Lately, I’ve been asked a lot about digital customer support. In the era of COVID-19, companies have had to make major changes in the way they connect and communicate with their customers, especially when it comes to their support.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a massive shift in both business and consumer buying habits and patterns. In May, I wrote about the human connection being more important than ever as most of the world went into a “shelter-in-place” experience. In short, the number of people wanting to reach a person instead of digital support went up by as much as 38%. Consequently, there were unreasonably long hold times. Companies that didn’t have the simple technology to let their customers know how long the hold times were going to be or give the option to receive a call back found their customer satisfaction scores dropping dramatically. Even companies that had good digital self-help or automated support found customers abandoning that for a human-to-human (H2H) experience. As much as companies wanted to use some type of automation, many customers were resisting. That’s why my suggestions to clients and others asking me what to do was simple. Find the balance.

Customers are increasingly wanting more independence and control over their own buying experience. You can automate part of the relationship, but if the customer wants the H2H experience, you need to provide it. If not, frustration may kick in. A lack of trust can sneak into what had always been a good experience. The point is that when things are going well, automation and self-service solutions can work. But when customers want empathy, an expert opinion to help them understand complex purchase decisions and an emotional connection—even if they don’t know it—you have to be ready, willing and able to give it to them.

I had a chance to interview Geoff Webb from PROS, a company that specializes in using AI and innovation to drive a better buyer and customer experience. We discussed exactly this dilemma that companies are finding themselves in. We agreed that there must be a balance between digital solutions—including artificial intelligence (AI), chatbots, a Frequently Asked Questions page on the company’s website, video tutorials, etc.—and a human connection. Even if you have great online solutions, there must be an easy, seamless transition to a human fallback. Webb says, “If you can meld the human and the AI pieces of sales and service, you can power a much better experience. Bringing together the analytic power of AI and the context and empathy power of a human being can deliver an incredibly personalized, really effective selling and support process.”

The roles of the salesperson and the customer support agent are shifting, and both must be at expert level. Customers want answers to their questions. This is especially true for B2B companies, where purchases are much more complex and decisions are made with higher stakes and risk involved. More and more, customers expect our people, not our machines, to provide those answers. The good news is that our people don’t always have to know the answers off the top of their heads. They just have to know where to find those answers. That may be a good place for AI and digital assistance to happen. Instead of automation taking care of the customer, it takes care of the salesperson or support rep. When our customers know they can rely on their salesperson or a customer service agent to get accurate information, it drives up trust, which drives up repeat business and loyalty.

“The role of the salesperson is becoming that of an expert,” says Webb. “If automation can support the employee in connecting to the customer, then you can create an incredible experience for the buyer that drives customer loyalty. Customers will come back because they know they can get the answers they need when they need them.”

When customers don’t get the information they want in the easiest and most convenient way possible—and often that means talking to a human—it creates friction. “Friction in the sales and support process is something that will eventually drive even a good customer away,” says Webb. The point is that you must give your customers exactly the information they need in the way they want it. Recently, that includes a heavier H2H experience, even as many businesses also grow their eCommerce footprint.

There is a quote that is attributed to Albert Einstein. The reality is that he never said it—at least not the way it is quoted. Still, it makes sense. It is this: “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

That’s a pretty strong statement, but I believe the message is that we shouldn’t let technology get in the way of humanity and relationships. A while back, I wrote something that may be the perfect way to close out this article: “The greatest technology in the world hasn’t replaced the ultimate relationship tool between a customer and a business—the human touch.” To that I would add five more words: You can’t automate a relationship.