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Alf's Articles

Rue the Day When Technology Replaces Touch

by Alf Nucifora

It's time for another Maoist revolution. Instead of forcing the teachers out of the universities and on to the farm to tend the chickens, this time it'll be the technologists, and the marketers who follow their every move. Don't get me wrong, I respect and embrace technology and certainly appreciate the enhanced productivity that it brings to business. But, in certain respects, it's gone too far.

Please Don't Touch the Doctor!

It's hard to have a good bedside manner if you don't have a bedside, and that seems to be the way the medical profession is headed. Admittedly, the cause may be economics-related but increasingly, we see doctors mimicking retail bankers - making it difficult and costly (in time, if not in dollars) for the customer to actually gain face-time with the provider, (if you believe, as I do, that patients are customers, too). And, the appointment will probably be brief. The examining rooms rotate with the constant hum of a conveyor belt as patients are cycled through the system at steady speed. God forbid that either doctor or patient needs a moment to contemplate, assess, ponder or just shoot the breeze. The conveyor belt, as in all manufacturing processes, frowns upon any disruption to its flow.

Getting the appointment is even more disconcerting. Nowadays the caller goes straight into an automated answering system where the difference between checking a bank balance or a medical concern is non-existent. The harsh reality is that the more successful doctors' practices are now automating to the extent that the inquiring patient is now recognized and processed as a social security number to be linked to a file. The most sophisticated doctors are moving online. Everything from prescription refills to appointment-setting to reporting ailments is now being pushed to the domain of email and the internet transaction.

I appreciate that certain requests, prescription refills for instance, can be automated and digitized without harmful effect. In fact, it's probably desirable. But the rest of the time, I need a doctor to whom I can talk, and with whom I can meet, on my timetable. While the annual check-up can be safely scheduled months in advance, my bouts of hypochondria cannot be addressed by an FAQ response or a harried nurse's aide with all phone lines blinking. There has to be a better way of dealing with the unfamiliar pain in the chest than checking in to the hospital emergency room or dialing 911. The fear should not be socialized medicine; it should be the dehumanizing of what was once the most sacred of personal relationships…the bond between patient and doctor. I may be an old fashioned Boomer, but I'm right. How do I know? Most doctors, when probed, will quietly bemoan the shift that has turned their profession from hands-on care-giving to patient mill.

It Will Only Get Worse

Bank tellers began disappearing years ago. Travel agents are next in line…all swallowed into the online maw. The airlines and your local supermarket are racing to catch up. Within a decade expect the passenger handling system, from ticket purchase to baggage check, to flow freely without ever touching a human airline representative. Be prepared to scan your own groceries (and bag them too) at the check-out line. Long live the kiosk!

Talk to the gurus in the meetings and convention business and they'll tell you that the drop-off in business travel and attrition in convention attendance is not all an aftershock of 9/11. Meetings are beginning to go virtual. It's easier to log-in to an online conference and meet a peer and associate miles away without having to experience the brutalities of business travel.

Why Rebellion is Needed

Naisbitt wrote decades ago about the division between hi-tech and hi-touch transactions. His thinking was sound then and remains so today. The economics of business dictates that certain transactions, those without perceived product, social or self risk, have to be automated. If one wants cash, quickly, the ATM happily meets the need. Conversely, the hi-touch interface, the buying of an expensive automobile or suit, for example, requires an investment of time and customer nurturing on the part of the marketer or sales person. Where the practice got perverted is that today it's more a matter of hi-tech and low-touch. Database and CRM systems are being used not as they were intended, to maximize the relationship but, instead, to increase the communication, but without the customer empathy.

In the 80's and 90's, American business became captive to the order-takers. Loyal customers were taken for granted. Times were good and everyone made easy money. As a result, customers no longer heard the magic words that every marketer should speak, "I love you." Today, the trend continues toward the impersonal. It's what the technologists advocate; it's what Wall Street demands. But, it's not what the customer wants; not all of the time.

I realize that the coming Gen X generation, is at ease with the impersonal keystroke as much as it is comfortable with the sound bite. The desire for the good old fashioned virtues such as intellectual challenge, the appreciation of good taste and more importantly, the personal touch may no longer be relevant to a cohort weaned on hip-hop and The WB. But there will always be a sizable demand for authentic customer listening and client bonding. Eighty million Boomers, like me, can't be ignored or forgotten. As a client admonished me the other day, "I expected you to spend time with me face-to-face and not by phone. It was the least that you owed me." And, she had a valid point. In my consultant's arrogance and rush to move on, I had failed to heed the warning signals. Luckily I had a client who was willing to force the issue rather than flee the relationship. I may not be so lucky next time. Neither might you.

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