The case for the human touch …or… the lessons of the elevator operator.

elevator signage

Hutzler’s, Hochschild Kohn, and Hecht’s. The names of small football clubs in Germany? No, these were the iconic department stores in my hometown of Baltimore. And if you stepped on an elevator in any one of these stores back in the 40s, on board would be a finely uniformed employee in charge of operating the manual doors and controls.

While riding, these self-styled ambassadors would talk to customers and answer questions, and, as the car approached each floor, they would bellow out something like, “second floor, toys, big 20% off sale today.” The store, knowing that the elevator operators were the only employees who had a captive audience who would listen to them, ensured any conversation was valuable by holding a brief meeting each morning so that the operators were made aware of all store news including sales and special or new items in inventory.

However, in the 50s, as automated elevators began appearing, human elevator operators began disappearing, and to replace the announcements, stores installed tape machines that would let customers know what floor they were on and what news they needed to know. It seemed a win-win with lower costs for the stores and all the same information for the customers.

If you were a department store owner at the time, you sat back in your chair marveling at how clever you were to have saved money and taken care of customers all in one fell swoop, however, customers did not see this change as so clever. Many of them complained and wanted the elevator operators back. You see, what they missed wasn’t the announcement of the floors or learning about sales and the like, it was the banter, the conversation, the human touch.

So, what was the outcome? Many of the “clever” store owners began bringing in staff to ride the elevators and pick up conversations with customers. Ultimate result, no real savings and damaged customer relationships that needed healing.

There are several lessons here.

  1. The human touch is important, in fact, critical. People need and want human connection. Machines might be able to say, “good morning” but they can’t make people feel “good morning.”
  2. For employees who are customer facing, give them something of value they can offer. Have short daily meetings where they can learn any news about innovations, products, sales, etc. to share with customers.
  3. Before you make a change in your business, find out how it will impact people. Don’t look at data on a spreadsheet. Go out and talk to people, learn their likes and dislikes, design something, then test the new idea in a prototype and get feedback.

So, to all those business leaders who are thinking of making big changes that impact people, particularly those installing machines to replace humans who talk to customers, think again. Business is by and for human beings. Don’t let the lure of cost savings make you replace the heartbeat of your business for an unfeeling pacemaker.

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