What’s the right balance of tech and human interaction?

Monday, 16th March 2020

On Friday 6th March, pro-manchester welcomed delegates to Virgin Money Manchester to discuss the balance of tech and human interaction in retail and hospitality.

Dan Nolan, Digital Marketing Consultant and co-chair of pro-manchester’s Creative, Digital & Tech committee, opened the event and introduced the first panel: – host

• Rachel Beattie – Co-Founder, Careaux
• Amanda Knight – Director of Client Success UK, vee24

Amanda has a passion for customer experience and views technology as a tool to aid that. We are still in the learning curve between tech and personal service but she has totally embraced it. Rachel is in the process of scaling up a highly personalised service (dressmaking) and will increasingly rely on tech solutions to do that.

When is tech better?

Amanda advises keeping it simple. Automation is great for simple FAQs (opening times, yes/no answers etc) as it takes them out of the call centre and ensures a speedy response 24/7. For more complex queries, AI is still poor and the option to speak to a person should be offered.

Rachel agrees that choice is key. Fast fashion relies on speed and convenience but people are happy to wait for luxury, personalised products. There is a trend towards “slow fashion” as consumers focus on ethical, sustainable and personalised options.

What are the benefits to businesses in using automation?

There was an assumption that chat bots would free agents up but Amanda has actually seen them drive up incremental engagement. The bots pass complexity to the agents. The biggest issue was the abandonment rate which is solved through having an initial response instantly. Where there was a fear of job losses, the changes have lead to happier agents as they no longer handle mundane queries.

Rachel notes that small businesses offer a personal service as a competitive edge, which becomes difficult to maintain at the business scales up. The supply chain is actually more difficult to manage. Careaux’s pattern cutter is off grid, contactable by phone number only, so they need to bring her on the journey with them to adopt tech systems.

Where’s the line in automation? When do customers become uncomfortable?

Rachel always asks herself, is the customer ready for this? They could theoretically offer a customisable dress online but recognise the need to ease people into the customer journey. She has a start-up mindset and will change to suit the customer. Many want to see the product and meet them in person so they run pop up events alongside the online offering.

Amanda adds that it is essential to understand your customer and their journey. Clients with this knowledge have much more effective AI solutions. She recommends reviewing customer satisfaction surveys, whether they follow the process and if solutions found. It is a lot of work to do AI right but it pays off. Her top tip is to speak to the agents.

Is there a generational divide?

Amanda has been surprised by the age groups. Chat bots are used by all generations, particularly when offered pre-set, one click responses. They have also introduced speaking options if customers don’t want to type.

Understanding the customer and designing AI can be fun – be brave and have a go! Working with Schuh, with a young demographic, Amanda had a great time designing their personality. The bot is gender neutral, loves festivals etc and the persona will develop to create appropriate answers. Their chat bot is now on a par with live agents for sales.

Rachel recommends balancing new tech with the basics. For example, a business recently sent polaroids of their clothes to Selfridges. This traditional approach helped them to stand out in a digital world.

Dan then welcomed the second panel to the stage:

• Stella Greathead – Business Development Manager, Flight Club Darts
• Matt Cox – Direct Sales Manager, Fingopay
• John Ryan – Co-Founder and CEO, Gigable

There are few industries as reliant on human interaction as hospitality – so how can tech play a part?

Tech is integral to the offering at Flight Club Darts, says Stella, both for the entertainment and the ordering process, which still has a person delivering the food and drinks.

Matt works with biometrics, which will be rolled our across Manchester as a test city. The fingerprint recognition solves real world problems by offering a single point for payment, ID and loyalty schemes. As well as offering convenience to the consumer, the tech protects businesses’ licences. Matt reassured delegates that you need blood running through to get the ID so no risk of cutting fingers off!

The gig economy gets lots of negative press, and rightly so according to John, but it should ultimately be about choice. The aim is to democratise the worker to business relationship and ensure full transparency on both sides. For this to work, we must double down on the humanity element and pay the correct amount of attention to the individual. A key element is ensuring workers are paid immediately (which they are through Gigable even if working weekends) but also more advice is needed on taxation for people balancing freelance contracts and regular jobs.

What are the benefits to business?

Biometrics enables businesses to learn more about their customers, says Matt, and increases engagement with loyalty schemes as it is much quicker for the consumer. This engagement leads to richer data and a more personalised service.

Stella notes that F&B is facing tough times and social activity has changed. People are much happier to have dinner and drinks at home so venues need to offer an additional experience. At Flight Club, they create stories through venue cameras which customers can save and share. The challenge is to ensure that customers remember it is also an F&B venue, and stay for food and drinks after playing darts or just come in for the atmosphere. People make Flight Club, Stella says, we need amazing personalities to shine.

As noted in the retail panel, customer choice is key. Stella believes many customers would love the biometrics option so long as it’s offered as an alternative alongside contactless, Apple Pay etc. Mat adds that personal preferences change depending on the situation: you may want to self check-in at a hotel but then later chat to the concierge for the human knowledge and service.

Is Gen Z (16 to 24 year olds) driving the change?

John is a firm believer that tech is just another language. We need to have open conversations based on ethics and develop solutions to real problems faced by businesses and consumers. Ignore the companies giving the gig economy a bad name, and use tech to be a better employer.

Gigable lives by that ethos and uses freelancers on a regular basis. Their videos are created by a 21 year old alongside his studies. That is becoming more normal, particularly in his age bracket. Gen Z are more purpose driven and conscious of issues around sustainability, ethics and diversity. People can spot authenticity and respond to it.

Dan brought the event to a close, thanking all panellists and delegates, as well as Virign Money Manchester for hosting.

Don’t miss our Retail & Ecommerce Lunch, being held on Thursday 21st May at Manchester Hall.