Insights | By Howard Tiersky

Digital Humanity

Customers love the convenience of digital self service, but in some situations, they can become frustrated if they don't have the opportunity to speak with a "human."   

According to Forbes, 80% of customers prefer to make purchases from brands that provide personalized recommendations and 70%+ of customers become frustrated when a brand doesn’t personalize their experience. But what is more “personal?” A person talking to you? Or an algorithmically derived list of targeted recommendations based on past behavior? It’s not clear cut.

Recent studies show that 70% of customers prefer self-service in most situations, and yet 80% say they become frustrated when they can’t reach a human being when they need to.

So what is going on here? 

My team and I have been studying this question for years. Many of our clients have a goal of driving even more customers to “self service” to achieve its cost benefits (as well as satisfy customers who love the convenience). Yet there is the perceived risk that by removing human interaction from brand touchpoints the experience becomes less personal, less human.

In fact what we’ve uncovered is that there are specific and extremely distinct reasons that customers yearn for a more personalized/human experience. Each of these seven reasons can be satisfied either by a digital experience or a human experience, although some are naturally more aligned to one or the other.

The companies that are the best at providing “no touch” self service (like Amazon) have figured out how to deliver all seven of these in the vast majority of their customer interactions, so that customers can shop with them for years, never speak to a human, and yet never feel their experience lacks humanity, or the personal touch.

And those brands who excel at human to human interaction have also figured out how to excel at delivering all seven via 1-1 interactions with customers, often by empowering their employees with digital tools.

In this article, we’ll break down these seven distinct desires that customers have that make them sometimes say “OK, I want to talk to a human being now,” and examine how to insert more humanity into digital experiences to avoid that reaction as well as consider how digital can aid in your human touch points as well.


"It's just easier to talk to a person than deal with technology"


Sometimes people prefer to talk to a human because it seems more convenient over having to deal with a digital tool.

Humans have the ability to understand questions or requests without it being worded or “input” in a particular manner, and can intelligently ask for clarification when needed.

While high quality interactions with humans tend to be better than digital ones, there are a number of challenges to delivering outstanding human-based customer service. First, if the customer has to wait to speak with an available human, this can drastically reduce the convenience. Second, delivering an outstanding human “interface” requires a well trained and intelligent employee and let’s face it, that’s not always what’s available. And lastly, most humans speak one or a few languages at best which can make serving customers with atypical language needs a challenge.


Digital experiences can be quite easy and quick to engage with when done effectively.

Amazon, for example, provides an outstanding shopping experience and most customers never speak to a human or wish to.

A digital interaction can be enhanced by making it load faster, easier to understand, more comfortable to navigate, or redesigning the interface.

Meanwhile, one way for you to enhance the human interaction is to give your sales associate or customer service representative a digital tool to help overcome language barriers or present information to the customer. 


"I want to talk to someone who can give me real advice, not some database or digital wizard"

When a customer needs help, they want accurate and thorough answers to their questions.


It’s a wonderful experience to walk into a store and engage with a salesperson who completely understands the product, asks the right questions, provides practical usage information, and makes thoughtful recommendations. 

However, as we all know, that’s not usually what happens. There are only a handful of stores, banks, restaurants or other businesses that have someone who can comfortably extend different levels of product expertise while displaying impeccable customer service.


Digital’s strength is its immediate access to gigabytes of information. Websites nowadays can provide you plenty of access to the technical information of a product, and customer reviews.

The problem with this is that not every business has comprehensive, up-to-date, product information on their website or sometimes you just can’t find the information you’re looking for and end up going to the store or making a call just to talk to someone.

But when done right, the combination of knowledge bases, wizards and even chatbots can often provide effective personalized advice.

And human interaction can also be improved by providing employees access to similar tools so that if they don't know the answer to a question a customer is asking they have reference material to help them be more effective.


"Sally in Customer Service understands my situation/account/preferences–I just want to speak to her."

When a repeat customer who has a previous transaction engages with a business they often want to be remembered and avoid having to repeat details about themselves or their situation that they have communicated in prior interactions, whether that's their credit card number, shoe size, or the fact that they are lactose intolerant.


Small businesses with only a few employees may remember their best customers and their characteristics, and when this occurs it can be a very warm, welcoming experience. However as businesses scale and the number of both customers and employees grows, it becomes impractical to rely on human memory. 


On the other hand, digital interactions can have access to the complete history of a customer’s transactions. Many apps and websites are also capable of making recommendations based on a user’s purchase or browsing history. 

And once again, digital can aid employees in identifying past customers and rapidly familiarizing them with their history and preferences.


"I need something the website/app won't let me do. A human can override that."

Sometimes a customer is just looking for someone who is willing to bend the rules a little bit, ask for an exception to a policy or have an option that isn’t usually available to get what they really want.


Digital interactions usually take customers through a pre-programmed path leaving no room for “special exceptions.” Even if what the customer is seeking for is something that the company would be willing to deliver, not every digital solution is built to cover every edge case.

Solutions include allowing customers to escalate requests to human customer support or providing more rigorous options that cover exception scenarios. For example when Amazon processes a return it has many different options for “return reason” to address the fact that customers expectations about return policies vary depending on whether they “just didn't like the item,” or it arrived damaged, or late, or wasn’t as advertised, each triggering a slightly different return policy.


Humans can be more flexible compared to their digital counterparts. When a customer is visibly frustrated over a product or particularly irate about a service, humans have an easier time seeing when a “general” rule should not be applied to a specific situation.

However, not all employees are empowered to resolve situations that require flexibility which can limit this benefit. We’ve all been on the phone with a customer service representative who says they agree with our position but “there’s nothing they can do.”

Ritz Carlton, on the other hand, famously empowers employees to spend up to $1500 if they feel it's appropriate to resolve a customer’s issue on the spot.


"This thing that I need is really important, I need to look someone in the eye and be assured it will be taken care of well."

When a customer needs something urgent for a special occasion or is worried about whether or not they’re making the right decision on a major purchase, are stressed or in danger, they are often looking for some kind of reassurance that “everything is going to be all right.”


Humans are better than computers at being empathetic. They can provide reassurance through eye-contact or tone of voice when they have the knowledge, confidence and sincerity to back them up. Almost any human interaction can address a situation that requires trust.

Unfortunately, not all customer-facing employees are equipped to handle situations like that. In fact, employees who have poor communications skills, weak eye contact or other negative non-verbal signals can reduce trust more than a sterile digital interface would.


While digital experiences generally can’t “look you in the eye,” they can create trust in the brand by providing a professional experience, customer reviews, logos of verifying services (like TrustPilot), having clear communications, and consistently delivering on expectations over time.


"I get lonely. I like to interact with people when I shop/bank, etc."

Sometimes a customer just wants to feel a human connection. People can get lonely and talking with a bank employee, waitress or call center representative can help alleviate that.


Humans are clearly able to “connect” with employees more effectively than digital experiences-- they can  express their individuality, build rapport, and create that connection with the customer. 

Of course some person-to-person experiences lack humanity anyway, such as the cliche experience of going to the DMV, so in order to achieve this benefit companies need to focus on hiring and training.


Strong founder personalities like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos can help simulate a sense of humanity in brands even if they provide primarily a digital experience.

The copywriting style of digital experiences can inject a sense of personality which helps create more of a sense of connection.

Featuring images or videos of real company employees can also aid in this area.

In the future AI may also enable more personality-driven interactions between humans and digital experiences so as to further improve digital’s ability to fulfill this customer need.


“I want to feel like someone important when I’m in a shop, bank, etc.”

We all like to feel important. By definition, that feeling of “importance” comes from the perception that someone or something sees you as “better” or more significant than others.

Some businesses do a good job of making their customers feel truly appreciated, respected, and even revered, while other companies just print a perfunctory “thank you for your business” on the receipt, a statement which has lost most of its power through mindless repetition. Businesses that treat all their customers the same or anonymously don’t trigger that feeling of self-importance.


People are often better at expressing sincere appreciation compared to a digital tool that won’t necessarily make the customer feel appreciated in the same way.

However, similar to the other keys mentioned above, fulfilling this need isn’t automatically done just because a human is capable of it. For example, entering a restaurant and receiving a scowl from the waitress who is annoyed to have “one more table” to serve.

Training and hiring the correct people is crucial when you want to communicate with customers sincerely.


On the other hand, there are a variety of ways to make customers feel special without needing human interaction. 

Some people feel like they are making a difference to society when they do business with brands that support a particular cause like TOMS shoes. Meanwhile, others feel like they are part of an exclusive club when they patronize brands like Wholefoods or Harley Davidson. 
Special perks for loyal customers such as airlines provide can create that feeling of importance, and so can the opportunity to participate in an exclusive or early stage product such as on Kickstarter where customers feel their individual decision to purchase can make the difference between whether the product succeeds or not.

All of these alternative methods of creating the feeling of self-importance in the customer can be communicated and executed through digital (as well as other methods) without requiring direct human interaction.


When separated this way, it's clear that this desire for "humanity" is really a number of different (and far more concrete) things that just get bucketed together and generalized under more abstract labels like a more "personal" experience or one with "a human touch."

All seven factors that drive this desire can effectively be addressed through digital experiences. Some, of course, are easier to do than others. 

But at the end of the day, whether you go all the way to one side or create a hybrid system that utilizes them both can still yield effective results. It all depends on you, your business, and what kind of interactions would be best for your customers to create the unique formula that will differentiate your brand.

Everything you see here and more will be in my upcoming book Human vs Digital. In the meantime, my Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Winning Digital Customers: The Antidote to Irrelevance, I walk you through a simple five-step roadmap to help you identify those areas and drive a successful digital transformation within your organization. This is the methodology that I use to help my clients succeed in their digital transformation journey and win the love and loyalty of their customers. Get the first chapter for FREE here, or purchase the book here.

Get FREE access to the first chapter of FROM`s
Wall Street Journal Best Selling Book


  • Learn the three patterns of all successful digital brands (including companies like Apple, Netflix and Uber).
  • Understand why many great new products fail, and the formula for building products that won’t.
  • Discover the key reasons companies resist change and how to overcome them.
Get FREE access to the first chapter of FROM's
Wall Street Journal Best Selling Book


  • Learn the three patterns of all successful digital brands (including companies like Apple, Netflix and Uber).
  • Understand why many great new products fail, and the formula for building products that won’t.
  • Discover the key reasons companies resist change and how to overcome them.