The Future Of Engagement: What Customers Want Is Invisible To The Eye

In 1961, Ray Kroc bought a small restaurant chain from the McDonald brothers. The rest, as they say, is history: the exponential expansion, the investments in real estate that made the parent company so financially successful, the rigid systems and processes — including forced revolution of the potato-growing industry — that ensure every Mickey D’s French fry from Finland to Fiji tastes identical.

The idea that consistency and scalability through systems and technology are the foundational pillars of a global franchise is everywhere. From Henry Ford to Walt Disney, from H&M to Home Depot, the Western commercial landscape has become dominated by this type of factory-produced, churned-out offering.

And the automate-and-replicate mindset has extended, Borg-like, from what-we-sell to how-we-behave, from analog customer service scenarios (“Welcome back to the Four Seasons, Mr. [name]; would you like Room [RoomNumber] like last time?”) to digital email missives (“Dear [name], We truly value you as a customer.”). Engagement is governed by scripts, bots, and autoreplies. It’s quantitative metrics over qualitative relationships, bland repetition over quirky uniqueness.



I understand why management loves automation. People are expensive, unpredictable and hard to train. We don’t scale well. Sometimes we say stupid things. We have emotional baggage, controversial opinions, conflicting belief systems. It’s easy to see companies would want to ensure absolute consistency in customer interactions.

To be fair, we as consumers often want absolute consistency as well. We want products to be consistently high quality. We want websites to work consistently well. We want people to be consistently honest, genuine, professional and attentive.

But when we engage with one another as human beings — whether it’s face-to-face, on the phone, through email, or via social media — we don’t want to encounter automatons on the other end of the interaction. We want people who can understand our actual needs, who feel as we feel and laugh as we laugh. If a policy or a rule makes no sense, we want to deal with people who can change or override it.  As the Frank Herbert character Darwi Odrade says, “Give me the judgment of balanced minds in preference to laws every time.”

Consider our surprise and delight when we do find ourselves on the receiving end of a truly human connection — as happened last year when a Netflix customer service rep introduced himself to a problem-reporting customer as “Captain Mike of the good ship Netflix.” The “Captain” asked which member of the crew he was speaking with -- and, when the customer replied as an officer of Star Fleet, the entire ensuing conversation was held in character. A VentureBeat post about the interaction was shared almost 15,000 times on Facebook; who knows how many times the screengrab of the chat was shared?

As engagement becomes more and more automated, we respond more and more strongly to people who feed our desire for human connection. We don’t want to feel like we’re being stepped formulaically through a pre-determined funnel. We want to be seen as individuals, appreciated for who we are, tamed the way Antoine de St. Exupery’s Little Prince tamed the fox: “ ‘One only understands the things that one tames,’ said the fox. ‘Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…’ “

Do not seek to automate that which should not be automated, and do not seek to systematize that which must remain alive. Automate your logistics, your inventory, your accounting. But when it comes to connecting a person in your company with someone who patronizes your company, for any purpose whatsoever, allow humans to be humans: quirky, unexpected, responsive, and alive.

It is harder to quantify this kind of engagement. But that doesn’t make it any less valuable, as St. Exupery knew: “ ‘Goodbye,’ said the fox. ‘And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’ "

Editor's Note: This article is an edited excerpt from Kaila's soon-to-be-published contribution to the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications’ “Captivate” project, a series of articles from thought leaders across the media spectrum on the business and craft of audience engagement.

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