Does your business need digital intelligence or emotional intelligence?

COVID-19 is driving greater adoption of digital technology to mitigate market and service delivery risk; and, if your business is not already ‘digital’ it is being left behind by one or more of its competitors. If your business is either hurrying to catch-up or to introduce advanced digital technologies to stay ahead, beware of the trap of placing more emphasis on data and digital intelligence than emotional intelligence.

My family and I flew to the USA a couple of years ago for Christmas. On our return, we felt that ominous feeling as the luggage carousel finally stopped, one suitcase short. It was the Christmas present bag; the new light sabres were inside.

The airline was certain their new, digital, global baggage tracking system would locate my bag. Indeed, within seconds, my bag was found to have been mis-tagged and now sitting in a random airport of a Central American country.

Following a quick calculation of flight schedules, the agent confirmed my suitcase would be delivered to my home in two days.

Two days later, there was no bag, no call, no update. Calling the airline’s lost-luggage number, they again assured me the suitcase would be with me in 48 hours.

Five days later, no bag, no update. Calling lost luggage again, they admitted the bag was lost and untraceable. I asked “How?… given you have a new, global digital tracking system?” The agent explained the bag was handed over to an outsourced agency that is contracted to return the lost luggage, and the digital system only tracks the bag to this point of handover. I was asked to call the outsourced contractor. Despite calling for days, no one answered the phone.

Not able to bear calling the same numbers again, I found the airline’s customer service centre. After, explaining my situation, the agent incredulously suggested I contact the lost-luggage department. In desperation, I said “I know you are running off a script. Could you please go off script, and just help me, as I am at my wit’s end?” The agent’s voice changed; it was obvious he heard my plea and said, “I will personally find your bag and ensure it is returned. If I do not call you in an hour, here is my direct line to call me back.’ The next day, the suitcase was returned.

What about the new, global baggage tracking system? This is an important point. First, the design of the system only partially covered the customer outcome of returning the lost luggage. When considering digital technologies, the end-to-end processes, aligned to customer outcomes, should be designed in. Second, the more technology is used, the greater flexibility and emotional intelligence is required within customer support. It took the call centre agent’s own empathy and willingness to help, to solve the problem that technology failed to do.

While I prefer for things to go right, 100 percent right first time is a fairy-tale. Having led major operations, I secretly value when the service goes wrong. These moments provide an opportunity to engage and empathise with customers. Digital technology is designed to make the experience ‘seamless’ and ‘automated’ – to remove error. But experience shows the service will invariably go wrong and technology alone lacks the emotional intelligence required to resolve the problems.

People, not technology, build the strongest sense of customer loyalty.

Empathy and emotional intelligence, not artificial intelligence, generate loyalty. Digital technology is now table-stakes; machine learning, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence help differentiate a digital platform in what is fast becoming a ubiquitous service landscape. In my case the call centre person stepped out from any strategy or policy, or digital technology platform and engaged a customer with understanding.

The basis of our own sense of humanity should be the foundation for how we embark on a digital transformation. The most important thing we can do as leaders is to inspire our workforce to put the customer at the heart of everything they do, using their own emotional intelligence to underpin digital transformations.

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