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Are Algorithms stopping us talking?

With the ever increasing acceptance that harnessing big data, social listening and ultimately automating everything is business status quo, are we forgetting how to talk to each other?

I heard an interesting story this morning about a large West Coast US fast food outlet which may or may not be urban myth but still is a very good example of how all the data in the world sometimes can’t replace face to face communication.

Milkshake sales had been down for months. Research had been conducted on the products quality and it was superior to the competition, but sales remained down. Ad campaigns were commissioned in droves; sales continued to drop. Data was studied but still no clear reason for the dip in sales arose. Finally the marketing team conducted face to face research positioned in stores across the State. What they discovered was that the average commute to work in LA is 55 minutes. Milkshakes are widely considered to be an acceptable breakfast drink in California and a milkshake stays cold for almost an hour, while other breakfast products are difficult to consume whilst driving and don’t stay cold. What they were doing wrong was not making milkshakes available to early commuters fast enough. New “drinks only” drive thru kiosks saw sales soar during the hours of six and eight AM. Problem solved.

Studies conducted by Duke University show Americans have one third less friends than we used to 2 decades ago and studies by University of Michigan on students showed that they had less empathy than former students.

That said, it's clear that technology can be used successfully to improve service, generate revenue and remove humans from a process (in line with the right demographic/business model).

One good example of service improvement via technology is Spencer the KLM robot. The most likeable robot since ET lives at Schiphol airport, Amsterdam. His job is to help passengers find their gate in (if you haven't been) one the largest most sprawling airports in the world.

Research conducted to create Spencer covered 6 key areas of interactive intelligence: perception of people and groups of people in sensory data, normative human behavior learning and modeling, socially-aware mapping, and socially-aware task, motion and interaction planning in unstructured real-world environments and from mobile platforms. This means that he acts aware of human traffic and can adjust his speed to suit the pace of the passengers he is helping.

If you’ve ever stayed in a Citizen M Hotel you'll know the experience is very high tech (automated check in, vending machine breakfast and often not a human in site). But it works for the demographic it targets, young city adventures or business travellers that want to be close to the city but not pay the usual prices.

Where it gets scary for me is how technology is being used to create military robots. Google "Boston Dynamics" and you’ll see a host of crazy armoured creatures running up to 29.8 miles per hour, like this one! Be very afraid!

While there are numerous examples of how technology and especially the smart use of data is changing the way we work and play for the better, it seems we sometimes gloss over the potential pitfalls of it.

It is reassuring to hear therefore that some companies are investing in more human contact:

CD Baby, the largest online distributor of independent music (worth more than $22 million) is known for its customer service. It has 85 employees, and 35% of them are dedicated to customer help. Derek Sivers, the founder of CDBaby, explains that their great customer service can be attributed to their devotion to human interaction. Each time a customer calls the customer service department, an employee will pick up by the second ring. Once employees answer the phone and pull up the customers’ accounts, they learn about the customers and take an active interest not only in their immediate complaints, but also in the customer's’ personal interests.

I think we’ll see a surge back in this direction before long. Even our local Sainsbury's appears to have removed a number of the self service checkouts which is a very welcome change!

Recent research of millennials supports this.

Returning to Milkshakes, it’s interesting that the human interaction element provided a sense of comfort that had a direct impact on what people were willing to share and subsequently solved a business problem that no amount of money or technology could decipher.

To quote Nationwide’s latest ad campaign 'technology is great, but sometimes face-to-face is better'.