As we kick-start the new year, it seems that every conversation we have about the future of business centers around automation, artificial intelligence, chatbots, and the like. All of these innovations streamline our ability to connect with our coworkers, our customers, and our broader communities. However, they move us even further away from real human connection with the people who matter most.
These days, customers are more likely to interact with bots than with humans. Coworkers often work at home as part of distributed teams, and community organizations talk to their members more often on social media than in person. We can’t turn back the clock on progress but we can–and should–counteract the harmful elements of these (mostly positive) innovations with a conscious effort to be more human in every aspect of our day-to-day lives.
This isn’t just about the need for more human contact. The thing is, real engagement is good for business. In fact, it can be your competitive advantage when everyone else is focusing on bots and AI. Here’s how we can all be more human in 2019:
Emphasize human connection with employees
A growing percentage of the global workforce is working remotely. The 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce Report revealed that 3.9 million U.S. employees (2.9% of the U.S. workforce) spend at least half of their working hours at home. That’s a 115% increase since 2005.
“Technology has created the illusion of connection, but overuse and misuse of it has made us less productive, less engaged, and lonelier,” says Dan Schawbel, author of Back to Human: How Great Leaders Create Connection in the Age of Isolation. While technology is changing how we work, it’s also eroding our connection to coworkers.
“Remote workers are much less likely to say they want a long-term career at their companies,” says Schawbel. To solve that issue, he suggests that companies should let remote workers lead team meetings. He says, “They feel like they belong because they’re empowered.” Schawbel referred to two global companies that have dedicated travel budgets for managers to visit remote employees. If that sounds extravagant, consider that the cost of replacing an employee can be up to $10,000. That makes a few round-trip airfares sound like a bargain.
But even companies that don’t have a significant number of remote workers can fall victim to technology overload. That’s why it’s essential for them to create more socialized work environments. That can involve something as simple as celebrating birthdays or as elaborate as scheduling volunteer opportunities for the staff to do together. When employees interact outside of work, they form stronger bonds with each other. That translates into more loyalty and higher retention.
Re-humanize customer service
There’s no stopping the AI freight train. According to a study done by Narrative Science, 61% of businesses implemented AI in 2017, compared to just 38% in 2016.
But chatbots can’t win over customer loyalty. That comes from the happy by-product of the kind of human-to-human interaction where knowledgeable and empowered customer service professionals solve problems for people creatively and quickly. Not only that, but those professionals tailor solutions to individual needs. Think of companies like Zappos, Ritz-Carlton, JetBlue, and Trader Joe’s. None of them became customer-service rock stars by building bots.
In contrast, your mobile carrier is probably pretty low on your customer-service love list. Or maybe not. Last August, T-Mobile CEO John Legere announced that the time he spent listening to both sides of the company’s customer service calls had led to a new initiative called “Team of Experts.” No more bots, he announced. Instead, each customer will be assigned a team of 30-40 agents who live in their region, understand local concerns, and, over time, build relationships with callers. Customers can also schedule a call in advance, or message their team via the T-Mobile app. The change, said T-Mobile COO Mike Sievert, was made to tear down the “massive digital fortress between you and the people who can help you.”
Companies in every industry should take note: This is the kind of concierge-level service that customers long for and that can give brands a competitive edge.
Create emotional connections with your community
Every brand has a community–both online and off–and brands make a strategic error if they only connect with their community’s members when there’s a problem. Brands need to stay engaged and connected consistently by practicing the kind of constant generosity that creates strong emotional connections with their broader communities.
Shortly after I sold my first home, a package from our Realtor arrived at our new home, several states away. She had commissioned an artist to paint a watercolor of our former house, the place where my wife and I had our children. It’s a reminder of where we started, and who helped us through the emotional journey. That Realtor is getting rave reviews from my family.
The online pet retailer, Chewy, sends handwritten holiday cards to customers and sends sympathy gifts when a pet dies. Sure, it’s over-the-top and probably pretty expensive. But in April 2017, Chewy was acquired by PetSmart for $3.35 billion.
The point is, sending a few handwritten notes might not directly lead to an increase in valuation, but you’ll be well on your way to distributing a strong message to your community that your company is filled with living, breathing humans who care about other humans. And in this hyper-digital world that we all now live in, that’s what’s going to set your business apart in the long-term.
Ryan Paugh is the COO of The Community Company, an organization that builds community-driven programs for media companies and global brands. He is also the coauthor of Superconnector: Stop Networking and Start Building Business Relationships That Matter.