Digital Customer Service vs Human Customer Service: Is it All or Nothing?

concept digital customer service with robots sitting in a line with human worker

Digital Customer Service vs Human Customer Service: Is it All or Nothing?

Eliminating any human customer service support, like Frontier Airlines has done, is a bold choice. Not all businesses have the same budgets, needs, brand or CX goals, it’s true. Digital customer service options are able to help manage the support challenges businesses are facing. The question is, should they be the only options customers have?  This article looks at some of the challenges, how digital solutions can help and how the human touch still has a place in customer experience.

The Challenges

  • Cost
  • Growth and Scale
  • Authenticity
  • Quality CX


It’s financial crunch time. Brands are trying to balance offering quality products and customer experience while staying in the black. A difficult task when technology and customer expectations keep changing and a looming recession impacts expenses. Not all companies have the same budgets either.  

Growth and Scale

Businesses want to thrive, not just survive. Growth requires resources. It means change that comes with learning curves as new hires are onboarded and new technologies are implemented. The challenge is to grow without exceeding costs or sacrificing quality in product, service or CX. 

Scaling is increasing revenue without greatly increasing costs and is desirable for most businesses. There is no magic formula for this though, and companies are often walking the line between growth and scale. This is especially true for small to midsize businesses, which are a vital part of economies worldwide.  More clients may mean more money, but also more costs to manage the increased workload. This means more risk and likely greater losses on the way to  greater revenue. It’s preferable to be prepared for growth than to have to manage an unforeseen surge.


Companies can start with clear mission statements then find out those values are hard to maintain while running and scaling a business. Customers value authenticity more than ever. The challenge here is for brands to remain authentic, even as they adapt to accommodate changes in the market, business costs and growth difficulties.

Quality CX

Maintaining a positive customer experience is a challenge in itself. Add inflation woes, scaling problems, staying on top of trends and technologies, staffing issues, and changing customer demands and providing quality CX is harder. 

How Digital Customer Service Can Help

Reducing Cost 

Self-serve options are cheaper than human based ones, but only if they are created to address customer problems well. A solid FAQ, video tutorials, online manuals and information pages are all examples of assets that can be created once and used repeatedly. These do need to be monitored periodically to make sure they are kept up to date through website, product and other changes. 

Automation also reduces costs, particularly of labor. Fewer agents are needed to address customer needs if automation is used well.  

Scalability and Assisting Growth

Automation also assists scaling. Automated support can be set up to detect situations like abandoned carts, shipping delays, upcoming renewals and then send notifications to customers. It can also offer simple solutions and route calls reducing the number of agents required and allowing them to focus on greater ROI activities like great CX for complex issues and upselling.

Improving CX

Customers want self-service options, but they want them to work and not increase their frustration. Well written and updated FAQs, websites, and tutorials that are easy for customers to access make sense. Even IVRs (interactive voice response systems)  have a place if they reduce the time customers wait in queue and get them to their answer faster.

The Pitfalls of Digitization and Automation

Digitization can increase profit. However, this is skewed in favor of larger companies which experience the greatest benefits. For small to midsize companies the ability to digitize is hampered.  Many digital options are designed for larger companies, not small to medium ones, and they have costs to match. 

Another problem is that not all AI is ready to handle customer inquiries efficiently. Data shows few customers are happy with chatbots. Once they have a bad experience they lose faith in them. There is little point in implementing a digital tool if your customers avoid using it. Companies need data to know their customers’ preferences and invest in those channels. 

Also, when automated and digital options fail to solve customer issues and make it hard for them to escalate to an agent, customers bring their frustration to the agent. This makes it harder to fill agent seats and sours the customer relationship – a double loss.

“Now, especially with COVID, not only do companies not want to spend on call centers, but workers don’t want to take those jobs and get yelled at by angry customers all day,” says Adam Goldkamp, chief operating officer of GetHuman, a website that offers customer service contact information and other hacks. “That’s why companies try and manage the number of calls by making complicated IVRs [interactive voice responses] that take a long time—to try and help control the flow of calls to the agents.”

“How to Reach a Human Being In Customer Service”, Newsweek

AI with Character Flaws

Then there is the issue of advanced AI based customer service being flawed. Customers have shown increased trust in businesses if the customer service sounds human, whether it’s AI or not.  But some of the human traits AI mimics are not ethical ones. AI fails like Amazon’s biased recruitment AI, Microsoft’s racist chatbot, and the dangerous medical recommendations of IBM’s Watson are examples of limitations. The technology is continually advancing, but even a recent interview with the new chatGPT shows that these digital interfaces need human oversight. 

The Power of Human Assisted Support

Though consumers want self-serve options they also want to be able to talk to a fellow human being when the self-serve options fail. Sometimes they just want to talk to another human being period. After an extended time of forced isolation, the need for person to person contact is prized. Gartner even predicts that by 2026 75% of customer service calls will be because of loneliness. It may not seem like a company goal to provide companionship to customers, but the fact is humanity and business are interlinked. If a company addresses those needs they will be remembered more positively.

Empathy, brand voice and transparency are important to consumers. They are very human values of the consumer experience compared to the mathematics of cost and size.

It makes sense then that other humans are capable of being better representatives of these values than a machine, if they are well trained and supported themselves. Plus, quality human service is good for business. 

“When customers have the opportunity to speak to an agent who is both motivated and equipped with the right knowledge and tools to solve their problems, they are more likely to make an additional purchase in the process. In fact, 51 percent seek out product recommendations from an agent during their service inquiry. In addition, 86 percent of customers are willing to pay more for a product or service from a company that offers a great customer experience. So, if your organization has prioritized digital solutions over the human element, it might be time to reconsider your strategy.”

“The Verdict is in: Customer Service Isn’t Human enough”, Inc.

Customers want to speak to a human agent, even when companies make it extraordinarily difficult. This is evidenced by the numerous websites like GetHuman, Dial a Human, and Contact Help that assist consumers in getting through to a human agent. that have popped up to assist people frustrated by the runaround. That is in addition to all of the reddit threads and forums where customers come together to get and give help.

“ Those prioritizing a more human touch revealed they were investing in providing easier access to a customer representative, offering greater support to customers experiencing technical issues and spending more time listening to customers. In fact, companies surveyed that achieved significant growth during the pandemic were also more likely to have a way for customers to engage with businesses directly (82%) than those that didn’t achieve growth (68%). This shows that, despite the need for and convenience of digital channels, consumers still have an appetite for human interactions with the brands they purchase from.”

“Where Seamless Digital Experience Meets The Human Touch In Customer Experience”, Forbes

This isn’t to say that it is one or the other – digital or human customer service. Another option is human assisted automation. Put automation and digital channels to work where they make sense and have well trained agents available when those don’t suffice.

Change is full of bumps in the road until the glitches are worked out. Preparedness can mean the difference between a bump and a crash. These past few years have accelerated change in so many ways it’s astonishing. But the shifts aren’t going away. Automation and digital channels are viable means of managing the challenges businesses are facing. However, it isn’t a blanket prescription. These technologies need to be applied with individual company budgets, goals, brand voices and CX goals in mind, along with a measure of caution. Automation options that scale from small to large businesses are available to help weather current and future landscapes. However, the human touch needs to be part of the mix for many companies to successfully navigate all of these challenges.