If I were to look into a crystal ball, it would show that 20 years from now, I would no longer have a role to play in helping humans inspire their customers.
This is a big topic. It is predicted that the technological progress of this ‘machine age’ will result in a jobless future for humans who work in retail and food service businesses. We know that robots will replace these roles but we are still unsure of the new roles this transformation will create. Therefore, many of us feel that to plan for this revolution, right now, would be premature.
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford in The rise of the Robots predicts that, ‘The threat to overall employment is that as creative destruction unfolds, the destruction will fall primarily on labour-intensive businesses in traditional areas like retail and goods preparation, while the creation will generate new businesses and industries that simply don’t hire many people.
There are benefits to automating roles that are routine—a set of tasks codified into a program and performed by computers and robots—and repetitive. Costs would be considerably lower when compared with human labour; we could offer a consistent, 100% guaranteed service or product; and there would be minimal wastage and increased productivity.
However, my heart aches a little for what this means for our connections in society. How will humans feel about their interactions with an emotionless, unfeeling robot when purchasing goods and services? It would be like choosing to take the tunnel buried under the most magnificent mountain range for the sole purpose of getting to your destination quicker. By cutting out the winding roads, you maintain speed but miss the scenery and grandeur just above you. A long, dark tunnel with perfectly measured lights and road markings robs you of the emotion or memory that such an experience would evoke. The short cut may be convenient, but you miss the beauty and the connection.
Service without humans
What would our world look like without a human being serving us in our day-to-day interactions? Let’s imagine this for just a moment …
Monday morning: I go to my regular café to get my first coffee for the day. I’m served by a robot barista named Charlie. I’m expecting to see Charlie; he is always there. I’m expecting the coffee quality to be consistent—as it was all of last week and the week before that. In fact, I’m expecting Charlie to use facial recognition and know my coffee order without having to ask for it. I’m expecting the service to be fast and efficient. The result: Consistent, quality coffee served conveniently and efficiently. Tick! However, I am human. I have feelings, and every Monday is different for me—nothing ever stays the same in the flux of life that we humans experience. So let’s look at Monday morning through a different lens.
Monday Morning: I go to my regular café to get my first coffee for the day. I’m served by a robot barista named Charlie. I’m running late. I have had a frantic start to my day, and I am feeling overwhelmed and stressed. I want a larger size coffee than usual. When Charlie starts the facial recognition process, I interrupt his sequence by requesting a different coffee order. Charlie responds to the different request compliantly yet without empathy. He says the same words he said last week. He cannot tell that I am upset and not myself today. I get my coffee and walk out feeling just as overwhelmed and stressed as I did when I walked in.
The result: Consistent, quality coffee served conveniently and efficiently, with no connection, no empathy, and no feelings.
As considered and choreographed as Charlie’s customer service may be in my café scenario, customer service is much simpler than this. Charlie will always meet my expectations in regards to product, quality, and speed of service; however, there is one fundamental component missing and that is a relationship.
Contrary to your belief, tangible skills like product knowledge, operating equipment and sales transactions are the least important skills of future employees. Yet when I dive deep with clients on boarding practices and training programs, it’s those processes and procedures that are prioritised, and very little focus is placed on what we have traditionally called the ‘soft skills’ of service.
There is a growing importance for such human skills as empathy, motivation, and encouragement. Although intangible skills are harder to measure and track, they are rising to the top as the most critical elements in deepening relationships with customers.
‘Relationship capital’ in customer service carries the greatest weight in driving loyalty.
Interpersonal connections created through empathy are unique to humans. With the ability to deliver, we offer a lifetime of valuable relationships with your customers.
Now that computers are conquering what used to be routine human tasks, perhaps the intangible assets of humans in business—the ones that are harder to measure and define— are the very skills we need to amplify when planning to coexist alongside robots like Charlie.
In the future, this means that skills like empathy, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, and complex problem solving will be highly valuable and will complement smart machines in the workplace.
Prepare now, for the future
The future may be unclear and full of uncertainty; however, there are small steps you can take right now that will fundamentally provide a huge pay out in 20 years. Here are three suggestions for tangible intangibles that are recommended for building a customer-centric business and maintaining an emotional connection with your customers in a world of automation.
1.    Develop a workforce with empathy
Empathy is a core skill for customer service cultures. Having employees who can relate to customers by reading facial expressions and using tone of voice to gauge a customer’s emotions gives an employee critical clusters in how to respond accordingly.
Daniel H Pinks summarises this quality nicely, ‘Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place’.

2.    Develop socially intelligent leaders
Look at the leaders motivating and encouraging the front line. How effective are their influencing skills? How well do they develop their staff by asking questions and listening deeply?
Social intelligence is the ability to form rewarding relationships and connect with people in such a deep and direct way that they sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions. I liken socially intelligent leaders—who know how to get the best from their staff—to that of a camera lens zooming in and out when adjusting the focus. They know when to zero in on something or when to back up a bit. They don’t just point and shoot to get a quality picture. They know what to look for, and how to adapt to get the best picture.
3.    Invest in motivation
Customer service is anything but routine. Humans are incredibly complex creatures who give meaning to everything. We like consistency and routine, yet we demand individual, unique experiences when interacting with a brand. Your employees are no different and a work environment that is motivating and encouraging will leak out towards your customers.
If your customers are human, then you need to care about their emotions. You must maintain human values and ethics in the workplace to make sure your customers feel connected and to prevent the value of humans in the service sector from becoming extinct.
Jaquie Scammell
‘Why serve when you can inspire’