Digital by Design: Making the connected organisation more human


I must get at least four or five emails every day offering me help becoming digital by default.

Every single one gets deleted. Not because I don’t need help , but because they talk of cost savings and efficiency rather than beautifully intuitive service design or of creating a rewarding customer experience.

Don’t believe me? This is how the agenda to get more customers using online services is described (“Channel Shift” – ugh!) on a prominent consulting website:

Achieving channel shift is what the council website is all about – about moving customer contacts and transactions from more expensive options (people) to less expensive options (the web)  and moving from services which require staff to be involved to those which do not.

I’ve not provided a link to spare blushes but you can google it if you think I just made that up.

I agree that those ‘more expensive options’ (formerly known as people) do cost quite a bit. But they can be pretty wonderful at connecting with fellow humans, personalising service and , you know , just being nice to chat to once in a while.

If you listen to people who want to remove the humanity from organisations it will almost certainly lead to the death of your business.

Many who glorify channel shift and tech have forgotten that most of us are in the business of providing human centered services. And our digital presence should embrace this , not seek to repel it. The reason that social networks are so popular – with their gossip ,  selfies and memes – is they celebrate our humanity and the power of our connections.

The businesses that are truly successful in changing the way customers contact them have done it by prioritising a better customer experience overall – not through just moving people to a cheaper channel as though they were an inconvenience. 

I recently attended a talk by O2. In the past two years they have seen over 2 million fewer phone calls as people increasingly choose to use their web and social offerings.

O2 2

I’m a long term customer of O2 and have seen their progression to digital up close. Dealing with them via social media or Live Chat is mostly a joy. After using their digital services you simply wouldn’t think to phone them.

Here’s some things I took away:

Design your organisation for mobile customers

As mobile becomes the default way the internet is accessed so the culture must be designed around serving people on the go. Designed around people who are time poor and impatient. If you haven’t tested how your customer service works from a smartphone , accessed whilst sitting on a bus – you simply haven’t tested it properly. 

Invest in the right team and the right skills

Just because you have a team that has delivered an outstanding call centre does not mean they are equipped to serve the connected customer. It requires new skills , thinking and a culture of digital leadership.

To drive change people will need to be retrained. To drive transformational change you will need new people.

In a social business people are recruited to speak like real people and not to broadcast. Leaders implicitly understand social. What companies like O2 are achieving is the exact opposite of the prevalent public sector culture of “I don’t understand digital – I”ll get some 22 year old to do it for me”.

Be relevant in time

Response times matter – particularly in social where service expectations work in minutes rather than hours. O2 were generous enough to name the leaders in this field as the airline KLM – if you haven’t seen their wonderful Twitter feed that estimates the time it will take to give you a response – it’s worth a look.

Screenshot 2014-02-13 13.34.37

If you’re going to do social – be social

O2 have a lively, social and fun brand. They are known for the humour and unique tone of voice in their social response.  But the message is clear – don’t try and be cheeky and fun if you’re not. It’s embarrassing. Establish your brand values and stick to them.  By the way – they didn’t let me down when I name checked them on Twitter during the conference.

Screenshot 2014-02-14 06.35.55

What can we learn? The digital agenda risks getting derailed by the rush to technology as the solution for everything. It’s inherently flawed. As Tony Smith has said – only 25% of great customer experience is about technology, 75% is made up of people and deployment.

Really we shouldn’t be talking about channel shift and digital by default at at all. We should be talking about digital by design.

I will never phone O2 again because they have designed a Live Chat and social experience that is rewarding to me as a customer.

I went back to my organisation with the aim to make our digital experience so enjoyable that people choose not to phone us anymore. It’s an important shift of emphasis.

Let’s stop talk of “less expensive options”. Let’s use the power of digital connectivity to make our organisations more human , not less.


14 thoughts on “Digital by Design: Making the connected organisation more human

  1. Paul hi, another great post. I love the way you write.

    My hunch is all organisations are struggling with the best blend of ‘high tech’ and ‘high touch’, if we can put it that way, and its understandable; many are struggling with basic brand personality. It’s a tough one to crack, this being real, congruent and connected.

    I totally agree with your point. While we’re on the subject you’ll have noticed of course Visceral Business has ‘is us’ highlighted in the middle of it for that very reason. It is all about the people. We only work in areas when it is all about the people. As a sideways observation I struggle personally, with the idea of being a ‘vendor’ and of ‘selling’ digital. For me, good business in a connected world is about relationship building and of shared affinities matched with bloody good business logic. End of…. (and just out of interest, how many vendors comment and contribute via discussion in say a blog? maybe that’s another post!)

    You talk about the ‘whole experience’ in this one, and the chart shows O2 have brought a good percentage of the phone experience online, but for all O2 might be doing front of house, I have to say I’ve heard some appalling things about O2 when it comes to the less formulaic elements of their service design.

    Digital presentation might be something sophisticated organisations like O2 can deliver with great flair, and in a human way, but I think there is a point to note for HA’s here in that it counts for nothing if what happens when you scratch the surface doesn’t match up. Here I think a lot of corporate dissonance exists and organisations are really struggling.

    O2 are a high volume, low transaction value business. There’s not much in their business model and how they define their purpose in a way that is ‘beyond profit’, as it is currently expressed, that changes this. What this all boils down to is the WIIFM question. I hear a lot of stories about how they manage the life cycle of the user relationship well generically, because the business model requires that, but when it comes to emotional intelligence, human to human during the whole course of the relationship it can be appalling just like every other telco.

    When O2 customers who I know tell me they are happy advocates, rather than dismayed upset souls, then I’ll listen to their social media activity and take notice. As a great champion of what the connected economy can mean and provide, I hope you’ll fly the flag on that with me.

    1. Great blog because what you say is so right, but more inclined to agree with Nick, particularly about starting to emulate organisations like First Direct. I saw a circular last week from a housing organisation updating on their progress to stakeholders ,and it included an almost self congratulatory message about beating their target of answering the phone to customers in 30 seconds. 30 seconds!!!!! This is where many association are, so arguing about why or how we go digital is a bit academic in the context of the sector. If we are aiming to be less than average , then at least do it cheaply! Shame things like this don’t even appear on vfm statements.
      When CEO ‘s check into the CiH conference in a few months time, let’s get the check-in staff to ask them to guess how long their organisation takes to answer the phone? Would love to know how many don’t know & how many understate reality.
      Best regards

      1. Thanks Andy – I couldn’t agree with you more about First Direct – one of the reasons I chose O2 was that I’ve pretty much exhausted praising the mobile services of FD and Amazon to the skies.

        Certainly I’m not arguing about the importance of VFM – I reckon digital will revolutionise many roles in our sector ( and , unfortunately – make many redundant).

        My word of warning is let’s do it right. For every First Direct there’s a Santander.

        Great comment. Thanks

  2. Thanks Anne – you are the master of the eloquent blog comment – I’m in awe!

    Great points – first of all it’s interesting I don’t think of you as a “vendor” and this does raise point about the online and offline behaviours of people “selling” digital. The people sending me the emails I referred to have never engaged with me on social -much less commented on a blog! For me I want relationships that are about shared value – not just selling me a system and solution.

    I’ve possibly misfired in what could appear to be a glowing endorsement of O2. You are spot on – there are deficiencies in the overall experience beyond just contact – particularly in the area of loyalty and retention.

    As you say this is pretty much the experience of all telco services – so O2 appear to be doing well in customer satisfaction polls as they are best of a bad bunch.

    Much like HA’s there isn’t a lot of consumer choice – it’s even harder to leave a home than it is to exit a mobile contract. You could argue that both are ripe for disruption!

  3. Agree with Anne that as ever your blog hits the mark perfectly!

    As you know I normally agree with everything you say but on this one I just need to clarify one point.

    You are absolutely right that the main driver for ‘Digital First’ (as @haltonhousing have described it!) should be to make organisations more human and accessible/ relevant to their customers.

    However you can’t ignore the financial business case for change. The average ‘in person’ transaction here at HHT is £8.36. Each web based transaction is just £0.03. The aim of Digital First is to spend more time with those customers who really need our help and support whilst those who can or could access services digitally are incentivised to do so. In doing so we are then able to adapt to our changing customer profile as well as our wider environment (namely welfare reform/ Universal Credit) without adding additional costs to the business.

    The journey we believe #ukhousing needs to embark upon is pretty similar to where the retail banking sector was about 6 years ago. We need to replicate the success of one of our favourite customer service exemplars – First Direct – as well as those organisations you have listed who are also pretty special at sprinkling that magical customer service fairy dust!

    We’ve put together a short You Tube video which probably explains this better than I have:

    One for us to mull over next week at #hgd14

  4. Thanks Nick – our first disagreement!!!

    Or is it?

    The financial savings are clear and difficult to argue against. I agree that in a time of unprecedented challenge for HAs and public services in general – we can’t ignore the potential of huge efficiencies.

    However – my fear is that in the rush to achieve this we design services that are difficult to negotiate and fail to engage customers. And we don’t address the digital skills our employees will need.

    That’s highly unlikely to happen at organisations who sit at the top of the Connected Housing Index and have a CEO who sort of knows his way around an iPad Air (like Halton!)

    But it’s a real risk to organisations without digital leaders – who rush to put everything online and fail to make it a better experience than the existing phone service. There’s a public organisation not too far from where I sit that have spent over £4 million on web services. That might be what’s needed but I’d love to know what the average Gen Z think of it.

    Like you – I want to design online offerings like First Direct, O2 and KLM – the ones we talk about for good reasons. I don’t reckon we disagree on that!

  5. I agree with the sentiment Paul – but disagree that ‘channel shift’ necessarily means ‘less human’

    Why can’t digital be about social interaction and process automation simultaneously?
    Digital isn’t just about social. It’s equally about automation and realising efficiencies (in part by eliminating humans from the process) – this is right and proper (more on this here:

    Councils are moving services online and, at the same time, are implementing social media and live chat – just like O2 did. It’s better for our customers to transact with us online, without human intervention, because:

    1) Our customers have told us that they prefer to use (good) online services.
    2) Online is cheaper for the council.

    To complain that, by providing online access to Council Tax balances, a council is de-humanising a service is akin to complaining that the banks de-humanised their service when they replaced bank staff with cash machines.

    O2 exists to make money – that’s their raison d’etre – they have no other ‘mission’. O2 have not invested in social interaction/live chat/online for any fluffy, warm, social reason. They’ve done it because they know their customers want it – and if they keep their customers happy they will make money.

    A local authority’s raison d’etre is service delivery – we have no other ‘mission’. We should improve the service to our customers by channel shifting and increased social media interaction.

    I think your quote about channel shift is taken from SOCITM’s website? SOCITM, in the main, is comprised of representatives from public sector organisations. I don’t think that SOCITM, or anyone else in the public sector, are advocating that councils abandon social interaction – quite the opposite – SOCITM have long evangelised about the benefits of digital social to local authority customer service.

    “Achieving channel shift is what the council website is all about – about moving customer contacts and transactions from more expensive options (people) to less expensive options (the web) and moving from services which require staff to be involved to those which do not.”

    I think this advice is exactly right (for the public sector) – and it is somewhat unfair to take this chunk of text out of context without also copying and pasting some of SOCITM’s sage advice on social engagement strategies and words of warning on the perils of ignoring social.

    Having said all that, playing devil’s advocate for a moment, if a council decided to respond to austerity by taking an explicit decision to degrade offline channels – i.e. to deliberately de-humanise the service – what would be wrong with that? Our statutory duties would be fulfilled, our budgets would be balanced and our customers would still be adequately served. It’s not as though we need worry about losing customers to competitors is it?

    “If you listen to people who want to remove the humanity from organisations it will almost certainly lead to the death of your business.”

    This may be true in the private sector – but it’s not automatically true in the public sector. Private sector thinking is dominated with methods which help win new customers and retain existing customers and, above all, make lots of money. Public sector bodies are not profit making organisations and the challenge facing the public sector is often one of excess demand as opposed to a lack of demand. As Goddard and Ribback have observed:

    “..government is not a business. Forcing government into private sector thinking usually causes more problems than it solves.”

    Thanks for the post, Paul – though provoking stuff.

    1. That’s a brilliant comment Richard with some killer points – thanks for taking the time.

      You know – I don’t actually disagree with anything you say.

      First of all I do agree with the digital by default agenda – whatever we call it. I just have concerns with how it is sometimes being applied.

      Your point about digital simultaneously being about social interaction and process automation is spot on. This I’d suggest is the “sweet spot” for digital by default – removing the expensive non value added parts of a transaction but still making it feel useable, easy and , well , human.

      The really savvy organisations are the ones who are clear about the interactions where people make the difference. The roles that digital cannot currently replace.

      But for everything else – as you say – it’s right and proper that we seek to automate and make more efficient.

      Thanks for your insights and challenge!

  6. Channel shift is just a term to describe the movement of people from one channel to another. Someone who chooses to move from telephone to Twitter for example, that’s channel shift. You’ve highlighted that there are many firms that will flog their services promising costs savings, but centring on this sells it short and I wrote about this last year:

    Cost savings are the easy sell but channel shift can also create capacity and a better quality of service. An end-to-end digital service can free up staff from the laborious task of typing up emails giving them more time to talk to those customers who want a more personalised service. It can mean that, with one action, customers can be informed with a website update, and email and a tweet. It can mean that one person can raise a request for service and others can follow the progress, making what happens at the service organisation far more transparent.

    You touched on designing for mobile too. Don’t design for mobile. Design for people, because when Google Glass, or in-car internet or whatever the next big thing comes along you’ll have to redesign everything again. I’ve seen some awful sites that are clearly designed for tablets and smartphones but don’t work well at all on a TV or anything else with a big screen. This is the folly of following the fad of designing purely for mobile.

    Channel Shift isn’t just about sacking all one’s staff and getting Robbie the Robot to answer all your calls from customers, there’s far more to it than but the other aspects are rarely promoted. so in a round about way I think I agree with most of what you’ve written, but perhaps you need to focus on the benefits more?. 🙂

    1. Thanks Phil – I think we are pretty much in agreement. Whatever we call it all comes under the banner of “excellent service”.

      Digital is really just one aspect of customer experience which in turn is the sum of all experiences someone has over the duration of their relationship. Sometimes this can mean a one off transaction.

      However that’s delivered should be in a way that’s most meaningful to the customer and most cost efficient to the business. The sweet spot is what O2 offer me with Live chat – I don’t like using the phone , it’s cheaper for them and it’s executed brilliantly.

      Great point around designing for people. I did mean that and used mobile in context of “people on the go” – but you’re right to point out they might not be.

      Thanks for the comment.

  7. A very interesting post, Paul. You’ve made me think about my own approach, and whether I’m going about things in the right way. I can definitely now see the merits of “prioritising a better customer experience overall” rather than focusing on “just moving people to a cheaper channel.”

    The ding-dong that has ensued in the comments here shows that there is clearly even more too it, and that there is a fine line between being truly customer-focused and being organisation-focused.

  8. Thanks Albert – I heard it summed at a conference last week as “create digital services that customers switch to not because they have to but because they want to”.

    I think we’d all agree with that!

  9. I recalled this great post from last year and read again recently.

    Reflecting on the Connected Housing 2014 which covered online self service – data on performance and uptake from across the sector is scarce. This led me to get in touch with Tony and Brett to collaborate on a sector survey – to help supplement Connected Housing with additional data and case studies. Potentially it can help look at expectations and help us move forward collaboratively too.

    Here’s Brett’s blog:

    Here’s Tony’s blogg:

    I hope you can perhaps do a piece on this, after checking this out and the online survey. The more we can get HA’s to complete – the better quality information can be shared and stories created to learn / speed up delivery.

    Cheers @AdeCapon

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