-serve, rather than simply creating another lane in the ever growing multi-channel motorway. Or, put another way, how can we ensure that investments in new technologies can be matched with the needs of customers who want one and done self-serve transactions, but empathetic, skilled human interaction when required.
Ironically, rather than simply replacing humans, arguably good technologies are urgently required to allow humans to be 'more human', unencumbered with malfunctioning systems which create frustrating barriers.
Machines are better than humans at some things; they don't make transcription errors, or have emotional outages. Indeed the employers of the lady at the centre of this week's highly publicised row about the 'rudest rejection letter in history' to James the ex-service man, might wish that their rejection had been machine generated to avoid the ensuing negative publicity. Sarah, the employee (in fact director) in question had apparently written a more standard rejection in a second mail but sent her first "therapeutic rant' by mistake.
Earlier this month, Comcast in the USA hit a new customer service low when it added a rather inappropriate name to a customer bill. An employee changed a clients name to an expletive after the person tried to cancel the service. To add insult to injury a $60 cancellation fee was added with the said offending moniker on the bill when it arrived at the customer's home.
These examples are of course extreme anomalies; and a demonstration of a breakdown in culture and values, coupled with today's media transparency which makes a bigger disaster out of a bad situation.

According to Gartner, the majority of customer interactions will be in the self-service environment by 2017, leaving only one third with human interaction. The £3bn investment by Virgin Media to extend and improve broadband capability will help to speed up our interactions with many service providers; organisations must gear up to operate effectively in this new digital world.

50% of businesses will succeed in digital transformation in 24 months and in 5 years time 85% will have a digital business (Gartner).  By 2020, $1.9bn of economic value will have been attributed  to the ' internet of things'.  And indeed, it is reported the £3.8bn merger of Dixons and Carphone Warehouse has been chiefly based on the potential of the 'internet of things'.  

The burning question must surely be: ' What role does human interaction play in servicing this new world?' 

CCA Leadership Forum is tackling this important topic in a series of scenario testing in association with the Future Foundation.  We of course 'don't know what we don't know' but I'm inclined to concur with Richard Branson's view about the importance of people.

I seriously doubt we are going to stop being human anytime soon, and our demands for informed, helpful and professional service are likely to continue, ably assisted by technological advances that we haven't yet thought of but are likely just around the corner. In particular, advances in artificial intelligence raise lots of questions for how we relate to each other and organisations.

In the words of BF Skinner: 'The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do'.