KEEPING UP WITH TECHNOLOGY

Whether we are talking about you, a home office, or a major corporation, a constant question is how far do you go to keep up with technology? Given the speed of technological change, the pressure to be on the cutting edge, and the need for return on investment, this is an increasingly critical and complex challenge. What company (or individual) wants to be branded as a dinosaur? And these days you earn no medals for being one!

When considering a technology upgrade, finding the perfect timing is the difficult part. Upgrade or adopt too soon, and you run the risk of unintended consequences and exorbitant costs. Upgrade or adopt too late, and you run the risk of decreasing profits and unexpected breakdowns and inefficiencies.

Of course budget and planning cycles must be considered too. Whether in the corporate world or in the home office, to everything there is a season. We have to be smart about technological timing in the context of the big-picture.

Do not underestimate the costs of disruption. Too many business owners do. Sometimes it just makes more sense (and cents) to maintain the technology status quo while certain production schedules are met per contract instead of disrupting productivity just for the sake of the technology upgrade. However, at some point, the disruption if carefully planned, will become the answer to move the organization forward by making it leaner and meaner. The point is that the disruption can and should be carefully planned.

A significant source of insight are your frontline employees. They are usually the people facing the good results or the bad results that are directly driven by the technology. It is amazing how often the frontline agents can see the obvious technology-driven chaos while the oblivious company leadership sits silently in its silo.

These and many more factors must be assessed to identify the ideal timing for a technology upgrade or adoption. Even more important than any single technology move is that you are constantly observing the technological landscape. Technology is always changing. As much as we might hope for that day, a “set it and forget it” approach won’t work with technology. If you keep your eye on it, then you’ll know when to take action!


TECHNOLOGY CHANGES VERSUS QUALITY

Artificial intelligence fulfills many roles today to handle customers. Nevertheless, the ongoing question of how AI affects the customer experience remains an open debate. We have been through good and bad technological transitions in the past and we have survived and sometimes thrived. Nevertheless, some of those technological changes have enhanced the customer experience while others have harmed it.

In the early days of the Internet, I can remember my wife reacting to multiple radio and TV commercials by exclaiming, “everything is www this and www that!” She was not happy with so many resources being available on the Web when those early Web days did not always provide the most stellar customer experience. Today she is all over the Web. Obviously, she, like most of us, adjusted and it has been for the good.

Simultaneously, I have some big questions. How will we end up adjusting to AI at the core of our customer experiences or will we? How much will the sense of being passed off to an inferior being insult our intelligence thus causing us to reject the AI element? To what degree will AI degrade the quality of the customer experience? These are all vital questions that have yet to be answered. Time will reveal.

In answering the above questions, we must never forget that ultimately a company does not decide if its products and services are passing the quality assurance tests. That right genuinely belongs to the end user. Customers decide whether a company’s products and services pass the QA test. And it will be the customers that determine whether AI passes the QA test too.


SETTLING FOR A VIRTUAL HUMAN

I once answered a business telephone line with our company greeting and I was very focused and perfect—perhaps a little too focused and perfect. The lady on the other end paused and then asked, “Are you a real person?” I laughed and assured our customer that I was indeed a real person.

We have all been there one way or another. It can be frustrating when you don’t know if the voice on the other end of the line is a human or a virtual human using so-called artificial intelligence. But I think that the frustration goes deeper than that.

Whenever we are prevented from speaking with a real person our customer experience degrades, however slight. That’s another reason why Dilbert got it right with the character “Mordac, the preventer of IT services.” Too often, companies seem to be trying to prevent a positive customer experience. Perhaps that is just one of the reasons why we see such an effort to refine AI. We want AI to replicate the human-contact experience in all aspects so that the customer experience does not degrade, however slight. The idea is that if AI can handle the customer’s request efficiently and convincingly, then the organization saves money and a positive customer experience is preserved. Everyone wins, at least in theory.

As much as I understand that conceptually, scientifically, psychologically, and commercially, I remain somehow unsatisfied and of course that directly affects my customer experience. It’s both an overt and a subtle situation, but it’s definitely not good. Ashlee Vance very accurately captures the experience (“Life, or Something Like It” Bloomberg Businessweek. September 11, 2017, pp. 42–47):

Even successful customer-relations experiences with chatbots, ones where the bot gives the right answer, tend to leave people dissatisfied because they feel like they’ve been pawned off on an inferior being.” (p. 46)

Technology is a wonderful thing. I value it for all its magnificent benefits and I continuously use it to the max. Yet we are human beings and we crave human interaction, especially during those moments when we have a pressing issue to resolve.

AI can do many things because it is the culmination of technology. Nevertheless, it remains technology no matter how intensely we might try to convince ourselves (and our customers) that it is human. Note the quote: “because they feel like they’ve been pawned off on an inferior being.” And what does that do to the customer experience?


ARTIFICIAL WHAT

Artificial intelligence is happening all around us, yet I often muse that the term is an oxymoron and perhaps you have to be a moron to believe the term. How can something that is by definition artificial truly be intelligent? Well, I suppose it all comes down to how you choose to define “intelligence.” You might have a very high standard for the definition while another person might have a very low standard while others are happy somewhere in the middle. This is important because exactly how you choose to set that standard drives how this so-called AI is crafted, evaluated, and used.

My problem with AI is that fundamentally AI is driven by code. Code of course refers to the particular programming language and precisely how it is constructed to handle the required tasks. And of course code by fundamental definition is rigidly deterministic.

  • 2 + 2 = 4
  • A creates B which creates C which yields D.

Using these bits of code and assembling them into massively complex hierarchies eventually creates computer behaviors that appear to replicate human behaviors. When that occurs we are quick to declare the marvelous manifestation of AI.

My problem however is that the human always sees the bigger picture. It is the bigger picture that is not limited to the code. Therefore it is the human perspective that is intrinsically superior to AI.

Because this is true, computer scientists are ever pursuing increasingly complex coding to strive unceasingly to replicate that vital, unique, true human perspective. The problem remains that although this is scientifically (and yes, practically) a noble pursuit, it remains a modern version of a Zeno’s paradox; although you come increasingly close to the destination, it is a destination never reached. (Yes, I understand we have “solutions” to Zeno’s paradox. Nevertheless, the image of Zeno’s paradox is what illustrates our challenge.)

So the ultimate destination is that we so completely code to replicate so perfectly the human thought process that someday we manifest an AI that convinces us it is human, thereby passing the Turing test. Well, I’m still waiting, and I have a feeling I will be waiting a very long time. And while computers might be infinitely patient, I am not.


DESIGN WHERE IT COUNTS

In looking at products and services, I constantly keep an eye on design. How well or how poorly the product or service displays design says a lot about the business. It also will endear me or repulse me. When a product or a service is well designed, it shows, you experience it, and it just makes sense. When a product or a service is not well designed, it shows, you experience it, and it just doesn’t make sense. Whether good or for bad, design reveals itself.

How often have you stayed at a hotel and the design just didn’t make sense? I think we’ve all been to that hotel a time or two. It was not an enjoyable experience. When the design is not right, the entire customer experience is wrong because design colors everything.

Recently I stayed at a hotel that had been built within the past year . . . and it showed in many good ways. Someone gave intense thought, planning, and analysis to design. Many things, both little and big, stood out to me:

  • The well-located, easy accommodations for travelers with technology.
  • The carefully thought-out logical layout of the room.
  • The seamless ease of using the keycard system.
  • The strategic size and organization of the bathroom.
  • The dimensioning, operation, and construction of the shower door.
  • The ergonomics of the furniture.

I could go on and on. The point is that many aspects of my stay greatly satisfied my eye for design. My customer experience was enhanced immensely and my overall comfort and efficiency ranked very high. Design reveals itself, especially to the customer.

How happy are you with the design of your products or services? What does your design say about you and your organization? And most important of all (where it really counts), is your design helping or hurting the customer experience?