There’s a Dilbert cartoon in which the boss tells one of his employees that “Resources are our most valuable asset”. I hear management-speak like this on a sadly regular basis.
Staff, colleagues, “partners” – call them what you like, but in the end they are, just as the cartoon says, people, and they are the greatest weapon a company has in its arsenal. The problem is, they’re expensive, they take a long time to train really well, and, if you don’t treat them properly, they not only leave, but often go and work for your competitor. No AI system will ever do that!
So it’s understandable that when costs have to be cut, employees are an obvious target. As they represent a fixed overhead and you can’t always qualify their benefit to the top and bottom line. Get rid of just one employee, the boss may think longingly, and think of all the things we would use that wedge of money for instead! Besides, you might think, isn’t technology the future? Aren’t we getting more and more used to interacting with machines and computer systems? Aren’t employees a bit, well, old-fashioned?
It’s understandable thinking, but it’s dead wrong. I’ve talked before about the importance to retailers, especially on the high street, of the “immersive experience” of visiting a physical bricks-and-mortar store. Customers want to feel welcomed, valued, and part of a community, in a way. While I agree with the forward-looking ideas which say technology has an absolutely vital part to play in the modern shopping experience, people are important too. They’re flexible in a way which we still can’t programme, they’re sympathetic to customers’ needs, and, if ever there was a machine which learned by doing, it surely has to be the human brain.
Business owners are always looking for the next shiny new thing. I get that. There’s always a restlessness, a desire to improve, and a lingering fear that you’ll miss the boat, like Betamax or Laser Disc, if you get innovation wrong. That’s coupled with the knowledge that if you back the right horse, you could pull ahead of the field and leave your rivals gasping for breath. Nor is that instinct always wrong; look at the new cashless, checkout-less Sainsbury’s on High Holborn that I talked about last week, where human interaction is trimmed to a bare minimum to speed up throughflow and improve efficiency. If that works, and I’m cautiously optimistic, then it’ll be a great advance for the customer experience.
But you have to be flexible and recognise the diversity of your customer base. Without wanting to stereotype, older people are more comfortable dealing with a friendly and helpful human being than with even the very best and most sophisticated algorithm. Real members of staff can advise, recommend and upsell in a sensitive and emotionally intelligent way that machines still can’t. And think about that biggest of challenges for bricks-and-mortar retailers, getting customers over the threshold. Which would you go into, a store with a line of people staring mutely at computer screens, or one where you could see friendly, smiling faces in neat uniforms, someone you can talk to, someone who’ll interact with you? Maybe you’re not sure exactly what it is you want to purchase: you have a notion, but you haven’t nailed down a precise set of specs yet.
Think about mobile phone shops. Let’s be honest: the deals on handsets and contracts and networks are all pretty similar. You could spend hours on the internet researching every last element, and maybe save a couple of pounds a month, but wouldn’t you rather sit down with someone who can explain roughly how you use your phone and what you want and expect, and have them make a recommendation based on what you’ve told them? For a high street which might have half a dozen providers on it, that kind of interaction could be the deciding factor.
So, resist the simple temptation of the bottom line. Staff are an expensive investment, and machines can seem cheaper. But it can be a false economy. Good staff – and that’s always a qualification – are worth the money, because they can give you an edge in a marketplace that’s as crowded as it has ever been. So, stay the butcher’s knife for a moment, if you can, and think if you’re really going to save money in the long term.