We have been reporting about the customer service experience for years – following the arc of the neighborhood store in the 50s where everyone knows your name to the AI-infused tech age of drone delivery where, when and how our demanding customers want it. The mantra of “I want it now” has ushered in a generation of startups fueling the customer’s self-imposed sense of urgency for product delivery that is actually an imposter for a valuable customer experience. Speed has replaced a meaningful personal experience that, at one point, actually delivered authentic value. Speed has also fueled a tech engineer’s dream of putting machine learning to work to make a personal fortune delivering stuff to people who think they are going to miss out if they don’t have it right now. Speed has become the customer experience god.
Sound cynical? Maybe. The startup world is alive and well thanks to customer whim for urgency. But is speed really the silver bullet to a better customer experience? My online brands that know me by name could be. A monthly delivery of a curated collection of more new stuff reflecting my personal style could be. Commodities showing up on my doorstep just as I’m about to run out could be.
So, let me tell you a story about a recent experience I had. Full disclosure: This is a First World problem. I traveled to Palm Springs for a meeting in a zillion-star resort, hidden behind enormous hedgerows guarding an exclusive garden sanctuary hotel and spa on Gene Autrey’s former estate. To my annoying dismay, I realized I left my fragrance in New York (remember this is a First World story). The concierge had no constructive suggestion on how to get a hold of some Chanel. The spa only carried treatment products, and the amiable attendant had no constructive suggestion. I called Ulta in Palm Springs on the off chance they had one-hour delivery (lots of urgency here as I had to go into a lengthy meeting and had no time to Lyft to a mall before it closed to find what I wanted). And by the way, Ulta doesn’t carry Chanel. I thought TaskRabbit. Maybe Uber has a delivery service. Who owns a drone? I struck out Googling any sort of online quick-delivery service in the area.
Ah-ha. I called Saks Fifth Avenue in Palm Desert as a last resort (I knew they carried Chanel, so I was at least halfway there). A charming man answered the phone – this is old-school communications – and I explained my problem. In an unexpected turn of events, he told me he’d drop it off on his way home that evening. I kept asking, “Really?” And he did. Really. Gary Griffin from Saks is gracious and highly personable. He arrived right on time after work, Chanel in hand, happy to be there.
The point of this story is that this is the real-deal customer service. It was personal, honest and on his part, with the intention to make a random customer satisfied while expecting nothing in return. It hit me out there in the middle of the desert, this is what makes us thrive. I was treated with respect and kindness. I appreciated him (a lot), which made him feel valuable. It was a transaction with a high emotional quotient – exactly what we need as human beings to feel fulfilled and happy. I fear we have lost our way in our consumer-driven culture and have forgotten the most basic values that define our humanity: compassion, empathy, grace and connection. Without these behaviors we are no more than drones: efficient, effective and machines.
AI is going to change the very nature of our self-identities, recast the workforce and develop a new relationship between man and machine. I’m the kid in the back of the classroom with my hand up with the contrarian viewpoint. Speed can be good. Machines can exponentially improve many of the problems besetting society. But nothing can replace the dopamine released when we have an authentic encounter with another human being. And that connection is the purest, most positive experience we can hope for. And that is not a First World problem – it is universal and what drives us to be human in a tech-driven, digital age.