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Will Machines Really Own the Transactional Surveys of the Future?

I wish I could take a poll right now to get your first reaction to this question and ask you what you perceive “own” to be… This is a very fundamental topic of today’s customer experience measurement world, and it is an interesting debate topic among many CX professionals and researchers. In fact, I have recently debated formally on this topic. Here’s how it went…

Debating “Oxford Style”

I was asked to participate in an Oxford-style debate at a large market research conference. First of all, I have never participated in any formal debates, nor do I have much knowledge of them and their styles, other than enjoying (or not so enjoying) the Presidential debates of late. So, like any other person of this century, I Googled it to find out what is so “Oxford style” about a debate. One of the search results told me that it is “a competitive debate format featuring a sharply framed motion that is proposed by one side and opposed by another.” Hm… So, what is my “sharply framed motion”? I went back to the debate offer and realized that I was assigned to firmly propose that “machines will own the transactional surveys in the future”. Interesting! An odd match for me, as I, myself, am a traditional researcher working for a customer experience company that promotes a marriage of technology (a.k.a. machines) and services (a.k.a. humans). And my partner in debate was also from a similar firm. Our opponents were two colleagues, one from a traditional research firm (a good match for the point she needs to make) and the other from a firm just like ours. Very interesting start, to say the least. Nevertheless, we all wrapped our heads around the style of debate and the fact that no matter what we believe, per the debate rules, we should defend the firm position we’re assigned.

My debate partner and I had several discussions to talk about our “interpretation” of this position and how we would direct our attention to certain aspects of this statement to focus on the critical need for machines in the transactional survey lifecycle. We decided to start with how the survey research world has evolved in the past 20 years and end with how today’s consumer-centric information-crowded world necessitates those machines to be an essential foundation to successfully conduct transactional programs. Did we win? Let me tell you a little more about how the debate went…

Machines are Essential to Conducting Surveys

We started as the proposing team and told our story about how 20 years ago, we used to administer surveys on paper, by hand, and tally answers. Then to the days when we used to print piles of cross-tabulations, bound in big binders, put in boxes and shipped to our clients, along with color-printed report slides, and nicely bound with a plastic cover and back. Now that I think, we used to save data files first on floppy disks, later on CDs and mail those, too. Security concern???

Then we jumped into today’s world and the focused on customer-centricity among successful organizations and the attention to customer experience and assigned CX professionals. We talked about how we need to collect experience information and perceptions from many consumers, in a timely manner, and distribute the information to employees within the corporation to monitor and act on the experience data from their customers. This all can’t be done by hand, on paper. We do need the machines. With the software technology and Internet, we are able to capture thousands of surveys from consumers within one day. How can one do this without the technology? Once those thousands of surveys are captured, hundreds of executives and front-line managers can see the aggregate scores and specific customer comments within minutes. How is this possible with printed and shipped materials via snail mail? Not possible at all… And even with phone, it takes weeks to complete reaching out to a sample that can be reached now in minutes.

A Human Touch is Necessary

Obviously, it’s all machines, we all need machines to make transactional surveys timely, efficient, and impactful for business decisions and actions. My partner and I tried to stop the debate at this point. But of course, our opponents were ready to jump into the territory we were trying to avoid, the territory we knew very well would have dissed our “firm position on machine’s owning this.” The territory that we couldn’t have denied ourselves. So, it began… They spoke about the importance of human intervention on the transactional survey space, from need for designing a specific survey for a specific transaction of a specific corporation to the need for interpreting the collected data and telling a story. How can I argue with all that? That’s what I do every day. That’s what I love doing every day. But I had to still defend my point.

Well, as you can guess by this point, we lost the debate.  But in some ways the debate was artificial anyway.  In many real ways, technology does own the transactions of the future by:

  • Enabling customers to provide feedback on their terms either immediately or at their convenience
  • Getting the information in real time and allowing instant responses at the customer, business unit, and enterprise levels
  • Integrating with customer relationship management systems to track customer feedback and use it to improve the customer experience

But with this abundance of cheap, quick data comes an increasing danger of information overload and analysis paralysis.  That’s where people come into play. Whether it’s the decision of the surveys, the technology itself, or sifting through large data sets to uncover the key strategic insights.

A Balanced Relationship Between Man and Machine

So, the conclusion is: Machines will “own” the transactional surveys of the future in the sense that they will continue to drive getting more volume, better quality, and more timely information from consumers to be able to serve them better every day.  But it will be the people who make sure all the right information is getting to the right people at the right time and in the right format to maximize effective decisions at every level in the organization.

That’s the future we see.   Do you see a different future?