Sat, Mar 11, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Brand human:
Why efficient automation will not always be best for business

As robots begin to replace people, some employers are realizing the value of human interaction in customer service

By Max Opray  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Tania Chou

As study after study predicts huge swaths of jobs will be wiped out by automation in the coming decades, there is one factor that might just throw a spanner in the works of the robot workforce takeover: the marketing power of brand human.

Just as Fair Trade and organic branding initiatives have convinced consumers to pay a higher price for products and services that might not be produced in the most coldly efficient way possible, businesses are realizing the potential to carve out a niche in the face of growing disenchantment with the rise of the machines.

Marketers have identified a range of branding benefits to retaining human talent in the face of cheaper and more efficient automated alternatives — from the ethical glow of providing employment for communities to the customer relationship-building potential of human interaction.

In Australia, as the major supermarket duopoly of Coles and Woolworths continues to expand self-service checkout lanes (despite losing millions of dollars in stolen products), some competitors are choosing to go the other way.

The small South Australian chain Adelaide’s Finest Supermarket, operator of a pair of Foodland supermarkets, has loudly and publicly banned self-service checkouts in an attempt to attract customers sick of being told to have a nice day by a robotic voice emanating from speakers.

Australian consumer behavior analyst Barry Urquhart, managing director of Marketing Focus, said that staffed checkout is also a key point of difference for Aldi and for much of the IGA chain of independent supermarkets.

“IGA always made virtue of doing things how the locals like it, and when you employ young people, it always strikes a chord,” he said.

“It is not driven purely by internal efficiency, but [by] showing good social conscience in conspicuously engaging young people, customers will notice. Branding is a matter of knowing what your values are, then you go out there and project that,” he said.

Urquhart’s market research findings have him convinced that major companies have erred in stacking their boards with finance-sector types fixated on saving money.

“Lowering costs comes at a cost — in many instances, the relationship with existing customers becomes very transactional,” Urquhart said.

“There is no ongoing relationship; it is reactional and consumers become hyper-price sensitive, lacking loyalty and repeat business — you have to keep winning them back,” he said.

“When you have technology replacing humanity, it is best deployed when it complements, not replaces people. If you’re happy to have once-only, price-driven encounters, fine, go to automation, because that’s inevitably what you will get,” he added.

Even supermarkets that are embracing self-checkout are increasingly choosing to redeploy staff in new customer service roles.

The brand futurist Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, said the US supermarket chain client Lowes is an example of a company restructuring to include more staff trained to provide “true experiences” in-store.

“Sure the cost went up — but suddenly the guests felt someone cared about them,” he said.

However, just because a company brands itself as human does not mean it is necessarily employing more people: Lowes is cutting back-of-house staff as it restructures and is experimenting with customer service bots — it is just that they are not marketing themselves on their technology.

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