Neuroscience and Customer Success: Building a strategy that supports human interaction

February 26, 2018

ESG Customer Success

Category: Customer Success Resources


In 2015, researchers Dominic Fareri, Luke Chang and Mauricio Delgado published an article in The Journal of Neuroscience on the power of collaborative interactions in building and maintaining relationships. One of their experiments involved playing a simple game.

Some participants were told they were playing the game with other people while others were told they were playing with computers. In fact, the experiment was rigged: all of the subjects were interacting with computers. What happened? Mutual cooperation dropped significantly for those told they were dealing with artificial intelligence. But the opposite was true for those believing they were playing with humans: their brain scans showed activity in areas known for processing social rewards. The study also demonstrated that the brain stores positive emotions from mutual cooperation, but this did not occur when humans thought they were playing with computers. The key takeaway: humans activate different neural circuitry when they believe they are working with humans vs. computers, leading to more cooperative, emotionally rewarding behaviors.

More than automation

These results reflect the commonsense, fundamental concept that the most rewarding experiences involve other human beings. And the implications for our increasingly robotic business world — and delivering an extraordinary customer experience — are profound.

Automation is an important aspect of a Customer Success (CS) strategy, and a particularly alluring option when trying to reduce costs and increase productivity. But there’s a downside to focusing too much on the bottom line and overlooking the benefits of human-to-human
contact. Sure, costs might go down, but so too will revenue, especially from lower-tier customers who never get a human touchpoint. Productivity increases, but at the cost of higher churn.

Neuroscience offers an alternative. Study after study shows three key learnings that should be central to every Customer Success strategy: 1. humans exhibit mutually rewarding, collaborative behaviors when interacting with each other; 2. these behaviors lead to loyalty; and 3. genuine, human interactions can’t be duplicated by today’s artificial intelligence (AI) systems. Seems straightforward enough, but theory and application can vary dramatically.

For instance, conventional wisdom says customers renew or expand their subscriptions based solely on the black-and-white value they’re getting from their software (are my costs lower?; is my productivity higher?). But neuroscience says there’s more to it. Contrary to popular belief, people make decisions based upon the emotional, not logical, rewards they receive. And by its very nature, human interaction is rewarding.

When personal contact is part of a series of positive events, loyalty grows. Researchers Hilke Plassman, Peter Kenning and Dieter Ahlert showed that the reward system is more active in the minds of loyal customers than disloyal ones. This higher neural activity is due to consistently meeting and exceeding expectations for quality, value, and human interaction. Over time, loyal customers then associate higher expectations for future rewards with their favorite brands, making the act of repurchasing automatic.

Finding the right mix

There’s no doubt AI is here to stay and CS leaders should closely examine its potential to boost productivity. But all too often, CS strategies are built around automation and humans fill in the gaps. What if we started with the idea that human interaction is essential to the customer experience and then build an AI strategy to support that vision? Doing so would deliver the best of both worlds — lower costs plus higher revenue.

So what does this mean for Customer Success?

Current AI technology isn’t foolproof, so CS leaders must be wary. In real-life circumstances, humans can easily tell when a robot responds — their autocorrect function chooses the wrong word or a simple question returns a bizarre answer. So the approach must blend both human and artificial contact. Do it right, and you can maximize the customer experience (and revenues) from the top of your client list to the bottom. Do it wrong, and it’s easy to destroy loyalty and trust in the blink of an eye.

To begin with, recognize that the uniquely human role CS professionals play can’t easily be duplicated. CSMs go beyond training and support and demonstrate value after the sale. And unlike computers, they also recognize and respond to the hidden, but powerful emotional responses customers reveal along the way. Humans naturally build bonds of trust no computer can match.

To land on the optimal blend of people and robots, start by focusing on three key areas:

  • Closely examine your customer journey to reveal areas where AI makes sense and where it doesn’t. Human contact is best at the outset and periodically at critical junctures to establish and grow relationships. Focus personal engagement initially on onboarding, and then use tools like automation to drip pertinent communications and monitor engagement. If the message is critical and there is no reaction after period X, give a personal call. If the message is less critical and there is no engagement after period X, send a bot to check in. And so on.
  • Use AI for mundane tasks while maintaining human contact at the key relationshipbuilding trigger points. For example, Colorado Springs-based software company BombBomb uses an AI-based sales assistant that emails cold leads with dynamic scripts in order to prompt reengagement. Their bot, which they named “Angie,” finds and refers hundreds of customers who’ve previously gone dark so human CSMs can personally follow up.
  • Stay on top of every AI advancement. As short-sighted as it is to ignore neuroscience in your CS strategy, it’s just as impractical to ignore all the ways that automation continues its warp-speed progression. In a 2017 article from IBM, Christie Schneider outlines a variety of reasons why AI-enhanced customer service is the future of call centers — from the rise of messaging applications to increasing demand for selfservice options (especially by millennials). “Businesses that do not adapt,” she writes, “risk a failure in communicating effectively with the next generation of consumers, which can negatively impact the customer journey and ultimately the business’ bottom line.”

The staffing conundrum

Given the current market’s propensity to err on the side of too much automation, your optimal blend may require more people than you currently have deployed. If that’s true, how do you effectively execute the blended model across all of your customer segments? If yours is like most companies, it’s likely the top 20 percent of your customers account for roughly 80 percent of your revenue, and so they get nearly 100 percent of your attention and resources. But what about the diamonds hiding in that bottom 80 percent? What about the customers who are left on their own to navigate your products and services? What about the untapped revenue that can come with building those relationships without pulling resources away from your top customers?

Most of the C-level decision-makers we speak with are experiencing that exact scenario, but they don’t have budget to support more full-time hires. And it’s where the outsourced partner concept of Customer Success as a Service (CSaaS) and virtual Customer Success Managers (vCSM) can make the most significant positive impact on an organization. Here are a few reasons why:

  • A CS partner allows for more flexibility and creativity with compensation packages, tying them directly to customer outcomes and improving efficiency.
  • Applying a disciplined CS methodology to all critical customer segments (not just the top tier) is a necessary ingredient of success and a committed team of vCSMs can deliver it.
  • A successful CS strategy absolutely requires people at critical points in the customer journey. A CSaaS partner can add the bench strength required to make sure these milestones aren’t overly automated or, worse yet, missed altogether. They include:
    • Goal/quota setting
    • Cadence management to achieve goals
    • Weekly coaching by skilled managers
    • Sales performance incentive funds (SPIF) and contests to create a fun, motivating environment

Bringing it home

A recent Zendesk study confirmed what most business leaders already feel to be true. It showed that 42 percent of business-to-consumer customers purchased more after a good customer service experience, while 52 percent stopped buying after one bad interaction. Whether it’s an automated touchpoint or a human one, a single contact can make or break a relationship. Make sure your blended approach is tight and strategic.

While many routine tasks can be handled by bots (e.g., conducting standardized training, sending reminders, reporting results), recognizing the accomplishment of key milestones has much greater impact when it comes with a personal touch. Consider the service giants that have quantified the effects. Zappos, for example, after implementing its Happiness Experience Form in which agents were scored on whether they made a personal connection and delivered a “wow” experience, saw a 5 percent increase in customer service scores along with increased revenue.

Artificial intelligence can save money. The human touch can grow revenue. Using them together smartly is your path to success.

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