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TECHNOLOGY

Is Your Business Too High-Tech?

Just because machines can do things faster and cheaper than your employees doesn't mean they should.
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Technology can handle increasingly complex tasks for businesses.

Consider the British company Bodymetrics, which makes equipment that scans people so they can find perfectly fitting clothing. (This one isn't a brand new idea--Levi's started implementing a similar system in 2005.)

It certainly seems like a no-brainer, right? Have someone step in the box, take a snapshot, and you get the exact fit. Automation can make the sales process faster, reduce human labor costs, and create efficiency in the process. As the New York Times Magazine noted in its recent innovation issue, salons may soon do something similar, using a machine to wash, massage, and dry customers' heads with little manual intervention.

Automation can be good--heck, even great--for business. In some industries it's absolutely necessary if you want to scale. But some of the latest newfangled tech ideas have me wondering if companies are losing something crucial: the human touch. People do business with companies for many reasons. Satisfying a specific, practical need is only one of them. Consumers also want to be recognized and valued. They want attention, which is at the heart of service.

Think of the last time you went to a salon or barber shop. What's your best memory of the experience? Simply walking in and waiting until your locks were chopped to the proper length and arranged in the correct position? More likely it was the feel of hands on your head, conversation with the stylist or barber, and a sense of being pampered. How about a restaurant? To some, food is the only important consideration. But I'd argue that most people want to feel catered to--they want good service and the right atmosphere. Similarly, a fine hotel is much more than the amenities and the thread count of the sheets. How you're treated can shatter what should be superior accommodations, just as it can elevate more ordinary appointments.

The desire for human contact extends well beyond the hospitality industry. Customer service, the alter ego of ego scratching, is an important category in any sort of business. That explains why many people who need computer technical support get upset if connected to an outsourced office in India, because they don't get the warm and comfy feeling. Need a new vacuum cleaner? You likely want someone who will bother to explain things without making you feel inept or uneducated. Department stores trying to keep a tight rein on headcount regularly antagonize people by not having someone available to help when they need and want it.

Instead of spending money to save some pennies through greater efficiency, why not invest in teaching your staff how to properly treat customers and rake in the dollars? Zappos built a great reputation--and a great acquisition price from Amazon--by going to extraordinary lengths to make customers happy, including overnighting free shoes to a best man at a wedding when the original shipment was mis-routed by UPS. Customer service representatives don't even work from scripts.

Often, making a fuss over someone doesn't take that long and results in customer loyalty. I can think of a tree surgeon who, while taking care of something at our house, also quickly fixed an ailing rider without charging for the extra service. Guess who will be back to do more tree work at my house?

Try picking up a phone instead of depending completely on electronic communication. Send some hand-written notes instead of form emails. Use your experience to anticipate what a customer will need and deliver it before the person could even expect it. It takes less than you think and will pay an incredible dividend.

Last updated: Jun 14, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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