Digital is important – but so is the human touch (OPINION)

David Piggott, Jabra

While digital automation has started to transform the public sector, there remains at least one place where human interaction is – and always will be – vital to the success of an organisation.

Digitisation has not only changed how we shop, listen to music, and even travel to the airport, but it is also now changing the ways government agencies provide public services.

There are myriad reasons for the public sector’s increased ‘Uberisation’. The most obvious is lower cost. But there is also a growing dissatisfaction among citizens over the way many government programs are delivered.

The public is demanding more services, delivered more effectively and efficiently. It makes sense that digital automation will allow government agencies to provide this.

It is certainly possible to automate some service functions in a way that will satisfy the public. This may include services such as enabling people to pay bills, renew licenses or handle a multitude of other chores online without human intervention that are relatively easy, low-cost, high-return activities.

But regardless of the potential benefits automation promises, there remains a crucial tool that chatbots and automation can never replace: the good, old-fashioned human touch. It is basic human nature to want to speak to another person when things start to get personal, emotional and complicated.

Despite their ever-increasing levels of intelligence, machines will always be machines. This means that, unlike humans, machines aren’t very good at providing personalised service to customers. But that is just what a customer-focused organisation, especially one in the public sector, needs.

There are plenty of reasons why eliminating the human touch from serving the public is not a wise decision. Here are just a few:

1. Humans are problem-solvers

Perhaps the single most important part of serving the public is resolving issues when they arise. With the ability to listen, understand, seek out information and apply accumulated knowledge and past experiences to situations, humans are far better problem-solvers than any machine or automated process could ever dream of being. As the complexity of the issue increases, this becomes exponentially clear.

Think of your own experiences with customer service. How many times have you been trapped at a self-service checkout that scanned your item twice or just isn’t working – and there’s no customer service agent in sight to help? The frustration is enough to make you wish you’d just chosen to wait longer in the human line in the first place.

2. Humans have empathy

The uniquely human emotion of empathy is another factor that makes people such outstanding problem-solvers. The soothing feeling that comes from a comforting voice assuring you they understand your problem and can fix it is a benefit of human interaction.

The expressionless computerised voice that says “I’m sorry you’re having trouble with your selection” isn’t sorry at all. Such is the impersonal nature of automation that makes technology a poor choice to manage vital public service functions. Without having access to such feelings, a machine cannot empathise with a situation, regardless of how much it emulates it.

3. Humans need options

Finally, there is a very simple reason why the human touch should be included in public service efforts —the public wants options when it comes to receiving service. While there are those who prefer self-service, many still want to talk to a person, even if it’s to handle the most mundane of tasks. Denying the opportunity to people to be able to choose is short-sighted and certain to disappoint to say the least.

The need for human co-workers

The human touch isn’t only important to us as public citizens—it is an aspect of life that can go a long way in the workforce as well.

With the help of digitisation, we’re often quick to text or email colleagues and clients when an old-fashioned phone call may be the better tool for resolving an on-the-job issue.

Not only does it minimise the opportunity for miscommunication, but talking face-to-face, over the phone or by video conferencing can also create an emotional bond that will only be strengthened through frequency – a connection that makes a difference for several reasons.

  • Talking often actually saves time and spares us plenty of unproductive back-and-forth email exchanges. This results in conflicts and disagreements being resolved more easily and immediately when using the phone, as intent is better conveyed verbally rather than by email.
  • Emails provide very little peripheral knowledge and the subsequent opportunities when compared to a personal conversation. Actively listening allows us to take in much more information than we’d get from reading an email, including what colleagues are working on, their main difficulties, and how you could possibly help. Reading between the lines of an email can only get you so far.
  • Emails make it too easy for recipients to say no, or simply ignore a query altogether. Our requests convey more gravity and urgency when delivered in a personal meeting or over the phone, making them more difficult to ignore or decline.

Digitisation and automation certainly have a time and place, but the human touch is really the most effective tool when it comes to serving the public or working effectively with colleagues.

David Piggott is Managing Director ANZ at Jabra

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