The world is fascinated by the potential of the future. Over 25 years ago we were enamoured by the possibility of flying cars and hoverboards thanks to ‘Back to the Future’. Ever since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, we’ve been desperate to voyage to Mars and beyond.

While 2021 may not look as technologically advanced as some had hoped (it remains to be seen if Busted’s prediction of living underwater in 3000 will come to fruition), we are still striving for an intelligently digital future with the likes of virtual reality, robotic automation, and artificial intelligence high on the list of priority investments.

But while we head towards this future, are we craving the simplicity of the past? Research of how we choose to access services suggests so.

Fascination paving the way for innovation

Humanity naturally has an inquisitive nature. And with an entire universe full of questions, there are always answers that we were looking for. Once it was: is the world flat? Now it’s: can humans live on another planet? And as our questions evolve and grow, the apparatus we use to find answers must too.

Thus, our fascination paves the way for innovation. Sight, knowledge, and imagination were enough to discover the true spherical nature of our world. But they cannot determine if life could be preserved on Mars or any other planet. And so, we must innovate to solve: design vessels to travel through the universe, robots to recce planets, and science to determine habitats.

And these questions are true for everything from the solar system to service delivery, albeit with varying levels of significance.

Today’s landscape

Much like how our perception of the universe has evolved, the way we access services and products has too. Many moons ago, there was no such thing as a telephone, never mind a mobile telephone. And the invention of the computer and the internet were far in the future. So, if we needed to book a doctor’s appointment, for example, our only option was to head to the surgery and do it in person.

When the telephone came along, we’d call first to book our appointment. But technology has changed a lot since the 1970s – so, what options are available to us today when accessing services like the doctors?
Applications, chatbots, and self-service are the trends of the time. Collectively we have embraced the ability to rely on ourselves to access services and products, and the designers have realized this, so options for independence have soared.

When it comes to self-service, we can use an app or browser to access a portal. Within this portal options are aplenty: book and manage appointments, browse medical history, find knowledge and frequently asked questions, re-order prescriptions or even have a remote GP appointment. Then, if we have a problem, up pops a chatbot powered by AI to troubleshoot our issue with an algorithm.

There’s really no need to drop into the surgery to book our appointment, or even jump on the telephone, but…

Our footfall tells a different story

Despite the technology to make our lives easier and faster we still choose the slower and more cumbersome methods. When business leaders had to rate their current most important customer communication methods 54% voted email, 53% telephone, and 40% in-person. In comparison, 35% said chat, and 29% said self-service portal.

So, despite the world of service delivery evolving and growing, we haven’t completely embraced the change. Why? A frustration and disconnect that has arrived with futuristic tech seem to be the culprit.

Accessing services independently is all well and good until something goes wrong. Imagine you need a doctor’s appointment today, but the online booking system only shows available slots next week. Or you’re having trouble accessing your medical record and the chatbot keeps sending you round in circles. At times like these, we crave reassurance from our service provider, but AI or a portal cannot provide this. It can give us answers based on FAQs and the algorithm it’s programmed with, but it cannot provide us with emotional support or ‘give us its word’. So, we look to speak to someone who understands and can empathize with our situation by calling or visiting the doctor’s receptionist who isn’t confined by an algorithm and understands our urgency.

And the problem is, once we’ve had this bad experience, we form a negative perception of accessing services this way. This means that next time we’ll be more likely to avoid the portal or chatbot altogether and head straight to the human behind the desk, telephone, or email.

It’s time to find a balance

We must accept that there will always be situations where, because of technological limitations, direct customer service is more appropriate. Much as we must account for human error.

A prime example comes from Mathematician Hannah Fry’s recent talk where she spoke of a group of tourists who set their sat-nav to take them to Moreton Bay, Australia. The technology’s algorithm found what it thought was the most suitable route. The tourists followed the directions onto Oyster Point where the road became mud and they continued to drive. Eventually, their car got stuck and in came the tide leaving them stranded. So, who’s to blame in this story? The sat-nav led them into the sea (a clear failure of its algorithm) but the tourists continued to drive despite the clearly incorrect directions (what!?) – in this case, both the tech and the humans messed up.

So, instead of trying to replace one with the other, we should be finding the areas in our service delivery where customers need to talk to another person and where we can replace mundane tasks with AI and automation – it’s all about finding the balance. For example, a simple password reset can easily be completed with an automated process. And these happen so frequently that taking this task away from an operator will free up their time to focus on the work that really matters; supporting customers with the understanding, compassion, and interaction that we need in an emergency or difficult situation.

If we can find the areas of strength for tech and humans, then we can ensure that whenever our customers access one of our services, they’re not left frustrated, disconnected, and put off by the choice they’re given. Instead, they feel empowered to either self-solve or reach out for help.

Embracing technology while satisfying our cravings

We have so many more options at our disposal now as customers than we did in the past. And on the most part, we embrace the new tech we are given. But like our inquisitive nature, we are programmed with a need to interact with each other. Therefore, technology can never replace human connection and we will always have this craving.

So, I don’t think it’s a case of us wishing services were as simple as they were in the past, after all, business leaders still recognize modern communication methods like chat and self-service as essential. Instead, we’re displaying our basic human need for person-to-person interaction when accessing services. And the future looks like a combination of both.

This piece uses exclusive data from the Transforming the Norm survey. A downloadable eBook can be found here.