The digital economy has arrived. And, it’s already making a significant impact in how businesses think and operate. But when complexity and emotions escalate, your customers want to interact with a human. Unfortunately, if you aren’t ready and able to accommodate their need, chances are your competitor will be.

The positive side of the digital trend is that it’s very customer-driven – meaning businesses are paying much closer attention to the customer experience. And, as the name implies, this is a highly technology-driven trend that draws on a blend of historical and real-time data empowering companies with the ability to be proactive.  For instance, knowing when to present customers with an offer that data shows they will need, often before they even know the need exists.

Plus, the amount of automation touching the consumer’s life is on track to see a significant boost in the year ahead, per trends spotlighted at the recent Consumer Electronics Show. Automation for data centers and marketing, intelligent apps that draw upon geolocation and usage history, the expanded use of machine learning to simplify the consumer life, enhanced smart homes with dozens of daily appliances getting in on the game and humanized data are all becoming realities.

It’s exciting to think about how this new level of automation can ultimately improve the way businesses engage customers. For instance, having the ability to provide a highly-customized experience by instantaneously recognizing preferences. However, as we all know, ideals are not always the reality – and there are still instances where having a human available is a necessity.

Case in Point – Automation Failing the Customer and the Business

When automation works, the results are phenomenal. Customers are happy because they can go about their day seamlessly enjoying the services they have come to rely on. Yet, the downside to expansive automation becomes glaringly obvious when an unplanned event transpires, such as when a snow storm three states away strands hundreds of customers in an airport.

This Quartz article by Mike Murphy does a great job of demonstrating the frustrations associated with seemingly over-automated environments. “I’d managed to effectively book an entire vacation within minutes from my phone—all without speaking to a soul—and been left stranded by an airline with no customer support options apart from unanswered emails and tweets, and an impenetrable phone number.”

Since no airline personnel were available to assist other passengers, the responsibility to educate consequently landed on Murphy’s shoulders. “Other passengers started to trickle in, confused of where they were meant to go. Someone asked me if I was waiting on my bag, and I explained what I knew, and then others crowded around to hear,” he writes. “No one from the airline, or really anyone else at all, was around to explain anything. We were all relying on my chance encounter with a human; me with the attendant, and they with me.”

Obviously, these mishaps often produce costly ripple effects including significantly damaging the customer relationship going forward. After all, when customers are frustrated, they don’t necessarily look at the extenuating circumstances. Instead, what resonates is that the company – not the technology or the circumstances – failed them during a time of need.

This rings true in this specific example because, as Murphy writes, he ultimately booked his flight home with another airline.

Alternate Reality – Making Humans Available when Necessary

The same technology that makes self-service feasible is now also powerful enough to bring a human into customer conversations when it’s needed. Though no one has launched teleportation capabilities, video conferencing has been happening on mobile devices for many years now. Or in our airport example, imagine if all those check-in kiosks could also act as video terminals connecting passengers to airline agents working in a centralized center, serving a large number of airports.

Armed with video collaboration technology, a limited number of agents could effectively provide services for multiple locations on an as needed basis, rather than attempting to fully staff locations.

Making humans available when and where they are needed can drive exceptional customer experiences, loyalty, and revenue growth. In this instance, staffing every airport with the number of agents you would need for a canceled flight is cost-prohibitive. But, video makes it feasible not only from a cost prospective, but in terms of scalability as well.

Capitalizing on the Opportunity to Engage

One of the benefits of face-to-face engagements that video enables is the ability to humanize the situation, show sympathy, and work together to find an acceptable solution. It could also represent an opportunity for the agent to leverage that same data-fueled technology driving the digital economy to ultimately strengthen the customer relationship.

In our race towards automation, self-service and cost reduction, we have forgotten that there are certain times – particularly those emotionally-charged times – when customers want to speak to a human. The good news is that digital economy now makes this feasible within most budgets and scalable across wide geographies. Having the right technology in place – such as the ability to engage via video during a crisis – can mean the difference between customer evangelists and customer churn.