Anxious Customers Prefer Human Customer Service, HBR Research Finds

As companies increasingly defer customers to self-service and automated channels to empower them to resolve many service issues on their own and reduce the time they spend reaching service providers, there’s a cohort of customers that may not benefit from this approach—anxious ones.

In a recent study from the Harvard Business Review that focused on the financial services industry, researchers found that subjects given the opportunity to speak to loan officers about their financial situation and application were much more likely to move forward with their loan application than those who were not given the opportunity for human interaction. In an industry where customers are prone to experience high anxiety when they interact with companies, such as financial services or healthcare, human conversations go a long way.

To achieve their results, researchers developed a mock online investing platform for retirement planning and invited 150 adult participants from across the United States to invest a hypothetical portfolio of $100,000. While some participants were randomly assigned to experience normal market conditions, others were intentionally given a greater probability of drawing from the worst stock market years in U.S. history. Researchers also gave participants access to historical performance information for each of the asset classes and the ability to track their own portfolio growth to help inform their decisions.

Every few rounds, researchers asked participants to rate how satisfied they were with a decision they had just made, as well as how anxious they felt. Those experiencing more downturns reported feeling twice as much anxiety as those facing normal market conditions and were also less satisfied with their choices. What’s more, the dissatisfaction people felt with their own choices carried over to influence how they felt about the investment platform.

To test whether or not speaking with an agent might help mitigate some of this dissatisfaction, researchers repeated the experiment but split participants in an additional way—some were given the option to “chat with an expert or investor” and others didn’t have that option.

Michelle A. Shell, doctoral candidate in the Technology & Operations Management program at Harvard Business School, explained the results in an HBR blog post:

“We found that when people had the ability to connect with another person—either an expert or a peer—the deleterious effects of anxiety were offset. Although people facing rocky market conditions were still anxious, those who were given the option to chat felt the same level of choice satisfaction and trust in the firm as people facing a normal market.” 

To test their hypothesis in the real world, researchers partnered with a credit union that was in the process of launching and refining their loan application program. As part of the test, HBR researchers broke the application process into three groups—one that received no communication from the credit union until a loan decision about their application was made, one that received text message updates on the application process, and a third that received the same text messages, but were also invited to chat with a loan officer for support. As Shell writes, the chats made a difference:

“We found that the probability of approved loan applicants moving forward with their loans jumped from 64 percent to 80 percent when customers receiving those same play-by-play messages were also invited to connect with a loan officer.” 

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