What Technology Can't Fix

What Technology Can’t Fix

In most business circles, there’s a feeling that if a company is going to be successful, leaders have to be up to date in implementing the latest and greatest technologies — and the hot button today is AI. But businesses are made of people, and consumers are people, too. If leaders forget that, it’s easy for a business to end up missing the mark because they discovered that what their analytics is telling them isn’t the entire picture. So, when it comes to communication, technology and the human element have to balance. Both have benefits, and they can complement each other when utilized in the right way.

When Technology Gives Big Wins

If you went through the simple process of resetting your password, you’d probably find it a little odd if you got an emotive response from the company that said: “Hi, hope you had a lovely experience resetting your password. If our insistence on both letters AND numbers was a burden, please let us know. Have a lovely day.” That’s because the task at hand is functional and transactional. There’s no need to overcomplicate or personalize it when all that has to happen is a data exchange. 

When communication is informative, particularly at scale, it’s often fine for it to be technology-driven. Technology can enhance communication by providing data-driven targeting or insights, such as with analytics. It also can streamline processes and save time, such as automated reminder emails. texts or retargeting messages. Scale and reach get a boost, too. Reaching thousands or millions of people one-on-one isn’t practical. But with tools like social media, a company can easily get its message out to the masses. Having said that, there are, of course, limits to technology.

When Face-to-Face Beats the Machine

It’s very easy for people in business — even within the same building — to get so head-down and task-focused that they don’t even see the person sitting three or four doors down. The lack of warmth that results begins to dissociate people from being able to connect, communicate and empathize. They get used to being able to send out an email instead of walking into someone’s physical space.

When people engage face-to-face, there are subtle nonverbals that inform communication. Those don’t take the place of other tools, but they can provide context and serve as connective tissue between other, larger communication pillars. So, when a person or company is trying to cultivate affinity for a brand and motivate a response from consumers, more of a human touch is required. 

A 1990 commercial from United Airlines, “Speech,” actually drives this point home. In the ad, a boss lets his team know that one of the company’s oldest customers just fired them. He talks about how the company used to do business with a handshake — it used to be personal, but calls, faxes, and other technologies got in the way. The boss then presents airline tickets to the entire team so they can go meet all the company’s clients face-to-face and repair their weakened relationships. 

The message that the human touch has to be part of the way people communicate is arguably even more relevant now, as companies and consumers have so much technology at their fingertips. And research backs up taking the in-person approach — face-to-face requests are 34 times more likely to get a positive response than those sent over email.

At my company, we have made it a habit that before we kick off our leadership meetings, we ask each other how we are feeling. It doesn’t have to be work-related — just checking in as a human being. Those small moments build trust and connection, so we can then tackle the work at hand. 

A Complementary Approach for Maximum Benefit

Technology and the human touch don’t have to be enemies. Companies’ face-to-face conversations can inform how they apply the technology they have. And technology can help people figure out how to approach their face-to-face conversations.

Let’s say a company is doing a campaign for a widget that cleans something. If the company knows from their face-to-face interactions that customers are getting pulled in 100 different directions, they might alter their email campaign to talk about how the widget makes taking something off the customer’s to-do list easier, rather than talking functionally about how good the widget cleans.

Similarly, companies can look for ways to let technology inform their data gathering. If a business is facing a major change or shakeup, such as a merger, they might use an employee survey to get a sense of how workers feel about the change and what their top questions are. Leaders can use the survey results to set talking points for the next in-person team meeting and figure out how to deliver each point so it hits home.

In either direction, the goal is to assess someone’s headspace. Not everyone can empathize all the time, but if leaders know where the person is coming from, they can use that insight to make sure that whatever they need to communicate next lands and is effective.

Balance Can Offer a Competitive Edge

Given the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pace of the world, companies can’t ignore the efficiencies technology can offer. Yet, because people are behind every engagement, businesses have to nurture the human touch in what they do, too. So, good communication is not technology or face-to-face, but a balance of both. Applying either way of communicating necessitates understanding the recipient’s state of mind, with one interaction informing the next. The more companies can see how engagements connect in a longer chain and make empathetic decisions about the best way to respond, the more competitive they will be in the market. 

As previously published on FastCompany.com here