Comment: Robo-advisors – how technology will shape the future for retail assistants

If a piece of technology really works, humans will always have more faith in it than something that a fellow human tells them. Take a satellite navigation system – if it tells you to turn left, but your passenger tells you to carry straight on, who do you believe? A few years ago it would have been the human passenger, but now that sat nav technology is so advanced, we believe the machine over the human.

It’s therefore become the norm that as soon as technology becomes perfect, we have more faith and more trust in it than fellow humans. And with the development of an artificial intelligence-led world, this is going to have an impact on all businesses, including retail.

Invisible interfaces

What we’re seeing now in customer service is invisible interactions. Consider Uber – this is a company who has completely automated payment, which is one of the smartest moves they could have done. You arrive at your destination and can exit the taxi straightaway without having to mess around with coins or notes, saving you time and hassle.

Customer experience is set to be more and more about invisible interfaces than ever before. Behind the scenes technologies, such as robots and data sensors, are having a positive impact on customers by creating automation of real life, faster than real-time service and ‘just for you’ personalisation.

When it comes to retail, robo-advisors have real potential to trump human assistants. Buying an item is all about finding out the relevant information about the product and then making an informed decision. Where a robo-advisor will be better is in the range of data that they will be able to present to the customer, as they’ll have access to more information and more data than a human ever could.

But while the rise of robo-advisors might lead you to thinking that human assistants will be phased out of retail, I say emphatically that this isn’t the case. The future may be AI-led, but the human touch alongside this is actually going to be more important than ever.

The importance of emotion

While AI continues to enhance the customer service experience, what you’ll never be able to replace the real emotional connection that a human assistant can bring to an interaction. A human adds vital emotions such as empathy, creativity and passion, elevating it to a more pleasant experience that lingers long in the mind of the customer.

This is more important than ever before because in today’s fast paced, competitive and internet-driven world, customer loyalty is no longer guaranteed. If consumers don’t like what you’re offering, they don’t have to look very far to find a product that better meets their needs. In order to retain customers, you therefore need to provide them with a product that matches their expectations, comes with a price, quality and convenience they want and, crucially, which also resonates with them emotionally.

A good example of the power of human interaction is when I recently re-visited a business hotel in Amsterdam. As soon as I arrived, a receptionist came forward, greeted me by name and asked if I’d like an orange juice, as that was the drink I’d had on arrival last time. This simple but personal interaction immediately raised the hotel in my estimation. If I go back to Amsterdam, I’ll stay with them again, and even if make a mistake such as messing up my room reservation, I’m much more likely to accept it and continue to stay with them, because they made me feel so good. In that one human interaction, they guaranteed my loyalty.

The human part of customer experience is the key differentiator. The AI part of retail’s future is easy, as you’ll be able to buy it in, but the getting the human part right is going to be the hardest challenge, and the thing that will make or break your company. Use the efficiency that comes with a digital element along with the emotions of the human side, and you will create a company that stands out in the minds of your customers – for all the right reasons. If you can your staff can go the extra mile to provide your customers with service that makes them feel special, you’ll win. It’s the biggest opportunity in life.

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is an expert in customer focus in the digital world. He’s the author of the award-winning book 'When Digital Becomes Human', published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99. Follow him on Twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos at or visit

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