The Human Factor (in the Age of Machines)

All of this hype about machine learning must be addressed somehow. This blog post is about how marketers can coexist with machines, and not to leave full control to them. Too many human users are doing that already.

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“machine,” Creative Commons license. | Credit: Flickr by Jonas Tegnerud

No matter how far AI evolves in the future, for as long as humans remain as the dominant species on this planet, machines will exist to serve the benefit of human collectives, in some form or another. That is an optimistic view and possibly the best-case scenario.

Now, if we imagine the dark path as kindly illustrated in movies like “Terminator” or the “Matrix” series, AI may one day decide to eliminate humans as we are merely nuisances to them (the worst case scenario), or convert us into living, breathing battery packs to power them with our body heat (the next-worst-case scenario).

Even without such doomsday predictions, it is quite feasible that machines will take jobs away from most of us, starting with menial and repetitive ones and moving on to so-called white-collar positions with thinking involved. Not quite the end-of-the-world case, but definitely the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it situation, as the cognitive process won’t remain as a uniquely human function.

Not too long ago, it was big news that AI decisively defeated one of the smartest human beings on Earth in the game of Go. It was quite an achievement — not necessarily for the machine, but for the humans who designed it. The machine, less than one year after that achievement, is now up to the level that its older version won’t able to match. The latest is that it doesn’t even play Go anymore, after having played the game by itself millions of times.

Here is my take on that event: First, why is that so surprising? Yes, the game of Go is far more complex than chess, with a virtually unlimited number of outcomes. But everything happens on a game board and the rules are quite simple. Machines and humans can observe and predict events within that set boundary. If machine does nothing but “1” task within the rule set for an unlimited amount of time without being bored or getting tired, of course it will beat humans who easily get distracted or grow tired.

So can we even call such a match fair? At some point in the distant past, a car passed the speed of the fastest human runner or even a man on a horse (with exactly 1 horse-power). But other than the fact that we still continue to humiliate horses by measuring the engine power in terms of “horsepower,” who cares about that? We don’t have runners compete against cars in the Olympic Games, do we?

The second point is that, yes, it is newsworthy that an AI beat one of the best Go players in the world. But so what? The history of computers has been a series of human defeats in terms of speed and accuracy since the very invention of the thinking machine. Computers have been outperforming humans in many ways all along, so why does everyone get so scared them all of a sudden? Is it fear of the unknown or loss of control?

We have learned how to coexist with clunky mainframes in the past, and we will learn how to live — and live well — with AI with or without cute faces. And that’s if, and only if, we maintain the “human factor” in the evolution of thinking machines.

So let’s stop thinking about how smart machines have become, and let’s think about what that word “smart” means.

What ‘Smart’ Means

Does it mean that it remembers things better than us? Undoubtedly. The best use of a computer is to have it remember what we don’t want to remember. Just because I can’t even remember my work number without my “smart” phone, that doesn’t mean that I became dumber. I will use the remaining memory space in my brain to store some other useless information, like the average driving distance of an old golfer or a name of an actor in some obscure movie. Then again, why even bother with all of that when I can just Google them anytime?

Telemarketing: The Impossible Tradeoff

One of my Brazilian colleagues, Roberto Silva (not his real name), was a frequent traveler to the U.S. on business and for pleasure. He had a daughter at an American university and he visited her whenever he could. He also liked buying things at specialist outlets and, a few years back, had bought some trousers (which became his favorites) from Lands’ End.

Call center agentOne of my Brazilian colleagues, Roberto Silva (not his real name), was a frequent traveler to the U.S. on business and for pleasure. He had a daughter at an American university and he visited her whenever he could. He also liked buying things at specialist outlets and, a few years back, had bought some trousers (which became his favorites) from Lands’ End.

With his wife reminding him regularly that these favorite trousers were wearing out, he decided to buy some new ones on his next trip. From his New York hotel, he telephoned Lands’ End and introduced himself to the cheery telephonist who welcomed him back to Lands’ End. A moment later, she asked him about his daughter, how she was doing and if she had graduated from college? Stunned, he asked how she knew about his daughter and she said that the last time he had called, he had mentioned that as the reason for his visit. What could she do to help him?

She asked how he liked the trousers he had bought before. He replied that if they still had them in stock, he’d order two more pair. “Can we ship them to the same hotel you stayed at last time? We can have them to you by tomorrow evening,” she said. Of course he purchased them and some other items and when he told me the story he said emphatically: “I’ll never buy trousers like these anywhere else. There are warm, friendly people who work there, not a telephone bullpen staffed by bored and underpaid, out-of-work actors. These people obviously enjoy talking to customers and seem in no hurry to get you off the phone and you don’t have to listen to endless menu options and punch in some numbers to get someone to talk to you.”

Perhaps that’s a rather long way around to introduce the “impossible tradeoff,” the obvious cost-saving of having an automated system interact with the customer up to or beyond the point where he or she either needs or demands to talk with a human being, vs. a totally human interface which may be less efficient in terms of costs, but is more likely to have customers become “advocates,” as my friend Roberto had. Can you imagine someone saying how happy they were only having to make four menu options instead of 10?

Banks and credit card companies seem to be in competition with mobile phone operators to win some prize for making it difficult to talk with anyone (and making you wait the longest time if you want to). Internet sellers are often even worse, hiding their telephone numbers in the most secluded nooks of their websites. The recent United Airlines disaster of dragging a passenger off of a flight to free up some oversold seats is a horrible example of how a focus on efficiency (in this case, maximum passenger loads created by intentional over-booking) can undermine customer loyalty. After that incident, it will take a long time before anyone is ever “loyal” to United again.

The ultimate question is one of relative value. And despite all of the big data in the world, there really is no way of gauging accurately the relative value of the tradeoff. How strongly the customer feels about the transaction must be an important if unquantifiable (soft) data point.

The bean-counters will assure you of the obvious saving; machines are, in the long run, cheaper than people. They work 24/7, they don’t demand raises and they don’t need pregnancy leave. Then they will argue that customers are better-served, get to speak to the right knowledgeable person faster than explaining their problem over and over again — or better, have it dealt with without human intervention. Not so for my friend Roberto, who will counter that his loyalty and the loyalty of many like-minded customers will more than make up for the savings in long-term revenue and insulation against “efficient” competition.

So where do you draw the bottom line?

It’s always a tradeoff compromise (the best solution or the worst). But I would opt for an automated answer which, first, thanked the caller for calling and second, offered a choice of:

  1. Immediately talking to a warm, friendly and knowledgeable human, or
  2. Hearing a short menu, which may speed you to the answer you are looking for.

Unfortunately, a “right” answer is impossible.

 

Endit …

Automation Beating Humans at CX

What’s more important to customer experience? Your people or your automation? Recent evidence from the fast food sector isn’t so good for the humans. If you’re looking to build a great CX, it may be time to stop training your humans, and start building a better robot.

A Chinese maid service robot: Is this the CX customer actually want?
A Chinese maid service robot: Is this the CX customer actually want?

What’s more important to customer experience (CX)? Your people or your automation?

Recent evidence from the fast food sector isn’t so good for the humans.

Andy Puzder, CEO of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., talked to Business Insider about his experience putting order kiosks in their restaurants to supplement human order takers. Puzder commented to Business Insider: “I’ve been inside restaurants where we’ve installed ordering kiosks … and I’ve actually seen young people waiting in line to use the kiosk where there’s a person standing behind the counter, waiting on nobody.”

Puzder is even considering opening a new restaurant that wouldn’t require human interaction, similar to Eatsa in San Francisco.

Such ideas are gaining traction across the industry. Not just because it could mean labor savings, but because there appears to be a customer base that prefers automation to human interactions.

And the reason seems to be … Millennials hate dealing with people.

That doesn’t just come from Puzder. Frischer restaurants in the Midwest U.S. did a study on their drive through traffic, and found that a third of 18 to 24 year-olds use the drive through because, “they don’t feel like dealing with people”

They prefer a process that, although not automated yet, is as close to automated as possible.

Human interaction isn’t helping the CX for them. Humans are ruining it.

So apply that finding beyond the fast food space. Where does that leave us?

For years we’ve been thinking good people are the key to good service. But what if the real key is automation?

After all, we already know customers don’t want a relationship with their cough medicine, they just want to stop coughing. If that’s the CX they want, why not let the robots do it?

I’ve long heard readers and contributors bemoan the loss of the human touch. … Maybe they only notice the lack of touch because they’re not getting good robots?

This isn’t just about machines replacing humans for productivity or financial reasons. It’s about an intuitive CX. If you know what your customers want, why do they need to ask a human for it? Why not just set it up automatically? Or on demand at the push of a button?

The Robot CX Uprising Has Already Begun

We can already see several very successful businesses that were built simply on improving CX by letting machines do what humans may not be very good at:

  • Uber automated your taxi dispatch and hiring.
  • GrubHub automated restaurant order taking and delivery.
  • Facebook automated friendship.
  • Amazon automated … well, everything about shopping.

Jeff Bezos and the robot uprisingSo if you’re looking to build a great CX, it may be time to stop training your humans, and start building a better robot.

The Connected Consumer is Changing The Face of Marketing: Understanding the Importance of Trust

In January, I wrote about marketing’s “meeting of waters” and how mobile is acting as the connective tissue that’s tying together digital and traditional marketing practices. The meeting of waters analogy holds true because we live in an age where people are increasingly becoming connected and these connections are forever changing marketing and how we engage our customers. Today people are connected to each other, to organizations, to machines. Moreover, machines are connected to other machines and working on behalf of the consumer.

In January, I wrote about marketing’s “meeting of waters” and how mobile is acting as the connective tissue that’s tying together digital and traditional marketing practices. The meeting of waters analogy holds true because we live in an age where people are increasingly becoming connected and these connections are forever changing marketing and how marketers engage consumers. People are connected to each other, to organizations, to machines and more. Moreover, machines are connected to other machines and working on behalf of consumers. Consider the following:

  • Over 28 percent of the global population uses the internet, and in most developed countries this number exceeds 75 percent.
  • There are 5.3 billion mobile connections — over 54 percent of the global population — and 3.7 billion people carry and use a mobile device of some kind. Within the next few years more people will access the internet via a mobile device than any other means.
  • There were 6.1 trillion text messages exchanged around the globe in 2010. Nearly 6 billion text messages are exchanged every day in the U.S.
  • Over 500 million people are active Facebook users, each having an average of 130 friends, spending an average of 700 billion minutes on the site and sharing over 30 billion pieces of information each and every month.
  • There are 175 million Twitter users, creating 95 million tweets per day.
  • Programs offered by retailers that reward shoppers for purchasing are on the rise due to locally relevant marketing and merchandising.
  • The number of smartmeter installations are increasing (a smartmeter monitors utility consumption, such as electricity and water). This data is accessible online.
  • Sensors are being placed in plants so that they can tweet us when they need to be watered; in carpets so that they can tell us when they need to be cleaned; and in pills so that they can transmit through a Band-Aid and to phone biometric readings as the pill travels through our bodies. Moreover, in some parts of the world, you’ll even find sensors on produce and a wide range of consumer goods. For example, a shopper can immediately discern what farm a head of lettuce came from, the route it took to get to the store and how long it’s been sitting on the shelf by simply waving their phone.

The above online and offline activities are just small subsets of what’s happening as people go through their daily lives. Consumers always have their mobile device with them, and they’re using them to fulfill their needs.

An important undercurrent to the meeting of waters analogy and the trend toward the ever-increasing connectedness is that people are also creating and sharing more information than ever before. Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO, notes more information is created every two days than from the dawn of civilization up to 2003 combined. This information can be used to create new services like personalized search and consumer engagement.

In the age of the connected consumer, Schmidt proposes that the next generation of mobile devices may be capable of tracking an individual’s actions, movements and purchases, and over time learn their interests and preferences. Later, using location and similar tracking tools, companies like Google can alert an individual not just based on their stated or shared preferences but on system inferred and predicted preferences.

This is a very powerful value proposition, one that has the opportunity to enrich the lives of consumers. Marketers have the ability to deliver value at the time of consumer expressed and inherent need. However, you must remember that key success factors to engaging consumers in this ever-connected world include your ability to be transparent in your actions and provide consumers with control over the relationships they have with marketers.

As an industry, we have the opportunity to embrace our future and maintain the course of responsible behavior. The Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) along with its partners is doing just that. The company recently announced its Consumer Best Practices for Messaging v6.0. The MMA has also announced an applications committee and a Privacy Initiative Task Force in coordination with its members and other organizations like the Digital Advertising Alliance to work on expanding the industry’s best practices and guidelines around how marketers and consumers are to engage each other. The outcome of this work will allow all of us in the industry to focus on sustainable growth while ensuring that we achieve this growth responsibly.