This is why service is a job for leaders
As I write this article, I am in the midst of writing a book on spectacular and luxurious customer service, a research-based manual that companies and individuals can use to transform and improve the way they serve their clients.
To be precise, I should say that I am re-writing this book that was almost ready a year ago. The reasoning behind this is that I was struck by the realisation that at the time I started writing it, I hadn’t fully digested (although all the signals were there) the importance and impact that technology, in particular Artificial Intelligence and Augmented and Virtual Reality, are going to have in the years to come on the world of service and sales.
In a world where algorithms are fully capable of successfully replacing the human mind in several tasks such as medical diagnosis and illness prediction, driving safely, analysing data, managing and investing money or predicting major and minor natural events alongside various other complex tasks, there is no reason why sales and customer service would not be impacted or somewhat disrupted by this turn of events.
What is luxury? And what is luxury service?
In my book “Sell with Style, the Ultimate Guide to Luxury Selling”, the research I conducted led me to define luxury as “the celebration of individuality” which means that the interpretation of luxury is so personal that an item, a service, or an experience are perceived as such only when they meet the individual criteria and values of the person accessing them.
Personalisation seems to be the key to luxury, and who better than a human being to personalise a service you may ask?
An in-depth observation of the market place tells us that computers and algorithms can actually reach a level of personalisation, on a large scale, that humans are unable reach.
An advanced e-commerce, for example, can collect an array of clients’ preferences and data (from favourite colours, to favourite style, from preferred time of the day for shopping, to previous purchases and average satisfaction, to buying behaviours, to time to conversion since first accessing the website and much more) and – as a result – communicate with their clients in the most personalised way.
Social media do it every moment of the day.
There is no single advertisement you see on your Facebook feed that is not the output of the most sophisticated elaboration of all your online behaviours.
In this scenario, assuming that a low-wage, untrained, demotivated customer service associate, although working for a luxury company, could provide their clients with a luxury (hence extremely personalised) experience, would probably mean being unrealistic.
A mediocre, or even good, fairly well-trained and self-motivated customer service associate won’t meet the (always growing) clients’ expectations either.
My prediction for the next 5 to 8 years is that a lot of service jobs, and even sales jobs, will be cut to be replaced by machines and robots.
Clients will be able to enter a store and find all the information they need (and much more) from a voice and visual device, integrated into the display cabinet in which the item on sale is accurately displayed) without having to wait for, or deal with, a sales person whose technical competence, industry knowledge, understanding of industry trends, or ability to answer clients’ specific questions, can never match what machines run by deep learning algorithm can do.
Clients won’t need to call the receptionist of a hotel anymore, or have to wait for them to answer, often without the ability, the power or the willingness to solve their problems.
Their call will rather be directed to an answering machine, programmed to detect a client’s state of mind from the tone of their voice, and answer accordingly. It will be programmed to answer any query based on historical data (such as all the times a certain request has been made, by a certain typology of client, at a certain time of the day, with a certain tone of voice) so that the outcome will match a successful past experience.
Is this the end of human interaction?
My answer is yes, this is the end of a mediocre human interaction, in which the human touch does not make the interaction between a business and its clients consistently and always remarkably valuable.
Junior (in terms of skills, knowledge and willingness to help) sales and customer service associates will be replaced by machines, but this does not mean that businesses will be run without human beings and that clients will not need to meet “real people” anymore.
There will be fewer people (in store, in a hotel, in a restaurant, in the office of a b2b business) dealing with clients, and they will be the most qualified, the champions, the influencers, the ambassadors.
Those who lead and manage a team of sales and customer service associates today won’t have to manage as many people as before, but will rather consecrate their time and leadership skills to adding value to the interaction with their clients.
In an interview with McKinsey, talking about the jobs of the future, Linkedin’s CEO Jeff Weiner said: “First, not surprisingly, tech remains king. And if you were to look at the fastest-growing, emerging jobs, unsurprisingly, they’re related to some of the trends that we’re talking about regarding data. So, machine learning, data science, big data engineers—three of the top fast-growing, emerging jobs. So, that’s one. Two, maybe a little less intuitive because it’s kind of the converse, is that it’s not just about technology. And I think this is going to be a trend that people really start to embrace going forward. Computers, machines—all the things you see if you watch some of the videos circulating right now in terms of robots trying to replicate human behavior—we’ll see how fast that gap gets closed. But hopefully, it’s going to be a while before machines can replicate the human touch and intuition and creativity and interpersonal skills. And so, you see jobs that require those interpersonal skills that continue to grow very quickly. So, sales-development representatives, customer-success representatives—these are jobs that require interpersonal relationships.”
As an international sales and client experience consultant and training designer, and leveraging my 15+ years of experience in one of the most relationship-centric industries out there, the luxury industry, I can confidently say that the interpersonal skills Jeff Weiner refers to in the interview, that both sales and customer service associates will need to become a Brand Ambassador, will be grounded on extraordinary levels of competence in:
1. HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY
Knowing how to deal with decision-making strategies, personality traits, meta-programs, personal values, individual beliefs and states of mind will increase the Brand Ambassador’s chances to unleash clients’ needs, manage their frustrations and exceed their expectations.
2. LEADERSHIP AND PROBLEM SOLVING
Since only decision-makers will be appointed to deal with clients, they will need to have the ability to solve problems, and to “move” the whole organisation towards the goal of creating value to the client experience.
3. INDUSTRY KNOWLEDGE
While the support of machines will provide the Brand Ambassador with all the brand, product and inventory knowledge they need, their challenge will be that of growing their industry knowledge on a daily basis, so they will be able to consult their clients, showing an industry-insider level of competence.
4. COMMUNICATION AND STORYTELLING
In May 2018, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichay presented the first voice assistant, which is a machine able to speak and engage in a real phone conversation with a human being, interacting intelligently. Other machines are available that can draft impeccable written documents. If a human being is left to communicate with clients, they should be able to master the art of writing, speaking in public, and storytelling. These tasks require not only a great deal of understanding of the human psychology (point 1) but are skills that need training and practice.
A deal is good only when both parties involved benefit from it. While a machine alone would probably be too defensive of the interests of a business, lacking the ability to leave room for an extra client gain when it would result in better future business, a Brand Ambassador, with discretionary power but weak negotiation skills, might end up compromising the Company’s margin in the long run.
This is just a simple overview of the level of skills, maturity and leadership professionals in the sales and customer service zone will need to succeed, and prosper in their jobs.
My research in this realm is being conducted on a daily basis while I continue consulting my clients in two continents helping them create a culture of extraordinary service and boost their sales performance, and I remain committed to share the results with my community.
Your thoughts, suggestions, and even “thoughtful disagreement” are highly appreciated.
For today, I am confident to reaffirm that service (and sales) is a job for leaders.
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