Using tech to elevate—not replace—human interaction

It’s a question sci-fi literature and movies have been asking for decades: will machines replace humans in the future? L&D professionals also have to consider how the changing role of technology will affect the future of work and where people factor into a more digital tomorrow.

According to a 2020 McKinsey & Company Global Survey of executives, the digitization of customer and supply-chain interactions, and internal operations, has been accelerated by the pandemic to the tune of three to four years. And the number of digital and digitally-enabled products in their portfolios has been pushed ahead by a whopping seven years!

So how has the speed of digital transformation impacted the employee experience on the frontline . . . and what’s next? Carl Boutet, founder and Chief Strategist at Studio Rx, recently joined Axonify’s Chief Learning Architect JD Dillon for “In The Know, live on LinkedIn, to explore this question and discuss how companies can leverage the wave of digital transformation to improve frontline capability, engagement and execution.

AI machine learning hands of robot and human touching

The future of customer service requires a new toolkit

Online ordering, curbside pickup, on-demand delivery and personalization—they’re all parts of the everyday shopping experience that today’s consumers expect. But behind the curtains of these elevated experiences are the frontline employees making it all happen. In turn, they need to be given the opportunity to tap into a new set of skills that will allow them to capably execute this vision.

“People want to work where they’re going to have access to the resources and tools to make their work better and more meaningful,” says Carl. “The last thing they want to be is the person that’s not informed.”

Carl also emphasizes that it’s not as easy as dropping the technology or training in workers’ laps and expecting them to figure it out themselves.

“Some of our retail clients are saying the customers are walking in and basically training their employees. That’s not acceptable. Who wants to be in a place where you’re learning about the product or service you’re supposed to be selling and promoting from the customer walking in through the front door?”

Leaders need to ensure that associates are informed, comfortable and aware of how to deliver on these next-level services every time and that should involve applicable training, upskilling or reskilling to get there.

Got 25 minutes to spare? Get In The Know with Carl Boutet and JD Dillon by watching the session on-demand.

How to tap into the human side of digital transformation

Even though technology empowers customers to take control of their shopping experiences from researching products to reading reviews and watching demo videos, there’s still the potential for questions to arise while in-store. This is where the human element comes in. There’s truly no replacement for a knowledgeable associate who can make an experience that was purely transactional and automatic feel special and satisfying.

As Carl puts it: “It’s very hard to fully automate out a good retail experience. Without the people on the frontline to make that technology come to life, it’s all for naught.”

For digital transformation to be successful, it’s important to acknowledge the significant impact it can have on the realities of your frontline, from roles, organizational structures and employee engagement. To maintain a standout level of customer service amid accelerated change, it takes a company-wide effort to invest in and foster the right behaviors through learning and development.

It’s clear that without the right employee training and engagement strategies and a consistent effort to acknowledge the people-related factors that really drive change in your organization, attempts at digital business transformations will fail.

“I’m a big believer in the ambassador as opposed to the clerk,” says Carl. “How do they add value to the experience? Automation is good but the worker interacting has to serve a purpose and add value. That’s the opportunity: use automation but always center the human experience.

(Some) trends are here to stay

Panic about the future of customer conveniences (like mobile apps, online ordering and curbside pickup) paired with the current hype around learning tech has led to a lot of noise from vendors and companies alike trying to keep up with emerging trends. Carl points out that not every solution is created equal, and you don’t need to buy into them all to be successful.

“We were already heading in a certain direction where convenience and automation were being optimized and technology often played a bigger role. But at the other end of the spectrum was, we wanted to differentiate by creating these really rich, high-touch experiences that require really high-quality human interaction,” he says. “The trend for the past decade has been that the frontline hasn’t been as empowered as the customers they’re meant to serve. So how do we empower that frontline to bring that experience forward?”

One of the most important factors to consider when you’re making tough decisions, tech or otherwise—keeping lines of communication with your frontline open.

“The good business operators match the power of the consumer with the power of the frontline to make sure that they have all the knowledge, experience and purpose,” Carl continues. “If that’s not getting communicated to the frontline properly, or they can’t see how your purpose should manifest itself on the frontline, that differentiation is lost.”

In a retail world increasingly about hyper-convenience or high-touch, you need to choose your battles wisely and make sure the right tools are in place to support business goals—and the people who will help you achieve them.

P.S. The next episode of In The Know is streaming LIVE on LinkedIn, May 11th at 11:30am ET. RSVP and join the conversation!

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