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Human touch in a tech-driven era

A few years ago I had dinner with a memory man. I forget his name – ironically – but we were both speaking at a conference and he’d just completed his “pick any name from the telephone book” routine followed by a quick-fire round where in return for our date of birth he’d shout out the day of the week we were born. He seemed a friendly sort, so I asked him the dreaded “how do you do it?” question.

Taking a simple example, he explained how the common excuse for not remembering names, ie. “I’m much better with faces” is utter nonsense. “Everyone remembers faces!” he scoffed, “You have to work at the names.” His trick was to turn every name into an image, so that when you are introduced to say, Mark Butters you picture a huge melting block of butter on his head with a giant “M” marked onto it. The sillier the better, apparently.

This is an important lesson for retail because names are the currency of hospitality and using someone’s name in a social situation is like a very personal gift. The smartest retailers are already training their staff to use the customer’s name once they get sight of the credit card, to the point now that it feels rude when stores hand back your card with no acknowledgement.

Things are about to get a lot more complex with the advent of new technologies. Face recognition software is already being used by many retailers, including Walmart, to enhance their security systems.

A few clever types are currently attempting to make our digital companions more emotionally intelligent, too. Ted Women recently published a talk by the persuasive Rana el Kaliouby, who’s developing an app that recognises how happy, sad or bored we are. By analysing thousands of tiny eye movements and the way our mouths react it can tell how we’re feeling. This is all very advanced and well meaning, but it worries me. The problem with Silicon Valley is it gets overexcited with nerdist things. If you proposed an app that would have Sunday lunch with your parents to save you turning up, they would make it happen.

But predicting the impact of new technologies means looking beyond the techno-frenzy, sifting out the absurd and focusing on things that really can improve the qualityof our lives. The tidal wave of big data that’s heading our way will bring us more information about the people and things around us than we can imagine, but it is wrong to assume that we humans will be forced to take a backseat. The opposite will be the case. I believe that as machines get smarter they will free us up to do the things we’re good at: the hospitality, the persuasion, the charm, intuition, social etiquette, emotionally intelligent communication…the humanity! Every store, every bar, every hospital we enter will know everything they need to know about us. It will be our job as humans to make customers feel welcome and respected. It’s anonymity that causes problems, whether it’s trolling on Twitter, vandalising bus shelters or the virtual violent crime we commit playing Grand Theft Auto – when we’re anonymous we’re willing to do terrible things. Expose our identities, and backstories and it’s much harder for us to be mean or treat others badly.

Retail technology should give us identity, not make us anonymous. Last weekend, when I was delayed at the LaGuardia Airport, I came across a new bar concept. Punctuated along the bar in front of the taps was an avenue of iPads. When I asked what the deal was, I was told to order and pay via the tablet, the bar staff would then bring the beer. “Do you actually like this system?” I dared to ask the bartender. An eye roll and an abrupt “no” was all she needed to say. Having punctured this little bubble of nonsense allowed the other customers to join in with noises of exasperation on how ridiculous the whole thing was. Strange how intelligent humans, clever enough to invest in bars and pay extortionate rents, can so misunderstand our culture and the way we want to live.

It’s very easy to get overexcited at the thought of an army of robots coming to take our jobs and for sure, humdrum work that can be replaced by an algorithm will be. The techno-revolution won’t just eliminate mundane jobs, it will demand a huge increase in intelligent hospitality. Working alongside the robots, we will need an army of emotionally intelligent humans to welcome and seduce us in their branded spaces. This is the real revolution that we’re not prepared for, as it will need a massive investment in training if we are to even get close to our customer’s demanding expectations.

So, before we rush to invest in face recognition software that knows we’re having a bad day, how about first we train our staff to remember a few names?



Howard Saunders is a retail futurist and international speaker. For more, email or find him on Twitter: @SaundersHoward.

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