Front’s “The Science Behind Strong Customer Relationships” Report Reveals the Perils of Misusing Digital Communications Channels, Especially in an Economic Downturn

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Customers strongly prefer humans over digital tools like chatbots — and will wait twice as long for a resolution from a human

Front, a communication hub for building strong customer relationships, released “The Science Behind Strong Customer Relationships,” a report that reveals how white-collar office workers build relationships and trust in a customer/vendor relationship. Commissioned in partnership with Dr. Ron Friedman, an award-winning social psychologist and the founder of ignite80, the research suggests that conventional wisdom is outdated: the most important thing in business isn’t time or money, it’s human connections.

Despite businesses increasingly funneling customer communications into digital channels, customers actually prefer human interactions and are willing to make sacrifices for them. This report shows that 74% of the people surveyed would rather spend twice as much time interacting with humans than to work with a chatbot, even if the chatbot solves their problems in half the time. It also shows that service is a more important factor in buying decisions than price by a margin of more than two to one.

“Business leaders often assume that customers are strictly focused on saving time and money. The findings of this study suggest that’s not the case,” said Dr. Ron Friedman, lead researcher and founder of ignite80. “Decades of research tell us that people are naturally drawn to experiences that fuel their psychological needs for relatedness, mastery, and autonomy. Automated chatbots make it hard for customers to experience these needs — which is why most customers would willingly sacrifice time to avoid using them. Fueling customers’ psychological needs is a powerful and cost-effective strategy for building customer satisfaction, loyalty, and retention.”

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Key findings from the report include:

The economic downturn has made excellent customer service non-negotiable.
Customers don’t have sympathy for challenges businesses face in today’s environment: 58% are unwilling to be more patient with customer service constraints during a downturn. However, customers still notice changes in attentiveness during a tough time — most respondents (56%) agree that when the economy slows, customer service deteriorates. In a downturn, it’s especially important for businesses to weigh customer perceptions against their own cost-savings measures.

Chatbots are harming customer experiences.
The top three channels of communication associated with strong customer relationships are voice calls, face-to-face meetings, and email. Customers prefer waiting twice as long to solve a problem with a human over having a chatbot solve it in half the time (by a wide margin of 74% to 26%). This is especially true of older customers: baby boomers overwhelmingly prefer waiting to connect with a human by a margin of 88% to 12%.

Customers prefer communicating with a human because they believe it produces quicker, more accurate responses and makes it easier for them to explain their unique situation. In contrast, chatbots and FAQs put customers off because they find it hard to get relevant information, and it takes too long to reach a resolution.

Niche communication channels are associated with weaker customer relationships.
In strong vendor relationships, email is used 67% of the time and voice is used 63%. When these channels are the dominant ones, 70% of respondents agree that the vendor knows them personally. In contrast, poor vendor relationships were more likely communicating across channels such as chatbots, social media, and Slack. Only 33% of respondents agreed that the vendors where these channels were dominant knew them personally.

Younger generations are actually more patient than older generations.
Despite the commonly-held assumption that younger generations have shorter attention spans, this report found that they actually show greater patience when it comes to customer service. Gen Z is willing to wait the length of a movie (2 hours and 14 minutes) for a phone call with a human, while baby boomers will only wait the time it takes to boil an egg (8 minutes). While Gen Z is willing to wait half a day for an email response, baby boomers will only wait two hours.

The hallmarks of strong customer service differ between the US and EMEA.
In addition to dispelling conventional wisdom about customer service, the report found US and EMEA have different expectations: within strong vendor relationships, Americans and UK respondents most often communicate with vendors using email, while Europeans use voice calls. US customers also have a lower threshold when it comes to long wait times; American customers expect phone hold times no longer than 10 minutes, while Europeans believe 30 minutes is reasonable. For that personal touch, respondents in the US, UK, Italy and Spain prefer that vendors address them by their first name. In contrast, German and French respondents prefer being addressed by their last name.

The report also revealed core components of excellent customer service across regions, including:

  • Responds quickly (41%)
  • Knowledgeable (36%)
  • Easy to reach (36%)
  • Communicates effectively (33%)
  • Available when needed (32%)

In contrast, the top five attributes of poor customer relationships included:

  • Hard to reach (36%)
  • Didn’t resolve my issue (35%)
  • Required long wait times (32%)
  • Went days without acknowledging messages (28%)
  • Required a lot of effort from the customer (26%)

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