The secret to being digital? Be more human

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Brands that are digital humanists will get further with customers than those who are digital machinists

SAN DIEGO — Airbnb. Kickstarter. Task Rabbit. Uber. All of these companies have been hailed for being innovative or disruptive. What do they know that you don't? Don Scheibenreif asked that question of attendees during his keynote at the Gartner Customer 360 Summit here last week.

His answer: They know that technology and customer experience are almost inseparable.

Scheibenreif, a Gartner VP and distinguished analyst, then asked, "Are you ready for this new era of customer engagement at the speed of digital business?"

The fact is, according to Scheibenreif, anyone has the ability to generate new and innovative business models using technology. There are companies that don't have the burden of legacy technology or entrenched business models. They have no fear, he said, just the desire to make things better. And they're using technology to crack the code of customer engagement, which Gartner defines as the ability to attract and influence customers and engage them in a long-term relationship.

These companies are using technology to become digital businesses: ones that blur the lines between the physical and digital worlds. According to a recent Gartner study, only 22% of respondents define their companies as true digital businesses. Fifty percent expect to become a digital business by 2017, and 83% say they'll be one by 2020. "When will you becomes a digital business?" Scheibenreif asked attendees. His recommendation: Start now if you haven't already done so. "Develop your roadmap to becoming a digital business because it's already here."

Fortunately, he offered some advice on how to do so.

"The first step to being more digital is to be more human," Scheibenreif said. "Help people realize their dreams and goals." The way to do that, he said, is to be a digital humanist, not a digital machinist. The former puts customers at the center and uses technology to help them achieve a goal or solve a problem; the latter uses technology to take people out of the equation. "Don't try to engineer people out of the process," he said.

Gartner's Jenny Sussin had recommendations on being a digital humanist, as well.

During her conference session, Sussin, a research director, suggested that attendees follow Gartner's three-part Digital Humanist Manifesto:

  • Put people at the center
  • Embrace serendipity
  • Give people space

Put people at the center. Sussin used a hammer analogy to explain what it means to put people at the center of the equation, instead of the product or service a company is marketing. Think of digital machinists versus digital humanists in this way: A machinist starts with a hammer and asks, "What problems can we solve with this tool?" Conversely, the humanist says, "We have this problem (e.g., we need to put a nail in the wall to hang a picture), what can we create or use to solve it?"

Digital businesses that put customers at the center take the time to understand those customers, Sussin said. Know who you're designing for and what they need or expect, she advised. But, she warned, marketers should do more than ask customers about their goals and preferences; they must also observe customer behaviors because people can't always tell you what they want.

Embrace serendipity. Sometimes opportunities present themselves, and companies simply need to capitalize on them, Sussin said. She cited the #GartnerCRM hashtag, which the analyst firm started using in advance of its Customer 360 Summit to promote the event. Gartner's marketers expected attendees to tweet about what they were looking forward to or expecting at the event. They did this to an extent. But, interestingly, some also posted tweets looking for other attendees who they could meet up with for a pre-conference run in the mornings. Gartner seized the opportunity to set up a formal group run for attendees. The run, and a yoga class, were even added to the schedule on the conference mobile app.

"It's worth mentioning here," Sussin added, "that a user invented the hashtag for Twitter … and Twitter embraced it."

Sussin quoted former Apple CEO Steve Jobs to provide another example of how to embrace serendipity: Customers can't anticipate what technology can do, he said; they may not be able to conceive what's possible. But you can create that better experience for them. "People can't always tell you what they want because they don't know," Sussin reiterated. "So, you need to allow your customer experience to evolve as customers want it to, and adapt it to your customers' preferences."

Give people space. The final element of the Digital Humanist Manifesto is to know when to leave customers alone, Sussin said. For example, just because a company has the data and permission to contact a customer via multiple channels for a new campaign doesn't mean it should.

"Don't annoy [customers] because you can," Sussin said, adding that marketers need to make sure that when they reach out to customers and personalize the experience, they actually do that — by delivering an experience customers' actually want. "It needs to be mutually beneficial," she said, adding that marketers should put personalization in context so it's not creepy.

Companies also need to give customers the space to create their own enhancements to products and services—especially digital offerings. "People will do things with your technology that you've never thought that they'd do," Sussin said. "People will experience your technology in ways you didn't expect. Let them." And let them improve on your experience, she advised.

"Put customers at the center," Sussin reiterated. "Don't put your organizational politics there."

This article first appeared on


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