The more "high-tech" systems we use, the more of a "high-touch" balance we are going to need in order to avoid the danger of eliminating the important element of "human reasonableness." A healthy, "high-tech" "high-touch" balance equals money in the bank, while maintaining a "high-tech" "low-touch" atmosphere ultimately results in lost revenue and ultimate failure.

Although the increased use of technology is one way to lower costs, maximize productivity, improve service and increase revenue and profit, technology does not drive business, customers do. The more our society interacts electronically, the greater the likelihood for people to experience personal alienation, which could ultimately lead to an environment where computers make all the decisions.

To create the balance we need, three elements are vital: technology, the user, and management. To promote these key elements, a vision, an environment that promotes this vision, a bottom-line of customer service, and the human equation must be considered. "High-touch" modification of the "high-tech" process promotes the individual to interact effectively, improving productivity by using technology.

Customer Service Vision and its Environment

In order to be successful, every business must identify quality service as a vital part of their vision. That vision can include a professional attitude, interest in customers' situations, a commitment to answer questions or resolve problems quickly, pride in the delivery of products or services and a culture that appreciates the customer's business.

Since "high-tech" environments naturally lower the number of customer interactions, maximizing the quality of the remaining personal encounters is critical. This is the "high-touch" balance that can often overcome impersonal and electronic interactions. From voice mail to e-mail, if customers wade through too many menu options, are transferred repeatedly and are not treated with respect, dignity and appreciation, they will perceive the impersonal mode quickly and make their decision about the company accordingly.

The Human Equation

Another equally important aspect of this "high-tech"/"high-touch" philosophy, the human equation, encompasses every department function. When businesses fault on the side of "high-tech," the focus is often on eliminating human interface, when in fact, it may be the time to increase it. The danger is in looking for a "high-tech" solution to systems without understanding the ramifications.

For example, a clerk processing incoming orders sees an order on her computer screen for one million, one hundred thousand units and doesn't give it a second thought. If her computer says that's the right number, then that's what it must be. If, instead, the clerk had used her own, inherent "reasonable check," she would have realized that this customer only orders eleven hundred units at a time. Someone obviously keyed in a couple of extra zeros by mistake. A potential disaster could have been avoided before the order was processed, shipped and warehoused. This kind of mistake can promote chaos when the manufacturer thinks they don't need to produce additional product, which reduces the order for another supplier, which, in turn, reduces the order for another supplier and down the daisy chain.

Finding the Balance

Search engines Yahoo and Alta Vista have been seduced into letting the computer make all the decisions, thinking it can sort, select, and do everything - totally avoiding any human interface, which will ultimately reduce their viability.

Amazon.com is a excellent example of a company that undertook the technology called the Internet and e-business, and figured out how people can sit at their computer and select books. To their credit, they have given their customer the ability to review all books and get assistance via feedback from other customers, not just pure data.

Service911.com, a web-based computer support firm designed to bring real-time customer service to the online world, has done an enviable job balancing "high-tech" with "high-touch" strategies in their business operation. Their 100 percent web-based business uses the Web to offer live chat, how-to videos, information and on-site support to web visitors. Founded three years ago, the company initially launched as an on-site repair service in their home base of Dallas, TX. What set this company apart from the beginning was the ability to service all brands of computers and peripheral equipment.

"Two months ago, we restructured this human-based business and leveraged the Internet to provide a better business model," says President and CEO Lawrence Schwartz. "Already we've had a couple million visitors to our site. We've seen that as people get more sophisticated computer systems and peripheral devices, they're finding a lot of complexity and it's causing problems."

"People need to be able to have 100 percent uptime, and a company like ours is able to actually talk to that person, fix the problem, and get them back productive. Technology cannot take care of people the way we can, with empathy as we reason, explore the problem, and solve it."

Checking the Balance

On an ongoing basis, evaluate the perceptions of your company and strive to balance "high-tech" and "high-touch." They are both very essential to the efficiency of the marketplace. "Those functions that are best done by technology should be done by technology. Those which are best done by people, (should) continue to be done by people," reminds Richard Grasso, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, in a recent conversation with Chris Wallace on the ABC News program, Nightline with Ted Koppel.

The Bottom Line

Employees in a "high-tech" only atmosphere also have less and less loyalty to their organizations, and, employers don't feel the need for long standing employment relationships because the "computers will do it." Operating under these conditions, the inherent set of information that defines the culture behind any organization gets lost in the shuffle. Computers cannot replace or replicate human creativity, empathy or drive - a valuable commodity to lose.

Safeguards must be within the systems, which include checks-and-balances within the business. Just like the check-and-balance which exists between the United States president and the Congress and Judicial systems, there needs to be a check-and-balance within the computer system, the operators using the system, and the management of the organization.

M. Victor Janulaitis, is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC), and President of Positive Support Review, a Los Angeles-based management consulting firm. For more information, call (310) 453-6100 or visit www.psrinc.com.

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