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Unified Communications Sep 06, 2023

How organisations can help customers left behind by digitalisation

By Dr Nicola Millard Principal innovation partner

Behind every good digital customer there may well be another, more shadowy, figure.

That person is often someone like me - I’m effectively the digital support desk for my 85-year-old mother. She has all the tools to be digitally engaged, like a smartphone and an email address, but none of the knowledge or confidence necessary to go digital. Yes, she’s learnt how to use video calling, but she still thinks you need a stamp to send an email…

Just this weekend she asked a stream of questions with a digital focus:

  • How do I submit my utility meter readings online?
  • How do I know when my TV licence is due if they don’t send me a letter?
  • How do I buy a train ticket in advance, or know where to split my ticket, if I can’t talk to someone in the ticket office?
  • Why are all the best bank account interest rates all online - I’m not online?

My answer to nearly all these questions is that she doesn’t need to worry, and I’ll take care of it. I’m a shadow customer - the customer behind the customer. 

The shadow customer situation is significant

I’m far from the only one with this responsibility. Our 2023 Autonomous Customer research found that 41% of people had helped a less technology savvy person (whether young, old, or in between) make a purchase, and 31% had helped them get support online. If we look at these percentages in the context of the UK population, that’s some 25 million of us helping others with purchases, and 16 million helping others get support.

Shadow customers like me are dealing with security questions, passwords and permissions for these customers and rarely, if ever, have something formal such as a legal power of attorney in place to cover them if they’re challenged.

Have organisations forgotten that not everyone feels able to go digital?

The pandemic served to accelerate the push of many services into digital channels and, often, the withdrawal of many face-to-face services. It’s understandable that digital’s reputation for being more cost effective is an attractive prospect for organisations.

However, are organisations with their eyes fixed firmly on the digital prize failing to notice the cost of leaving some people behind?

Digital channels come with the general expectation that they’re easier to use than other channels. They’re promoted as convenient, time-saving and user-friendly. But if people aren’t or can’t use them, then there’s no cost saving because those individuals (not just my mother) default back to traditional human channels that tend to be more resource hungry and costly to run. This fits with our research, showing that the usage of the phone is still increasing, despite the ubiquity of digital channels. 

The three essentials to widening digital participation

If organisations want to encourage a wider audience to embrace digital channels, they need to understand what prompts people to adopt them. The psychology behind this is complex, but it’s generally underpinned by the three ‘U’ factors: usefulness, usability, and whether similar people are using it.

1. Tackling the question of usefulness

Most digital technologies are inherently useful (otherwise, there’s no point to them), but bad past experiences, a lack of knowledge, or simply not understanding what it can do can cause people to avoid it.

Education plays a big part in addressing this. I usually try and show my mother how you can do things digitally but, if she doesn’t do them regularly, she rapidly forgets the steps to go through and we’re back to square one.

Organisations need to think about how to use AI assistants here. They can help by handholding people through processes, but only if people see their support as genuinely helpful. And it’s likely that customer service agents will also need to be available to help those who are struggling, or those who have more complex needs.

2. Delivering true usability

We’re generally lazy creatures, so technologies need to be easy to use, and accessible to everyone. Older people and those with disabilities are often at a disadvantage in a digital world for a number of reasons – eyesight, hearing, manual dexterity, and mental acuity can all create challenges – and that’s where good, accessible design comes in.

Organisations need to consider design factors such as large and clear fonts, a lack of visual clutter, simple menu structures and language, obvious navigation buttons, distinct colour coding (taking into account colour blindness), explicit links to specific accessible content (e.g. screen readers), and not hiding all the links to human help channels.

3. Creating a sense that it’s ‘used by people like me’

The people who are adopting these channels are also key to them being used. My mother’s attitude to smartphones changed when her friends started to get them – suddenly they seemed more relevant to her. This can be a subtle way of nudging people towards certain technologies and channels, because it’s often their friends, family or peers - rather than the organisations that provide the service - who will influence behaviour change.

Help the shadow customer to step into the light

Making digital technologies more ‘U’ friendly will reduce the need for shadow customers, but it’s unlikely to remove the role completely. Organisations should look more closely at the extent of shadowing inside their customer base, and explore how to formally acknowledge the role of the customer behind the customer without increasing the possibility of fraud. 

Download our Autonomous Customer research report to find out how customers currently feel about their digital service experiences.