Don’t lose your humanity in the race to automate

August 17, 2021

I’m on holiday this week. Yes, I actually did it! I took some time off. I’m down in London because my wife Mandy bought me a spa day at a swanky hotel for my birthday.

I went to have my massage yesterday. I thought I was going to relax for an hour and forget all about work; instead, life served me an extremely valuable business lesson.

Before my session, I tried to go for a shower. The only one available was broken. So I went to leave my things in the locker room and wrestled with one of the keypads for a few minutes before a lady came in and said, ‘Oh, don’t use that one. It does not work.”

“Right,” I thought. “This isn’t a very good customer experience.”

But then I had a massage, and the lady was excellent. Afterwards, I went for a pedicure and the gentleman who took care of me was exceptional. Then, finally, when I left, I got chatting to the receptionist, who was friendly and accommodating and made me feel so welcome.

Even though all the hotel's attempts at automation had failed, the human interactions I had in that spa made the whole experience positive and uplifting.

It got me thinking about the power of automation – and the fact that the secret lies in knowing what to automate.

At BigChange, we have automated many of our processes. Take our sales team. Even though we have increased revenues over the past year, we haven’t increased the number of people it takes to do the sales admin because our technology does it for us.

When an order is created by a salesperson, they don’t have to touch a process after that: the BigChange system creates the contract, sends it out, generates the customer communications, orders any stock that’s needed, sets up the billing, and starts the onboarding process. But, if that customer has a question, they can pick up the phone and reach a human being immediately. The automation doesn’t extend to customer service.

These days, that’s rare. I’ve noticed that so many tech companies have taken all the phone numbers off their websites. Customers have to interact with bots and, if their query isn’t answered, they get siphoned into a complex and long-winded ticketing system. Our Roadcrew customer service is available to all our customers, and human beings are there to solve problems 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

This is the other thing about automation: it should free up your people to do the high value tasks. But it shouldn’t be an enabler of Parkinson’s Law.

I was reminded about Parkinson’s Law this weekend when I read an article in the Sunday Times by James Timpson, CEO of nationwide key cutter Timpson I have been an admirer of James and his father John for many years. Their fantastic business model, and their ethical and pragmatic approach to leadership, are truly inspiring.

“Parkinson’s Law, written by C Northcote Parkinson in 1955, explains why ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion’,” he wrote. “Using his experience in the civil service, he calculated that a department grows in size, on average, by 6 per cent a year. This isn’t due to more responsibility but simply people making more work for each other.

“Many business leaders, including me, have learnt about Parkinson’s Law too late in life. Covid forced us to dust off the book and start understanding how we can run a company with much lower overheads, without affecting the service we give our customers and colleagues.”

We must all guard against the effects of Parkinson's Law in our organisations. Automation can be a catalyst for lethargy as well as action. This is why it’s so important to have a plan and to strive for efficiency in all the things we do. Many people talk about change and extol the benefits of automation – and then fail to take any action. Some people take action but fail to protect the human interactions their customers crave. Others automate, provide excellent customer service when it’s needed, and are thriving.

Let’s all make sure we stay firmly in the latter camp.

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