It’s so simple – a pat on the shoulder, a hug, a smile, or a friendly tone of voice – yet the impact is powerful. The human touch is essential for building meaningful relationships, trust, and understanding, not only in our personal lives but also in a professional context. Why is it, though, that personal interaction plays such an important role in our society, and how can businesses use the human touch to stand out in an increasingly impersonal world?
Don’t touch! It’s the instruction in every museum. Yet who isn’t tempted to put their hand on the ancient vase – to feel its surfaces, test its weight, and perhaps experience a connection to the people and times it came from?
Touch is one of the key ways we understand the world. It is the first of our senses to develop and is fundamental to our emotional and social development. From our mother’s first touch onwards, tactile connection to those around us is essential to our survival. Our neurobiology is designed that way. “Humans have a special kind of sensory neuron that exists to respond specifically to gentle touch,” says Professor Alan Fiske, a psychological anthropologist at UCLA. Human touch has the effect of saying, “I love you, I’m going to take care of you, trust me.” Fiske says that “snuggling and skin-to-skin contact with a parent or family member send a basic signal to the infant that they are safe”. These early experiences of touch and affection play a vital role in the development of a physically and emotionally healthy person.
People like interacting with people.
Put simply, without human contact we do not thrive, and this continues to be the case as we grow into adulthood. According to Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, touch can have beneficial effects on our health throughout our lives. It helps our immune systems to function and promotes recovery from illness.
“There is a chain of biochemical and bioelectrical events that happen when we move skin so that the pressure receptors are stimulated,” she says. “This leads to a calming of the nervous system, the heart rate slows, blood pressure reduces, and brain waves change as the body relaxes.” As the body relaxes, the level of stress hormones such as cortisol decreases. “If you can lower cortisol, you can save immune cells, particularly the ones that are the front line of the immune system, that ward off bacterial, viral, and cancer cells,” she explains. But as many societies become more distant as a result of changing lifestyles and digitalisation, Field is concerned by the lack of physical interaction and touch today. “It’s not just the health benefits we could be missing. Touch also promotes understanding and performance,” she says.
The human touch in business
In the world of business, ever more of our transactions are becoming automated – the human interface replaced by machines and algorithms. However, the role of human touch is no less important today. We have reached an inflection point where the efficiency and convenience that digital technology affords us, on its own, is not enough.
Working out how much touch it is sensible to price in depends on your business model.
In 2016, market and research company Ipsos MORI asked customers across 23 countries about their experience of customer service. The results point clearly to a digital overdose: 72 per cent said they thought customer service was getting too automated and impersonal, 82 per cent agreed that there was too much contradictory information and that it was hard to know who or what to trust, while 60 per cent said they were prepared to pay more for a better customer experience. Very telling is the answer the respondents gave to the question: “What is the most important way for a company to resolve a problem?” The top answer was: “Being treated with respect.”
Can an automated system give a person the feeling that they are being treated with respect? It would appear not, as we still seem to want quality interactions with real people in the real world. Most of us prefer dealing with human beings when we have a customer service issue or when we need advice. Nor, in this age of online shopping, has the physical in-store experience lost its relevance – according to a 2015 study by management consultants Accenture, 46 per cent of US customers said they were more willing to be sold new or upgraded products when receiving face-to-face service, compared to online. And against the backdrop of the information overload that most of us experience on a daily, if not hourly, basis, word of mouth still has a greater impact on our purchasing decisions than advertising.
At the high end, travel companies offer wealthier clients an entirely personal service, including concierge and support during and after trips, and top hotels know that good service is the holy grail of their business. As US customer service consultant Micah Solomon says in his book ‘The Heart of Hospitality: Great Hotel and Restaurant Leaders Share Their Secrets’, “superior hotels have long accomplished this with service personally delivered by exquisitely trained humans who remember guest names, who are alert to mood changes in guests, who strive to serve not only what a guest directly asks for, but what the guest may not even know that they’re looking for.”
Deploying the human touch in a digital world
“Working out how much touch it is sensible to price in depends on your business model,” says Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI. “In the trade-off between real personalisation and digital, there is no single recipe.”
Using information delivered directly to hand-held devices, airline staff are able to provide a personalised service to their passengers. This might mean meeting a passenger as they arrive at the airport, greeting them by name, and accompanying them to their flight, or ensuring that they are comfortable on board and offering them a choice of refreshment and entertainment that suits their preferences. The digital side provides the data, but how it is received depends on the nature of the human delivery. It is the empathy and charm of the person carrying out the task that makes the difference.
Picking up non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expression, judging the other person’s attentiveness – this can only happen in face-to-face communication between people. It also takes a human touch to know when to step back. Some people prefer to be left alone and to deal with the business through digital channels. Recognising this is vital for all service businesses, and firms must let customers select their own path and ensure that both are available.
In its 2017 report ‘Engineering a human touch into a digital future’, professional services firm KPMG highlighted some best practices from companies that are successfully blending high tech and high touch. “They see the world through the same lens as their employees and customers, prizing emotional intelligence as a competitively distinguishing capability,” the report’s authors said. Even in a world where the pace of technological change is breathtaking, such quintessentially human qualities as empathy and integrity remain vital to success.
“People like interacting with people,” says Chris Boos, founder and CEO of Arago and leading artificial intelligence expert. “Machines will always be more efficient but they are not creative, passionate, or pioneering. That’s why a machine would not have suggested an early investment in Apple or Facebook, for example. It takes a human to identify these kinds of opportunities.” But more than that, Boos believes that as machines take on more of the number-crunching tasks, there will be a resurgence in personalised service offerings, not just at the top end but for an ever wider client base. “We will see a return of the old-style banker – someone who knows something of the world and is prepared to spend time talking with you about it,” he says.
In the end, the ultimate combination leverages the best technology with the intelligence and experience of a real person. Artificial intelligence will contribute to huge improvements in the way we live, but artificial emotion, artificial trust, and artificial understanding are a hard sell. As long as that’s the case, the human touch will continue to be the main driving force in our lives. “I am optimistic that we will see a rebound of humanism,” states Boos.
About the article
This article was originally published in our corporate magazine ’Vision’ (7th edition). It was amended for online publishing.
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The human touch
This article is a part of the ’Human Touch’ series in which we portray smart organisations, businesses, startups, or initiatives, which systematically prepare themselves for the AI age by investing in the only thing that will never be replaceable – the human touch.