‘Robot Doctor’ Shows Why Customer Experience Shouldn’t Always Lean on Tech

When the stakes are high, brands must offer a human touch

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In early March, a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Fremont, Calif., provided a 78-year-old male patient with a robotic live video feed where a doctor told him he only had a short time to live. The patient’s family, upset by what they thought was a cold-hearted delivery of terrible news, recorded the exchange on a smartphone and posted it to social media. The story went viral last week.

In a profound way, the hospital’s lack of empathy underscores an emerging narrative about technology and service-based businesses and the need for emotional intelligence. The hospital should have understood the expectations and put the customer’s needs first by having a doctor, in person, carefully deliver the news to the patient.

There’s something to learn here for marketers in all industries. Companies in healthcare and other high-stakes verticals such as financial services, insurance and real estate need to understand the emotional element of the customer experience. A study by Accenture found that around half of customers who have a poor experience with a brand will stop doing business with that brand entirely.

When the stakes—and customer anxiety—are likely to be high, human interaction must be the first option.

It’s important for marketers to understand when it’s appropriate to communicate via a bot, a voice or video conversation or an in-person interaction. They must think carefully about the type of information that’s being delivered. Automation is great for quick answers to simple questions, but when the stakes—and customer anxiety—are likely to be high, human interaction must be the first option.

There are strong examples out there that show what empathetic service looks like. For instance, it’s that time of year where Americans are stressed out about taxes. In the past few years, TurboTax has added a human layer to its self-service digital platform, offering customers live video conferencing with a certified public accountant. Every tax season, the brand hires 1,000 freelance CPAs to provide real-time advice to tax filers via video chat for an $80 add-on fee. Competitor H&R Block wisely began offering a similar service.

Similarly, buying a home is also often stressful, especially in hot real estate markets where properties get listed and then sell at the snap of a finger. Rocket Mortgage, a Quicken Loans app, offers a system where it’s possible to get a mortgage and buy a home within 24 hours. The tech-based company also offers human assistance at every step of the way via phone and online chat.

Indeed, technology on its own isn’t enough. People want companies to understand their problems and help solve them. Research shows that problem-solving is the most important brand attribute for today’s consumers.

The bottom line: TurboTax and the California hospital both try to use technology—live video, in these cases—to deliver empathy, and one succeeds while the other failed. As the world increasingly embraces technology, these situations remind us why brands need to be mindful of the critical situations where there is no substitute for human-to-human interaction.