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Digital is Dead, At Least as a Term

This article first appeared in No Jitter, a partner publication.

At a recent meeting with a chief marketing officer of a customer experience analytics company, he presented a slide which contained three bullet points and four uses of the word “digital” - digital transformation, digital channels, digital customer experience, and digital-first.

When I asked the CMO what he meant by “digital,” he rattled off various customer interaction channels, including web chat, SMS, video, social media, chatbots, and more. The better question was, “What’s not digital?”

After a few seconds of silence, he realized he didn’t have an answer.

Has “digital” become meaningless? The problem with digital everything is that people use the word to mean, well…everything. It’s always posed in a positive, innovative light, as well. Decades ago, we watched phone calls move from analog to digital; is going digital still innovative?

In my conversations with technology vendors and IT/CX leaders, they define digital in one of the following ways:

  • Self-service vs. assisted service, when self-service is “digital”
  • On-screen vs. off-screen, when on-screen is “digital”
  • Typing vs. verbal, when typing is “digital”
  • Non-voice channels vs. PSTN voice phone calls, when non-voice interaction channels are “digital”

All of the above distinctions are meaningful and can be innovative; the use of the word digital, however, lacks any meaning because it lacks clarity. Words and phrases definitely get recycled in the tech space, but I do believe some of the modern definitions behind the age-old word “digital” can be quite innovative for organizations as they try to transform their customer experience strategies.

Self-Service vs. Assisted Service

Some vendors and CX leaders really mean self-service when they talk digital. If a customer interacts using channels such as chatbots, voicebots, conversational commerce, or a FAQ on a company website, those interactions are considered digital. But once a live agent enters, with a real-time or non-real-time interaction using channels including voice, video, screen-sharing, or web chat, it’s not digital. In reality, the distinction here is self-service vs. assisted service.

On-screen vs. Off-screen

In this case, the qualifier is whether the customer is looking at or using a screen of any type to interact with a company. The channel can be just about anything one can do on a screen, including webchat, SMS, video, screen-sharing, social media, business messaging service, chatbot, conversational commerce, and even voice, via WebRTC. Off-screen, or “non-digital,” basically includes interactions via a phone call or a voicebot. The key distinction is they are not looking at a screen to interact; rather, they are talking and listening.

Typing vs. Verbal

The distinction here is that customers are either typing (digital) or talking (non-digital). So customers can communicate with channels such as webchat, SMS, business messaging services, social media, self-service FAQs, or chatbots. But if that interaction switches to a video or voice call, it’s suddenly not digital? Yep. That’s the definition of those vendors and CX leaders supporting this distinction.

Whew! That’s a lot of slicing and dicing, but words matter. Clarity matters when CX leaders are trying to evaluate services and applications before making a purchase—and many are doing so right now. So, if you insist on using “digital” throughout the company’s elevator pitch, go a step further and define what you mean by it.

In our recent research study, Customer Engagement Transformation 2022-23, we provided a definition of “digital-first” because so many of our clients wanted to understand what was happening. Our definition is: A digital-first strategy allows customers to use various non-traditional voice channels (web chat, social media apps, business messaging apps, virtual assistants, mobile SMS, co-browsing, etc.) to interact with a business. Communications history, over all channels, is integrated. If a customer starts in a self-service channel and later shifts to a live agent, either in voice, video, or text, the agent has historical context.

Using that definition of “digital-first,” we found that 35.9% of companies have adopted this strategy as of April 2022, with the top drivers being customer demand (21.7%), which improves customer satisfaction (21.5%), and makes agents more productive (18.7%). Another 21.2% plan to adopt this digital-first strategy by the end of 2022, and 17% will do so in 2023 or beyond.

What’s even more interesting is the extent to which companies are able to solve their customers’ needs in a channel other than voice. In late 2020, 50% of all interactions started in a channel other than voice, and 61% were resolved in the selected channel. As of April 2022, 35% of interactions started in a channel other than voice, but 76% were resolved in that channel.

Though there are actually fewer interactions (as a percentage of overall contact center interactions) happening in non-PSTN voice channels, resolution within the original channel is improving.

Meanwhile, 69.3% of companies say they need either a significant or incremental improvement to their self-service strategies. Companies are updating and improving their knowledge management base, which serves as the single source of truth. Among other priorities, the goal for these systems is improving CX across any channel, increasing the personalization of CX, making it easier to find or use self-service, and continuously improving the content.

Given all the activity of everything that falls into the “digital” landscape, describe what you’re really doing (vendors) and what you’re really seeking (CX leaders) to ensure the apps and services address the requirements.