Digital dehumanization

Digital Dehumanization – destroying web-based customer loyalty.

Digital dehumanization explains why some companies have casual consumers instead of perpetual patrons.

TLDR – Summary for short attention spans: companies operate as if customers have a rational, objective, transactional view of their interactions with businesses – when in fact those customers are experiencing the interaction as if it were human-to-human, a relationship between two people, due to the inexorable wiring of the brain. The result is failing to gain competitive advantage and loyalty, due to ignorance of psychological factors. How businesses choose to use technology often creates or furthers customer alienation, largely due to poor implementation decisions. All of the aforementioned can quite easily be remedied, but may best be addressed by conducting consumer research.

How does the human mind process communications, policies, and procedures of companies they do business with?

Businesses conceptualize their interactions with customers as transactional and rooted in performance, pricing, and service. This is valid and useful to be sure. What they never get at is how people really feel about their company. They do this as a result of a massive yet understandable mistake, they imagine the customer interacts with businesses as entities that provide products and services, some sort of human-to-business relationship. That seems like a rational assumption, but in the subjective reality of human psychology it may be woefully misguided.

Humans evolved to interact with other humans, and these are the only type of relationships our brains are calibrated to understand. Companies assume their customers interact with them as a “business” or “enterprise”, but they do not and can not process this relationship any way other than a human-to-human interaction. Superficially and rationally, we are aware that companies are not the same as individuals, but our feelings toward the company are driven more by the social processing of our experience as if it was with another individual. This is similar to other modern experiences for which we are not evolutionarily prepared, like abundances of food. We eat like starvation is a constant threat, and relate to businesses as we would a person. Both are mostly inescapable.

But most companies are concerned if not obsessed with ratings of service, satisfaction, trust, engagement, ethics, and becoming social media superstars, so what are they not doing?

These are all quite valuable, but also live in the same realm. They ask how good a company is at being a company. Even social media success means more follows and likes, but not underlying feelings of being friends with a meaningful relationship. Another commonality for the entire above list is that they are mostly about avoiding performance failure. Satisfaction is a rather simplistic rating that indicates the success of recent transactions and service, but little about deeper loyalty and connectedness to the organization.

In addition, as with our circle of friends, ratings of quality wouldn’t be how we approach choosing who we spend time with. Good attributes in a friend are rendered nearly irrelevant if the same person also is abusive, dismissive, or cold toward us. We choose to spend time with those that care about us, we’ve had positive interactions with, and we most enjoy being around. This is often despite their flaws.

Ok, this concept makes sense, but specifically where do companies fail?

Communication faux pas you would never try with your friends/family. No-reply emails are an easy example. One-way communication that usually generates issues or questions, with the easiest avenue for a response cut off. Users immediately know the company does not care enough to hear the response. The worst I’ve seen of this is notifications of account suspension or other serious problems. Imagine a friend delivering news to you in person, shushing you as they leave saying “visit my website if you have questions”. The idea of a friend doing the exact same thing (sending a no-reply email) is preposterous. Hiding behind some sort of anonymous send bot so you can’t say anything in return? This would end a friendship. It is almost as bad as breaking up with your partner by voice mail, and ending it with “please don’t call back”.

Other examples include hiding contact information deeply within a website to avoid contact in the first place, chat support from slow over-extended reps while the customer is quickly timed out for inactivity, and canned email replies that rarely reflect an understanding of the original customer need.

Technology implemented without concern for how it affects customers. Ever tried to login to an account, and not remember your password? Usually that depends on the password requirements. But how many companies show these requirements on the login page as a friendly reminder? A small minority! You try a password, it fails, and still some don’t tell you the requirements. This is all true of the pages where you create your password, by the way. The company could choose to care more, and help you, but they don’t. Your friend would. Save a secure password in a protected wallet like you should? The company likely blocks pasting (unless you use this amazing firefox addon to fight back) so you’re typing 24 characters meticulously, or most likely you just make a less secure password since they are unconcerned about your convenience or security. This is just a small rambling example, but this sort of manipulation and lack of regard for what the customer wants changes how the customer feels about the company responsible for it, even if not fully justified. I chose this example because my position is already recommended by internet security experts1,2,3, yet ignored by companies for the most part. There is little real argument in favor of the poor choices made, as in this case the customer-centric and most secure options are one and the same.

Enough complaining, what positive things should they be doing?

This is actually where the most work is needed. Assuming you haven’t offended or annoyed your customers with bad interactions, you still need to actively build a feeling of friendship. My complaints above might be trite and personal (exactly what ruins friendships), but they should be obvious versions of a simple theme: “don’t disrespect your customer or their needs”. It’s interesting that such obvious irritating failures are spoiling so many otherwise solid consumer relationships.

Show humanity. There are countless areas to implement this, let’s explore one very narrow example for a moment. In the recent necessity of GDPR compliance changes, email notifications sent to customers displayed with considerable clarity how most companies don’t “get” how to be human. Rigid and robotic “action required” emails ordered customers to make updates. Others were brutally bureaucratic such as “[Important Notice] Data processing terms for the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) available for review / acceptance”. A few more savvy companies said things like “Sorry, but true” to show empathy or “Please confirm that you’re still happy to hear from us”, which has both politeness (please) and emotional content (happy). Others at least made an effort with messaging like “[Name], don’t forget to tell us if you still want our money-saving deals and tips”. These types used old tricks of inserting a name, and reminding customers of the benefits. Persuasive if not viewed as patronizing, but not particularly endearing.

Stop hiding. Reduce the number of clicks, entry fields, and hassles between the customer and your service staff. Expand your open hours. Offer chat.

Before you say “we’ll get too much to handle” or “sounds expensive”, consider why that is. I’ll get back to that.

Large amounts of customer contact are a gift, not a burden. This feedback is rich with customer perceptions, attitudes, and needs. They are telling you exactly how to get better and make them happier.

A quick story . . .

As a college professor I once changed my contact information on my syllabi to include my phone number, followed by “text ok”, and I also started telling students to text me on our first day. Administrators thought I was slightly insane. I did suffer an onslaught of messages. The result was realizing what I forgot to say, forgot to include in the syllabus, didn’t word correctly, or students needing to know things that I did not anticipate. Two semesters later the same contact information was available and promoted, but my phone was silent. I got better instead of asking my students to complain less. I did not know how to serve them this well until I made complaining so easy.

I know. Classrooms aren’t businesses. Customers don’t read FAQs. Complaints are repetitive. Customer service labor and training are difficult to manage. I know. But have you tested these assumptions and fought mightily against them? Have you taken the responsibility by realizing that customers cannot edit your policies or website, they can only tell you how it lets them down?

I said I would return to the topic of getting too much contact, or the cost of being more available. It is without any doubt a legitimate objection. But why will it be so challenging? Are you powerless to change this? Would customers leave for a competitor that does provide better service? These are crucial questions.

I can’t fully explore this with you here. This is something that will require a lot of highly specialized investigation. What I can give are some guiding trains of thought:

  • How much effort is required by the user to find solutions on their own? Do you expect them to register for a message board and search? Is registration really necessary?  Could you have anticipated this need?
  • Are your beliefs about customers self-fulfilling? Are your tutorials, help pages, or FAQs truly helpful and comprehensive? Are they constantly changing based on incoming requests? When I do check such resources, at most companies, I usually do not find my concerns answered (even when seemingly common).
  • What are other companies doing? What is the best you’ve seen or heard of? Are there good packaged solutions you haven’t considered?
  • Have you ever conducted research on this problem?

Ultimately my recommendation here is to stop making assumptions, and do the hard work necessary to find the exact balance for your organization. Some will find they have to hide a little, but I would wager that few have fully explored the options to better capture needs, connect customers to answers, and leave them feeling like you care. The best systems try to limit customer contact not by making contact difficult, but by making other solutions even easier.

Invest in UX research. User experience (UX) research should easily expose the interactions and policies that are getting under the skin of your customers. Don’t forget open-ended items where they can tell you precisely what is wrong.

Hire Psychologists. Self-serving as it is, having an internal or consulting Psychologist review your messaging and policies is an obvious way to improve how it will be perceived. A good industrial/organizational Psychologist can assist you with more likeable messaging, as well as motivating customers and improving the training of representatives. If that doesn’t keep them busy, you can have them switch focus to internal issues of job satisfaction, employee selection, company culture, and more.

Here is a lengthy experience of mine that illustrates my overall point:

This is from a recent interaction I had with Upwork (a freelancer company I like, but could do better with service). Why don’t I love them and feel much loyalty or warmth toward them? Buckle up.

Out of nowhere I got an email with this text:

We noticed you haven’t been working through Upwork lately.

To improve client’s search results and show them more freelancers who are available, we’ve changed your profile to “private” until you’re ready to start taking on new projects.

Here are three ways to switch your profile back to “public”:

  • Resume earning through Upwork. Apply to projects and start getting paid.
  • Sign up for a Freelancer Plus membership. Keep your profile public when you aren’t regularly earning.
  • Contact customer service. Keep your profile public by earning on Upwork within 30 days.

Currently, your profile won’t be discoverable to clients unless you submit a proposal for their job.

I am confused when I received this, as I was actively bidding on projects within 24 hours of the notice. Strange.

Can you guess what my immediate unanswered question was? If not, imagine instead a friend sent me “hey we haven’t been hanging out much, so I am no longer going to invite you any outings”. What would you want to know (I bet it is obvious now)?

The answer is “why!? and what is are criteria or specific reasons? is it days, dollar value, or what? did I do something to anger them? why do you think I am not ready for projects? what have I done to deserve this?”

Honestly, that’s about how I reacted. Sort of embarrassing, excessive, and a little irrational. Fine I admit that. Now realize this is your typical customer. Let that sink in. Also notice the general way they wrote it, rather cold and uncaring.

Well, I thought, I’ll ask them real quick. I don’t see a link to the criteria for how this happened (such a link would save them a contact). Well [expletive deleted]! it’s from a donotreply@ email address. You jerks!

Is there a link to customer service? No. These people just dropped a bomb and hid from me!

*goes to website and logs in*

After noticing no contact links in the main navigation, I found the light grey on dark grey small font “Help & Support” in the footer. Ah I found you!

No, I found their lair, but hurdles and traps are set.

The page that come up has a very prominent search area titled in huge font “how can we help?”. I type in, using their lingo from the message “profile private”. None of the results explain why this happens. Another missed chance to avoid contact and give me an answer.

Wait, what’s this at the bottom of the page? A button that says “get help” next to text that says “Contact Upwork Customer Service”, all in small fonts.


I click and a text entry popup appears. I type “private profile” and it informs me I have entered too few characters. Ok, I guess you are not just hiding but you are mildly sadistic. I feel like you care (is there a font for sarcasm?).

I lengthen to “reasons for private profile”. My inquiry is now adequate to be acknowledged. I am a good compliant customer number 3234209234.

I get a few results, including a basic definition of what it means for an account to be private. Nothing helpful. A button for “I still need help” is available, and actually very prominent. Cool, I am almost there.

Now I am asked to select a category and subcategory. Hmm I wonder if there is a way you could already have this context? Oh yeah, you could accept a reply from the email! Nevermind. I choose the most relevant options of “profile” and “profile approval”. The second isn’t quite right, but nothing else is even close.

No chat offered, but email is. I explain the issue, and that I want to understand the problem and avoid it in the future, and submit. 

I get a very fast reply via email. Just a few minutes. But, it is a canned response that does not address my concern at all. Ugh.

This email accepts replies, so I repeat my concern, thinking “wow I’ve typed this several times now, what a waste of my time”.

The next reply did finally address things well enough. But I won’t get that 20 minutes of my time back, and they missed the chance to have a customer that feels cared for. It was the only time in years I tried to contact them, and probably years more will go by, but because they could not handle a 3-minute chat, or one additional email reply, my feeling toward them over a decade will probably be fairly negative. Seems like the cost savings was not worth it.

Update: I later discovered that chat support is available (still difficult to access) for premium members or those earning/spending a lot of money.

The takeaway is not “wow their service needs work”. That may be a fact, but not the lesson. If you trust me when I say that this is about average of the companies I’ve dealt with, then the real lesson is that there is an enormous and common weakness, as well as tremendous opportunity for competitive advantage by doing better.

I hope this helps enlighten you to a new way of looking at your web-based customer interactions. Comments, criticism, praise, and questions are all encouraged.

This post is an attempt to convey something I’ve recognized as a meta-theme in business research I’ve read and worked on. I believe it is an enormous blind spot, but one that seems obvious once revealed. I assume others have said this before, but I don’t believe the vast majority of organizations give enough weight to these considerations. Here I provide only examples and not a complete exploration of the issue.

Yeah, I get a bit hyper-focused on user experience. Thanks for reading.