Posts Tagged ‘Human’

The digital transformation of customer service in retail banking is changing the depth and form of relationships of banks with their customers. The increasing shift to direct digital self-service channels re-shapes how consumers interact with retail banks. As explained in the first part of this article, the effects of this transformation can be seen and felt at physical bank branches and away from the branches through remote online channels (including web-based service platforms and mobile apps). Furthermore, ‘customer service’ practically entails the customers’ operations of regular account maintenance but also their acquisition of various banking services and financial products (e.g., deposits, loans, equity and bonds). Hence the digital transformation is affecting broadly and simultaneously retail banking service as well as marketing to customers.

The focus of the first part of the article was a review of the ways in which the five main banks in Israel approach the digital transformation in the domain of retail banking, and especially how the banks choose to balance between the digital and human modes of interaction and service in their relations with customers. It considered the observed forms and methods of implementing their approaches and discussed their implications regarding the digital-human balance. Particular attention was awarded nonetheless to the effects that digital channels of interaction may have on the premises of retail bank branches — their organisation, interior design, and functions.

The approach taken by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot may be seen as surprising to digital advocates because it is ‘going against the stream’, yet it is tapping on some sensitive nerves of  consumers. The advertising campaign of the bank — carrying the title “On the things really important, there is no substitute to humanity” — commits not to sacrifice contact with human bank representatives in the sake of digital self-service. This is a promise of reassurance for many bank customers who still do not feel comfortable and confident with over reliance on supposedly self-sufficient digital channels. But a question remains to address: Does the campaign stand on a solid strategic ground? One would want to know if there is substantive managerial commitment behind the campaign and a plan to execute it.

A declaration of the bank on its latest strategic plan offers an affirmative answer. According to a press release published by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot in November 2016, the strategic plan for the years  2017-2021 stands on three legs: (a) intensifying the focus on business sectors and expanding activities directed to them; (b) sustaining and solidifying the bank’s stature as a leader in the retail domain; and (c) being a central operator of financial assets in banking (22 Nov. ’16, origin in Hebrew). Regarding the second goal on retail that is of our interest here, the bank specifically qualifies its goal as “providing personal and human service supported by innovative technology”. In this statement the bank emphasises the order of priority between ‘personal and human service’ and technology, whereof the role of the latter is to facilitate and enhance customer service. As explained by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, the strategy is on the one hand service-driven and on the other hand aimed at reducing prices by applying a unique and advanced technological platform (i.e., the platform’s purpose is increasing efficiency in operating and delivering customer service).

The strategic statement clarifies that the bank is not about to put its technologies ahead of its customers, how it treats and serves them. It maintains that the role of the digital technologies is to increase efficiencies (e.g., saving time, facilitating processes) and not to replace human service. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot is not shy on utilising customer-facing digital tools and facilities for interface and information processing, but it does so as a supplement to human service. Already six years ago the bank initiated a ‘hybrid banking’ programme designed to smooth communication between a customer and his or her ‘personal banker’ at the branch via phone, e-mail or SMS services (they called it ‘an ideal combination between personal and digital’). Lately the bank has recognized a need to highlight the connection between ‘personal’ and ‘human’ as contra to the increasing reliance on digital service channels in other banks. The intention declared by the bank to increase its number of branches also asserts that it does not intend to make itself more distant from customers and less physically accessible to them. It is perhaps not a ground-breaking attitude yet it offers stability, credibility, and confidence in bankers to be there in person for the customers.

However, there are still certain aspects the bank can further develop: For instance, applying digital technology is not just about efficiencies and prices, especially when utilised in direct customer-facing services; how customers experience the digital service is highly important (e.g., it should be visually fluent, easy-to-use, effective). Digital self-service should not claim to improve customer service overall by replacing human service, but it can contribute to improved customer service as a whole. The strategy statement is not clear about the experience of customers when applying digital technologies. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot should also clarify how web-based and mobile app elements of its platform are integrated in its overall view of personal-human and digital customer service (e.g., enabling chats with human bank assistants and not with virtual assistants [chatbots]). Additionally, as suggested in Part 1, the bank can develop its own service model for combining digital self-service stations with human assistance and guidance within a branch.

Let us now take a brief look at the strategy in other Israeli banks:

Bank HaPoalim is seeking to reflect flexibility in its balance between human and digital banking. The bank’s Head of Retail Division said in October 2016: “we are not requiring the customers to choose between human and technological, instead providing them with a right combination between the two” (press release, 26 Oct. ’16, origin in Hebrew). The declared strategy of the bank is offering human, personal and technological banking. However, other expressions used by the bank suggest that the balance is weighed more heavily to the side of technology. For example, the bank uses  ambiguous terminology such as “more advanced and human technology“; its real priority or emphasis is revealed in the impressive expression “digital empowerment of the customers”. The new services the bank is taking special pride in, as presented in the press release, are a ‘virtual branch’ in a mobile app and human guidance in its new ‘Poalim Digital’ branches on how to use an iPad for banking services.

The senior bank executive is not insensitive to consumer concerns about the use of advanced technologies — he recognises that some customers perceive them as threatening, creating an emotional distance, and lacking in personal touch. Yet the bank appears to be pushing too hard to impose technologies that many customers may not be ready for yet, and implicitly pushes its human bankers to the sideline. Bank HaPoalim is trying to strike a difficult balance between the technological (digital) and human factors by attempting to be ‘human as well as personal as well as technological’ altogether.

In Bank Leumi digital banking (‘Leumi Digital’) is put at the centre, as manifest in its website-based platform, information ‘kiosks’ in physical branches, and its mobile app. More recently the bank added its ‘virtual assistant’ chat utility for customers to seek assistance in using the online and mobile account applications. In its strategy statement, Bank Leumi refers to “organizational and technological capabilities, efficient and innovative” (origin in Hebrew). It also commits to upgrading its service model and value propositions as part of a customer-centered culture. However. the bank does not make specific reference to integration between ‘technological’ and ‘human’ in its relations with (domestic) customers. As commented in Part 1, the mix between digital and human modes of service seems to be incomplete, as if working in separate compartments (‘silos’) of service.

The vision of Bank Leumi is accordingly to “lead initiating and innovative banking for the customer”. Overall, the key words most salient in the vision and strategy statements of the bank are technology, efficiency and innovation. There is no specific mentioning of the human factor. Bank Leumi must be credited for its consistent and prolonged support for providing banking services through direct channels that free customers from arriving to the branches. In the late 1990s this bank was a pioneer in Israel in establishing a ‘direct bank’ based on its telephony call centre. Later on a website was added. Whereas the initial entity was cancelled, the foundation was laid out, tried and proven for further development and assimilation in the main service operations of the bank. Advanced digital technologies, as they are better known these days, could come only natural to this bank. The next challenge of Bank Leumi would be to streamline its connections between human and digital modes of interaction and service to customers both in physical and virtual/remote domains. Admittedly, the suggestion made here may be contrary to the leading view at the bank; however, customer service should feel seamless and unified, not  like living in two different worlds of ‘digital banking’ and ‘human banking’.

Bank Discount is actually delivering a very clear message about the place it reserves for ‘humanity’ in its approach to customer service. Its actions on transition to digital banking seem to be more mild compared with the two leading banks. The strategic plan of the bank for 2015-2019 states: “We at Bank Discount have set before our eyes the experience of personal, human and professional service for all our customers. We believe that we should integrate humanity with professionalism, and to that aim we direct our actions every day” (launched in 2014, origin in Hebrew). The words are very positive: the bank is truly seeing the customer at the centre, not the technology, and the way to serve customers better is to do it professionally (possibly the bank’s sought competitive advantage).

Bank Discount is doing whatever is necessary to utilise up-to-date technologies in banking but not as proactively and forcefully as in Bank HaPoalim or Bank Leumi. Its direct banking operations include the TeleBank call centre, a web-based platform and a mobile app for account management; it also offers a personalised information app My Finance (providing market data etc.) and has recently introduced a ‘virtual assistant’ utility. Bank Discount may still be required to be more explicit about its view on the digital front, but foremost it can further clarify its approach to integrating digital and human modes of service and balancing between them.

Bank Benleumi is going along, combining traditional and digital banking facilities and utilities. Unfortunately, however, the bank does not disclose much information about its strategic plans, views or priorities. Hence it is difficult to tell where the bank is heading in implementing digital banking services nor how they would be balanced vis-à-vis human banking modes of interaction and service.

In its profile (Hebrew) Bank Benleumi states that it is “acting to increase its hold in the retail sector” with reference to its acquisitions of two smaller banks (and their branch networks) aimed at particular segments, and completing the merger of an upscale private banking business as a division within the bank. It also lists the general types of banking services and advanced digital channels that are seen as vital to strengthening its hold in the retail sector. As other banks it delivers direct digital banking services through a web-based platform and a mobile app, information ‘kiosks’ and a SMS update service; Bank Benleumi was early to launch a ‘virtual assistant’ utility (named ‘Fibi’ after the ‘mother’ holding company). Yet the bank remains vague about the nature of customer experience one can expect in future at the bank in its branches and in virtual digital domains, and specifically what place a digital-human balance will take in customer relationships.

Banks need to plan and configure carefully how to tie together the different advisory and operational (transactional) services they provide to their customers in human and digital modes of interaction, especially so when performed in the premises of a physical branch. These modes should not be just combined but integrated and complementary. It should be done both cleverly and sensitively.

A digital-reliant branch should prove what advantages it avails customers to patron such a branch as opposed to conducting their operations on the website or a mobile app: for example, it could be more convenient to work on devices and screens at the digital branch, offer value-added functionalities, be easier to find information or to complete successfully the required banking tasks. Nevertheless, a mixed human-digital branch can provide an important additional advantage: a customer who has just finished to search independently for product information on a work-station or watch an instructional video at the branch, can right away turn to one of the professional (human) advisors to clarify remaining issues and perform relevant actions with the help of the banker-advisor. That is an essential implication of a ‘digical’ (digital + physical) approach to retail banking (Baxter and Rigby, 2014).

It is not suggested in any way that branches of the future in every bank should look and function all alike. However, each retail bank can use a core model of a ‘mixed’ digital-and-human branch and adjust its design in every aspect according to a degree of balance its management sees fit and desirable between the digital and human modes of interaction and service, assigning more weight to the digital factor or the human factor. Moreover, a bank may choose its preferred balance in a typical branch, balance the human and digital factors across a few branch formats, and not least co-ordinate between services provided in a branch and away from the branch. Banks will undoubtedly find they have a lot of flexibility and room for creativity in setting the appropriate and differentiated strategy for each of them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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The digital transformation of retail banking is clearly apparent by now. The way consumers manage their banking accounts (e.g., deposits, savings, investments) and run their finances keeps changing by relying on digital channels and tools to perform more and more account operations.  Most dramatically in recent years, the organisation, design and function of retail bank branches is going through re-conception and change.

Two fundamental dimensions of this transformation may be detected:

(A) Away from a branch: Account operations are shifted to digital channels of direct banking detached from bank branches. That is, banking operations are performed more frequently without requiring customers to visit a branch (e.g., using an online web-based account-management platform or a mobile app), and furthermore without interacting with human bank representatives (e.g.,  talking by phone with a representative at a bank’s call centre).

(B) At a branch: The physical environment of a bank’s retail branch is transforming by re-allocating space, facilities and human versus digital resources at the branch between banking activities. This means distinguishing between banking activities that are performed in self-service by the customers using digital working-stations or ‘kiosks’, and activities that involve human bank professionals. The transformation is affecting the site of a branch all around, within the branch and areas next to it. A salient implication of this process is the elimination of human tellers within a branch; many of the ordinary account operations will be performed with minimal or no interaction with a bank representative within a branch or in adjacent areas. Interaction with human bank professionals will be mostly reserved to consultation and for purchasing more complicated bank services (e.g., loans) or financial products (e.g., investments).

Obviously those changes are not wholly new — customers are familiar with and use various self-service, direct digital channels, as they add-up, for different lengths of time (e.g., ATMs, enhanced digital information kiosks , websites, mobile apps). The current change is in acceleration and extent of utilisation of digital technologies: the frequency in which customers are using them; the degree of customers’ freedom in choosing between digital and human modes of service for any particular activity; the types of services or products that will be diverted to digital platforms (e.g., certain loans will be arranged without meeting a bank advisor in person, perhaps by video conference); and re-shaping the environment and activity in banks’ branches.

The article explores the digital transformation by reference to the five main banks in Israel. It will especially discuss how banks balance between the human and digital factors in serving their customers. Some additional aspects of the transformation will be explained in the course of this review.

To remove any doubt, it must be emphasised that all five banks are engaged in implementing digital self-service platforms and facilities in serving their customers and offering them financial products (in addition to the now ‘classic’ direct banking by call centres). They differ, however, in how they propose and plan to balance between their digital and human channels and modes of service.

The two leading banks in Israel (Bank HaPoalim [‘workers’] and Bank Leumi [‘national’]) seem to take the transition to digital banking the most seriously and most extensively. These banks compete neck and neck for many years, swapping between them the first and second market positions occasionally, yet both are distinctively greater in scale and market dominance than the three other main banks. Both banks appear to follow more closely on the vision of digital banking transformation conveyed last year by Dr. Hedva Ber, Banking Supervisor at the central Bank of Israel, and her projection of how this ‘digital revolution’ should proceed. Nonetheless, these two banks differ on some issues in their approach to implementing the transformation.

Bank HaPoalim is advancing an initiative to establish digital-reliant branches — five branches already exist, two of them in the Tel-Aviv area. Customers utilise tablets (iPads) or larger screens on table-tops to perform their needed operations in self-service in principle; they may ask, however, for assistance from a bank representative in the branch. There are no visible desks for personal meetings with banking advisors for consultation. The branch in northern Tel-Aviv, for example, is one large open space with long white desks in the centre, a large screen on the wall, and a sitting area with personal ‘working stations’ on the left side of the branch. It has a look resembling an Apple store, elegant and flashy. One cannot find in this space the traditional partitions where customers can sit for more private and intimate consultations with banking professional advisors. This digital branch is built on site of the old-model branch.

This is a rather radical move that may precede too early the formation of mixed branches recommended and applied in other countries as the core model. Indeed most of the bank’s branches (more than 260 in total) are still more traditional; the bank plans to reduce the number of its branches and replace some of those traditional branches with new digital ones. Yet by doing so the bank could miss an important stage of preparing the public for the change.

Bank Leumi is going in a somewhat different direction, encouraging its customers to utilise mostly its direct channels that do not involve coming to one of its branches. At the branches, the bank is in major progress to eliminate all its counters of human tellers; customers are referred to enhanced information kiosks (‘Leumi Digital’) that also allow for some account operations, and to ATM machines. These stations are located in a separate interim lobby area before entering the main hall of the branch, which is dedicated only to personal sittings with banking advisors. The bank is working overall to reduce the number of its branches (currently about 250).

The bank is taking a positive move in the right direction, and yet it is not complete because the bank does not truly mix digital with human service resources in the branch. What Bank Leumi is doing is more of a re-arrangement than genuine re-modelling. Indeed it eliminates the function of human tellers, but it does not integrate the digital and human modes of service in a hybrid model and design.

Many bank branches in the country have three ‘service areas’: (a) A couple of ATMs and digital kiosks outside the branch (i.e., on street front); (b) A few ATMs and digital kiosks in a protected lobby area that customers may enter and use also outside working hours of the branch; (c) A main hall of the branch where customers can receive service or consult more privately with bank representatives and professional advisors. Some branches may have a ground floor for assistance usually with the more basic functions and a second floor for consulting on more complex issues. Bank HaPoalim created a new branch version primarily reliant on advanced digital facilities; Bank Leumi eliminated human service for basic teller functions but keeps the digital facilities outside the branch per se — it does not welcome customers using those stations to enter inside the branch.

However, the intention of a new model being developed for bank branches is to entail a combination of digital and human modes of service working next to each other. In a common hall customers can use one of the digital working stations or sit with an advisor on any specific issue more complex and financially significant. A customer may use the digital station while standing or sitting on a couch, read materials on products and perform operations. He or she may also watch instructive videos on a large screen. It should be a much more convenient and pleasant setting than using the information kiosk machine. A bank representative should be available for guidance and assistance with the digital self-service stations. But when more serious consultation becomes necessary the customer can approach one of the expert advisors sitting in partitioned meeting corners. Digital and human channels are thus in immediate access close to each other.

  • Best examples of layout, design and organisation of the new form of bank branches around the world can be found in the website of The Financial Brand: Branch Design (also see their latest Design Showcase from Fall 2016). Give special notice to the mixture of self-service stations and private zones for consultation with bank experts-advisors within the branch.

Banks may build in addition to mixed primary branches also secondary smaller digital branches (e.g., in shopping malls) to provide a convenient, quiet and pleasant place for customers to work on their bank accounts vis-à-vis using a bank’s app on their smartphones. Being similar to the model of the new “Poalim Digital” branches, they are not supposed to come in place of a cross-mode primary branch. Likewise, offering working stations in a lobby, to be used almost any hour, adjacent to the branch is not supposed to be in place of a self-service digital zone within the branch with a human assistant  (formerly a teller) ready to guide if needed. Bank Leumi should not confuse the two types of self-service by digital means. Moreover, the bank must have a digital zone integrated in the overall design of the branch that will be welcoming, visually pleasant, convenient and friendly.

Two of the smaller main banks (Bank Discount and Bank Benleumi [‘international’]) maintain at large the traditional branch format and offer in parallel a variety of digital channels with their facilities (e.g., information  kiosks) and applications (e.g., website, mobile app). They do not make yet any clear or particular stand on the balance they see fit between the digital and human modes of service. Hence, while they make sure to be up-to-date on the technological front of digital direct banking services, there is no apparent major move beyond that which would reflect a more strategic approach to a desirable human-digital balance.

But then there is Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot that has chosen to take a more distinct approach to the digital-human balance by assigning greater weight to the human factor — more precisely, committing not to sacrifice human interaction in favour of digital channels. The bank may have thus found an important dimension to differentiate its brand from the competing banks.

The bank is aiming to solidify its position as the third largest bank in Israel, climbing one position up by pushing back Bank Discount. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot currently operates about 150 branches, and contrary to the leading banks it plans to increase this number towards 200 branches. In September 2016 the bank launched an advertising campaign, emphasising human touch, with a tagline (translated from Hebrew):

  • “On the things really important, there is no substitute to humanity.”

It purports to persuade prospect banking customers (as well as its own current customers), who still seek and prefer human interaction, that at this bank customers will continue to be able to find a human representative to talk to. Billboard ad posters, displayed until recently, proposed that the bank will cater to consumers’ concerns as they complain to their banks as follows (exemplar statements translated from Hebrew):

  • “Is it no longer possible to talk with a human in this bank?”
  • “Enough with apps, give me a human” [to talk to] — the ad “answers” that if you want to talk to a human, call a specific number.
  • “You closed the branch on [X] street. Is only the ATM left now? What is happening with you?” (the original Hebrew phrase plays on dual meaning in using the word ‘closed’)

The bank implicitly commits to maintain human reference for customers on banking issues that matter more or less. Indeed the bank does not fall behind in offering a variety of digital facilities, applications and tools for customers to manage their accounts. Yet the bank steps forward to assure customers that addressing a human representative at the bank will not be sacrificed in favour of the digital direct channels. For instance, the bank offers customers the possibility to talk by phone not only with a human representative at the call centre but also with one’s personal banker (account manager) or advisor at the branch where the account is held, reached through a direct (seamless) phone extension.

Without undermining their commitment for human reference, Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot may still modify the way it delivers certain services (e.g., teller-type) with human assistance at a branch. A new model may involve a zone equipped with digital self-service stations but supported with stronger human presence or qualifications of bank assistants for customers than what may be offered in other banks. The human resources dedicated to fulfill these positions and the tasks assigned to them should be planned anew.

Of course promises have to be tested in the reality of customer service at the bank. The bank has to prove it can deliver on its commitment to make human representatives available to customers when necessary. A critical reason banking customers turn to direct digital channels is being dissatisfied with either the long time customers feel they have to wait to reach a human representative or the level of assistance they get (e.g., professional, efficient, courteous). Nevertheless, there always remain the more complex and significant issues in which customers may need more serious consultation and human guidance in making a decision and completing a procedure (and sometimes being able to negotiate terms), help they cannot receive adequately through a self-service digital channel. Trust in customer-bank relationships is also dependent on that.

With regard to the advertising campaign of Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, an imminent question arises: Is the message delivered in this campaign backed by a more profound vision and strategic plan? In other words, one would want to know that the campaign stands on solid ground and is not only a marketing communication idea hanging-in-the-air. A second part of this article, soon to come, will address this question, and will also examine what strategic position and attitude take the other four banks on balancing between digital and human resources and modes of service.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


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A new film this year, “Sully”, tells the story of US Airways Flight 1549 that landed safely onto the water surface of the Hudson River on 15 January 2009 following a drastic damage to the plane’s two engines. This article is specifically about the decision process of the captain Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger with the backing of his co-pilot (first officer) Jeff Skiles; the film helps to highlight some instructive and interesting aspects of human judgement and decision-making in an acute crisis situation. Furthermore, the film shows how those cognitive processes contrast with computer algorithms and simulations and why the ‘human factor’ must not be ignored.

There were altogether 155 people on board of the Airbus A320 aircraft in its flight 1549 from New-York to North Carolina: 150 passengers and five crew members. The story unfolds whilst following Sully in the aftermath of the incident during the investigation of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which he was facing together with Skiles. The film (directed by Clint Eastwood, featuring Tom Hanks as Sully and Aaron Ackhart as Skiles, 2016) is based on Sullenberger’s autobiographic book “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters” (2009). Additional resources such as interviews and documentaries were also used in preparation of this article.

  • The film is excellent, recommended for its way of delivering the drama of the story during and after the flight, and for the acting of the leading actors. A caution to those who have not seen the film: the article includes some ‘spoilers’. On the other hand, facts of this flight and the investigation that followed were essentially known before the film.

This article is not explicitly about consumers, although the passengers, as customers, were obviously directly affected by the conduct of the pilots as it saved their lives. The focus, as presented above, is on the decision process of the captain Sullenberger. We may expect that such an extraordinary positive outcome of the flight, rescued from a dangerous circumstance, would have a favourable impact on the image of the airline US Airways that employs such talented flight crew members. But improving corporate image or customer service and relationships were not the relevant considerations during the flight, just saving lives.

Incident Schedule: Less than 2 minutes after take-off (at ~15:27) a flock of birds (Canada geese) clashed into both engines of the aircraft. It is vital to realise that from that moment, the flight lasted less than four minutes! The captain took control of the plane from his co-pilot immediately after impact with the birds, and then had between 30 seconds to one minute to make a decision where to land.  Next, just 151 seconds passed from impact with the birds and until the plane was approaching right above the Hudson river for landing on the water. Finally, impact with water occurred 208 seconds after impact with the birds (at ~15:30).

Using Heuristics: The investigators of NTSB told Sully (Hanks) about flight calculations performed in their computer simulations, and argued that according to the simulation results it had not been inevitable to land on the Hudson river, a highly risky type of crash-land. In response, Sully said that it had been impossible for himself and Skiles to perform all those detailed calculations during the four minutes of the flight after the impact of the birds with the aircraft’s engines; he was relying instead on what he saw with his eyes in front of him — the course of the plane and the terrain below them as the plane was gliding with no engine power.

The visual guidance Sully describes as using to navigate the plane resembles a type of ‘gaze heuristic’ identified by professor Gerd Gigerenzer (1). In the example given by Gigerenzer, a player who tries to catch a ball flying in the air does not have time to calculate the trajectory of the ball, considering its initial position, speed and angle of projection. Moreover, the player should also take into account wind, air resistance and ball spin. The ball would be on the ground by the time the player makes the necessary estimations and computation. An alternative intuitive strategy (heuristic) is to ‘fix gaze on the ball, start running, and adjust one’s speed so that the angle of gaze remains constant’. The situation of the aircraft flight is of course different, more complex and perilous, but a similar logic seems to hold: navigating the plane in air safely towards the terrain surface (land or water) when there is no time for any advanced computation (the pilot’s gaze would have to be fixed on the terrain beneath towards a prospect landing ‘runway’). Winter winds in New-York City on that frozen day have probably made the landing task even more complicated.  But in those few minutes available to Sully, he found this type of ‘gaze’ or eyesight guiding rule the most practical and helpful.

Relying on Senses: Sullenberger made extensive use of his senses (visual, auditory, olfactory) to collect every information he could get from his surrounding environment. To start with, the pilots could see the birds coming in front of them right before some of them were clashing into the engines — this evidence was crucial to identifying instantly the cause of the problem though they still needed some time to assess the extent of damage. In an interview to CBS’s programme 60 Minutes (with Katie Couric, February 2009), Sully says that he saw the smoke coming out from both engines, smelled the burned flesh of the birds, and subsequently heard a hushing noise from the engines (i.e., made by the remaining blades). He could also feel the trembling of the broken engines. This multi-modal sensory information contributed to convincing him that the engines were lost (i.e., unable to produce thrust) in addition to failure to restart them. Sully also utilised all that time information from the various meters or clocks in the cockpit dashboard in front of him (while Skiles was reading to him from the manuals). The captain was thus attentive to multiple visual stimuli (including and beyond using a visual guidance heuristic) in his decision process, from early judgement to action on his decision to land onto the water of the Hudson river.

Computer algorithms can ‘pick-up’ and process all the technical information of the aircraft displayed to the pilots in the cockpit. The algorithms may also apply in the computations additional measurements (e.g., climate conditions) and perhaps data from sensors installed in the aircraft. But the computer algorithms cannot ‘experience’ the flight event like the pilots. Sully could ‘feel the aircraft’, almost simultaneously and rapidly perceive the sensory stimuli he received in the cockpit, within and outside the cabin, and respond to them (e.g., make judgement). Information available to him seconds after impact with the birds gave him indications about the condition of the engines that algorithms as used in the simulations could not receive. That point was made clear in the dispute that emerged between Sully and the investigating committee with regard to the condition of one of the engines. The investigators claimed that early tests and simulations suggested one of the engines was still functioning and could allow the pilots to bring the plane to land in one of the nearby airports (returning to La Guardia or reverting to Teterboro in New-Jersey). Sully (Hanks) disagreed and argued that his indications were clear that the second engine referred to was badly damaged and non-functional — both engines had no thrust. Sully was proven right — the committee eventually updated that missing parts of the disputed engine were found and showed that the engine was indeed non-functional, disproving the early tests.

Timing and the Human Factor: The captain Sullenberger had furthermore a strong argument with the investigating committee of NTSB about their simulations in attempt to re-construct or replicate the sequence of events during the flight. The committee argued that pilots in a flight simulator ‘virtually’ made a successful landing in both La Guardia and Teterboro airports when the simulator computer was given the data of the flight. Sully (Hanks) found a problem with those live but virtual simulations. The flight simulation was flawed because it made the assumption the pilots could immediately know where it was possible to land, and they were instructed to do so. Sully and Skiles indeed knew immediately the cause of damage but still needed time to assess the extent of damage before Sully could decide how to react. Therefore, they could not actually turn the plane towards one of those airports right after bird impact as the simulating pilots did. The committee ignored the human factor, as argued by Sully, that had required him up to one minute to realise the extent of damage and his decision options.

The conversation of Sully with air controllers demonstrates his assessments step-by-step in real-time that he could not make it to La Guardia or alternatively to Teterboro — both were effectively considered — before concluding that the aircraft may find itself in the water of the Hudson. Then the captain directed the plane straight above the river in approach to crash-landing. One may also note how brief were his response statements to the air controller.  Sully was confident that landing on the Hudson was “the only viable alternative”. He told so in his interview to CBS. In the film, Sully (Hanks) told Skiles (Ackhart) during a recuperating break outside the committee hall that he had no question left in his mind that they have done the right thing.

Given the strong resistance of Sully, the committee ordered additional flight simulations where the pilots were “held” waiting for 35 seconds to account for the time needed to assess the damage before attempting to land anywhere. Following this minimum delay the simulating pilots failed to land safely neither at La Guardia nor at Teterboro. It was evident that those missing seconds were critical to arriving in time to land in those airports. Worse than that, the committee had to admit (as shown in the film) that the pilots made multiple attempts (17) in their simulations before ‘landing’ successfully in those airports. The human factor of evaluation before making a sound decision in this kind of emergency situation must not be ignored.

Delving a little deeper into the event helps to realise how difficult the situation was.  The pilots were trying to execute a three-part checklist of instructions. They were not told, however, that those instructions were made to match a situation of loss of both engines at a much higher altitude than they were at just after completing take-off. The NTSB’s report (AAR-10-03) finds that the dual engine failure at a low altitude was critical — it allowed the pilots too little time to fulfill the existing three-part checklist. In an interview to Newsweek in 2015, Sullenberger said on that challenge: “We were given a three-page checklist to go through, and we only made it through the first page, so I had to intuitively know what to do.”  The NTSB committee further accepts in its report that landing at La Guardia could succeed only if started right after the bird strike, but as explained earlier, that was unrealistic; importantly, they note the realisation made by Sullenberger that an attempt to land at La Guardia “would have been an irrevocable choice, eliminating all other options”.

The NTSB also commends Sullenberger in its report for operating the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU). The captain asked Skiles to try operating the APU after their failed attempt to restart the engines. Sully decided to take this action before they could reach the article on the APU in the checklist. The operation of the APU was most beneficial according to NTSB to allow electricity on board.

Notwithstanding the judgement and decision-making capabilities of Sully, his decision to land on waters of the Hudson river could have ended-up miserably without his experience and skills as a pilot to execute it rightly. He has had 30 years of experience as a commercial pilot in civil aviation since 1980 (with US Airways and its predecessors), and before that had served in the US Air Force in the 1970s as a pilot of military jets (Phantom F-4). The danger in landing on water is that the plane would swindle and not reach in parallel to the water surface, thus one of the wings might hit water, break-up and cause the whole plane to capsize and break-up into the water (as happened in a flight in 1996). That Sully succeeded to safely “ditch” on water surface is not obvious.

The performance of Sullenberger from decision-making to execution seems extraordinary. His judgement and decision capacity in these flight conditions may be exceptional; it is unclear if other pilots could perform as well as he has done. Human judgement is not infallible; it may be subject to biases and errors and succumb to information overload. It is not too difficult to think of examples of people making bad judgements and decisions (e.g., in finance, health etc.). Yet Sully has demonstrated that high capacity of human judgement and sound decision-making exists, and we can be optimistic about that.

It is hard, and not straightforward, to extend conclusions from flying airplanes to other areas of activity. In one aspect, however, there can be some helpful lessons to learn from this episode in thinking more deeply and critically about the replacement of human judgement and decision-making with computer algorithms, machine learning and robotics. Such algorithms work best in familiar and repeated events or situations. But in new and less familiar situations and in less ordinary and more dynamic conditions humans are able to perform more promptly and appropriately. Computer algorithms can often be very helpful but they are not always and necessarily superior to human thinking.

This kind of discussion is needed, for example, in respect to self-driving cars. It is a very active field in industry these days, connecting automakers with technology companies for installing autonomous computer driving systems in cars. Google is planning on creating ‘driverless’ cars without a steering wheel or pedals; their logic is that humans should not be involved anymore in driving: “Requiring a licensed driver be able to take over from the computer actually increases the likelihood of an accident because people aren’t that reliable” (2). This claim is excessive and questionable. We have to carefully distinguish between computer aid to humans and replacing human judgement and decision-making with computer algorithms.

Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger has allowed himself as the flight captain to be guided by his experience, intuition and common sense to land the plane safely and save the lives of all passengers and crew on board. He was wholly focused on “solving this problem” as he told CBS, the task of landing the plane without casualties. He recruited his best personal resources and skills to this task, and in his success he might give everyone hope and strength in belief in human capacity.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


(1) “Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious”, Gerd Gigerenzer, 2007, Allen Lane (Pinguin Books).

(2) “Some Assembly Required”, Erin Griffith, Fortune (Europe Edition), 1 July 2016.


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For over fifteen years companies are gradually shifting from providing customer service by live person-to-person channels to computer-based, automated and self-service modes. In the past three years the momentum seems to have even increased to replace bilateral human interactions with human-computer interactions — human on the customer’s side, computer on the company’s side. The trend is evident in a variety of sectors, including manufacturers and dealers providing maintenance and repair of goods, inherently service providers (e.g., mobile and Internet telecom, health, insurance, tourism), and retailers. The servicescape is definitely changing, and the repercussions are still unfolding (e.g., customer adaptation, social-related, customer-company relationships).

We can identify several stages a company may go through in reducing its direct human interaction with customers — transitioning from face-to-face to phone touchpoints, then to self-service on the Internet and by mobile applications. In-between companies have applied methods such as IVR on the phone and Web-based live chats with human customer service representatives (CSR). But the latest technological advance in computer-based self-service entails a potentially more extensive substitution of intelligent virtual agents for human service agents. It means that a larger variety of issues handled thus far via phone conversations and live chats on the Internet would be resolved by chats, at different levels of sophistication, with virtual agents.

Certainly a customer would not want to rush out to a physical branch of the serving company for resolving every problem with a product or service when it can be settled by a phone call to the company’s call centre. Some enquiries and technical issues can furthermore be resolved by means of e-mail or Web-based interfaces and resources without talking to anyone — many customers prefer nowadays to make a phone call to a company only after they have exhausted their options to solve their problem by means of self-service. There are clear advantages (e.g., convenience, control, independence) in using the computer-based modes of service. However, in cases where problems cannot be resolved effectively by self-service, and reaching a live representative of the company is made harder, it may engulf a wider gap between the company and its customer, possibly inducing frustration and anger. It may be even worse for consumers who are less computer-orientated and have difficulties using those online tools (e.g., tasks that may seem obvious or easy-to-do to Millennials [Generation Y], and to a large extent to Generation X consumers, are less likely to be so for earlier generations born before 1960).

Companies have a strong incentive of cost reduction to reduce or limit forms of human personal service  — various estimates suggest that the cost of interaction may fall from $10-12 when face-to-face to $5-6 by phone to less than a dollar by e-mail, online live chats or social media, and even less in human-computer interactions that do not involve a human on the company’s side. The face-to-face channel seems to fare the worst. Some companies eliminate branches for meeting with customers, reduce their accessibility or span of services provided face-to-face, and generally de-motivate customers to come and see their representatives for service.

  • A few examples: (a) A mobile telecom company that receives customers at its service centre only for acquiring new phones or leaving a phone for repair at the lab but not for issues related to changing a service package or billing; (b) An airline that prefers customers to arrange and order flights by phone and better on the Internet, and de-motivates them to come and make their travel arrangements face-to-face; (c) A ticket agency (e.g., live concerts) whose office is unaccessible, relying only on phone and online contacts.

While consumers are more willing to utilise computer-based self-service tools and resources, and are doing so more frequently, this does not mean they are ready to give up access to a person from the company. That is a wrong interpretation by certain companies who make it more difficult for customers to access their representatives, by phone or face-to-face. The last thing a company should do is to let its customers feel that it is not interested in hearing or seeing them in person. Consumers should have the privilege to choose how to receive their service. Otherwise, it is a slippery slope whereby a company may distance itself too far apart from its customers.

  • There are a number of cases where acquisition and service are intermingled. For instance, when (a) consultation is required prior to a purchase decision; (b) the buyer is a repeated customer; and (c) a purchase transaction is made online for a product or service consumed or experienced in the real physical world.

Intelligent virtual agents (IVA) may operate in several forms with regard to their level of exchange with users. They all rely on advanced methods of artificial intelligence and abilities to interpret natural language, and they may also utilise knowledge gained through Big Data analytics (e.g., of previous customer enquiries) to improve their quality of response (e.g., Watson by IBM, Siri by Apple, Optus by IntelliResponse). In one form, that may be described as less dynamic, a user poses a question in his or her own words, to which the IVA replies with the most accurate answer it could find from existing content in the company’s knowledge base (e.g., product profiles, service procedures, bill structure). The information, provided in text, is standard for any similar question on the same topic. The agent may assume the still image of a real person with a first name. A more sophisticated form of chatbot is an animated figure that behaves more like a live agent and can actually speak. The content may not differ from that given by the agent described formerly but it gives a more realistic “lively” feeling of speaking with another human being.

The advantages of this new breed of IVA are not to be underestimated. The IVA can save customers considerable time that is often needed in reviewing multiple results for a search query, referring the user to various pages from a company’s knowledge base. The IVA is also more flexible and efficient than the anachronistic method of pre-edited FAQ. The IVA can construct a relevant answer ad-hoc on a much larger variety of issues than a typical FAQ and it is much faster and more accurate in providing the correct relevant answer than a user searching the company’s resources. Yet, a virtual agent’s answers are based only on information that is pre-existent in the digital library of the company — if a customer asks for more details on a topic that are not available in advance, the agent may revert to repeat itself (links to related or additional details may be enclosed in an answer, thus excusing the user from posing the next question). The virtual agent also seems to provide standard answers not related to a specific personal problem described by the customer (e.g., particular monetary figures in the customer’s recent bill). For that purpose, the virtual agent should promptly escalate the call to a live CSR; the question remains, how readily IVAs are configured and able to do so.

Hence, IVAs at least at this stage may be able to promise consistency of relevant answers but not real ingenuity. Other aspects that also remain debatable are, for example, the ability of IVAs to identify the correct context of questions posed in natural language and their sensitivity to the mood of customers as a chat proceeds. These capabilities call upon a combination of experience and intuition that human representatives should still have the advantage in exercising over intelligent virtual agents.

In a main feature article in Fortune magazine (August 2015), Geoff Colvin discusses the impact that 21st century’s technological changes, particularly advance of automated computer and robotic systems, have on members of society, whether as employees or as consumers (1). He is critical of a spiral of underrating humans versus computers which may lead further to degrading human touch. In response, Colvin proposes areas of activities that humans should insist on continuing to perform, no matter the abilities of computers: remain in charge (e.g., be accountable to others, making judicial decisions); work together to set collective goals; sustain an advantage in satisfying deep interpersonal needs (e.g., in doctor-patient relations).

Colvin refers to a study by a research firm where employers were asked about the skills they expect to seek in five to ten years. We may predict those would be mainly analytic, business and financial-related (e.g., note warnings of a shortage in decision scientists). Yet, according to the study cited the future skills more demanded by employers include relationship building, teaming, co-creativity, brainstorming, cultural sensitivity, and ability to manage diverse employees. These stated priorities are partly at odds with employers’ own inclination to be more reliant on computer systems for service and allowing less leeway to customer-facing employees to act on their own judgements. Social interaction and empathy are expected to be in high demand in the 21st century. However, social interaction may regress when people become increasingly occupied with their smartphones and invest more in interacting with others through social media networks; and empathy, as Colvin shows, appears to be actually in decline among college students since 1990. Colvin concludes in suggesting that people should take the challenge by computers as an opportunity and work harder on their social skills and value as humans.

Forrester Research issued recently a brief report on the changed characteristics of young contact centre agents from the Millennial generation and how to accommodate them in the workplace (2). It is a new breed of (live) agents who are well-seasoned users of computer devices and computer-based tools and applications, an experience that shapes their approach to digital technology in leisure as well as at work. They have their own “philosophy”: any information they may need is stored in some repository these days (online or offline) and their skills should be directed to finding it. There is therefore no need for them to memorise facts and procedures. At work, they seem reluctant to learn details of products and services the way workers of previous cohorts have done. They prefer to learn where to find the information, being free of memorising details of product support. That clearly poses a challenge to professionals who develop the applications that agents should use for delivering computer-assisted service. Forrester proposes going towards the new agents with tools that reenforce their information search and navigation capabilities  (e.g., improved knowledge management, context-wise tools). Additionally, it is advisable to provide them hardware such as touch screens which they are so familiar with and comfortable operating (e.g,, as on their smartphones), and compatible graphic interface.

The focus on new information skills is welcome and in due time, and companies are most justified to enhance them in the young service agents. But Millennials, and others  in the same mind, should realise that their approach could be self-defeating. In order to excel at work, such as delivering an exceptional customer service, one should utilise in the best way his or her rich declarative knowledge in a domain and the practical experience one accumulated. Memorising information cannot be discarded because with expertise it means the CSR is better able to quickly provide the most effective solution to a customer’s problem. Can it be done equally well by looking up the solution or clues to it in a company’s knowledge repository? This is yet to be proven.

In the realm of keeping a sensible balance between human competence and computer technology, customer-facing employees are required to demonstrate professional aptitude (e.g., domain knowledge, proficiency in using information, responsiveness) and certain personality traits that can contribute to dialogue (e.g., reaching-out, courteous, open-minded)(3). Domain knowledge resides in one’s head (brain), not by sole reference to knowledge management systems. Thereby the human agent can develop the proficiency of using information retrieved from both own-memory and the information system as the task calls for. Companies are expected to reward exceptional CSRs. Even more advanced computer technologies may offer the agents the opposite — greater dependence on and integration with the computer system. Forrester suggests that live agents should be reserved for more complex context-sensitive conversations. If human service agents cannot demonstrate exceptional capabilities, companies will be encouraged to replace them with even-greater-intelligent virtual agents in future.

Companies as well as customers and customer-facing employees may perceive benefits in greater reliance on advanced computer technologies, for preferences or interests of each party. But there is a price to pay in company-customer relationships. What indeed is a relationship without a human factor, engaged on both sides? Companies should find it very hard to talk of a bond with their customers if they have little or no human contact with them. They should not expect too much loyalty from their customers in such conditions. The three parties have much to gain  from preserving and supporting live person-to-person service.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


(1) Humans Are Underrated; Geoff Colvin; Fortune (Europe Edition), 1 August 2015 (Vol. 172, No. 2)  , pp. 34-41.

(2) Brief: Retool for a New Workforce Reality — New Technology for a New Breed of Agent, Forrester Research Inc., December 2014.

(3) Adopted from a 2011 post: The Human Shortages of Relationship Marketing

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Too often I find myself obliged to remind a customer service representative (CSR) at a company I call for assistance, that I have been a customer of that company for some years already; in that I suggest that they should be able to find information about my past dealings with them in their (computer-based) records. Usually I expect that on disclosing my identity, the representative will give at least the impression that he recognizes me and is able to relate to past information relevant to my present inquiry. The responses are mixed. Frequently, my impression is that the person on the other end of the line is too lazy to bother looking for the information, does not care enough, or is unable to locate relevant information as we talk.

In our modern technology-driven world, employees facing customers, especially at large companies, are not expected to remember and know individual customers. But they can help themselves by referring to a computer-based information system (e.g., CRM, reservations, technical support) to trace the calling customer and personalise the conversation. This conduct lets the customer feel that the CSR is familiar with him or her. At large companies problems usually appear when CSRs fail to locate relevant information and to use it intelligently and effectively. At small-medium businesses, problems may emerge already in tracing the customer, whether because of lack of will or inability to find necessary information. It is especially insulting and infuriating when a person at a small-medium business (e.g., a hotel) seems unable to recognize me as a frequent or constant customer and cannot say something about our last interaction (e.g., “I see that during your last three visits at our hotel in the past two years you stayed in room XX. Would you like to have this particular room again?”)

Gaps between the appreciated principles of relationship marketing and how they are practiced by businesses repeatedly occur because of a human factor rather than technology. In spite of training and supervision, it cannot be taken for granted that employees facing customers will be committed to treat customers kindly and respectfully, and serve them helpfully, just out of obligation to the company. They certainly cannot be committed more than the top management. Employees have their own personal concerns, pressures in and out of work, and ambitions. Their interests do not necessarily agree with those of the business owners or its management. Achieving a desirable treatment of customers demands education, persuasion of mutual benefits to the company and the employees, material rewards, and other kinds of moral encouragement and support. Making employees feel that they belong in an organization, and believing that if they treat customers better this will somewhere on the road improve their own well-being (e.g., accomplishment, role and social status, salary, self-image), needs continued investment and nourishment.

In a recent Customer Experience survey by Temkin Group, 143 companies in the US were rated, and subsequently ranked, with respect to the perceived experiences they have provided to customers. Evaluation of each company was based on three components: functional, accessible, and emotional aspects of the personal experiences customers have had with a company. It is immediately apparent from the results that the top ten ranking companies in regard to their experience overall are retailers, led by Amazon.com. Retail is thereof the best performing industry in the viewpoint of its customers, followed by hotels and investment firms. Sadly, the worst performing industries, with scores mostly poor and very poor, are health plans and TV services providers. Furthermore, the leaders of four industries — Internet service, wireless, PC makers, and TV services providers — obtained ratings that are on the border between poor and very poor (58.8%-62.1%). In comparison, Amazon.com as retail leader obtained a score of 81.3% (“excellence” defined as 80-100%), followed by Marriott Hotels (74.1%).

With respect to the particular components, it is reported that nine companies received an “excellent” score on functional experience, ten achieved “excellence” for accessible experience, but none rated as excellent with regard to emotional experience. This may hint to a weakness in experiences involving  human interactions between employees representing the company and its customers, because it is in such interfaces that emotions are most likely to be evoked (i.e., causing negative emotions like anger and frustration).(1)

The new paradigm of relationship marketing attempts to restore to some extent the kind of relations customers used to have with their vendors and service providers decades ago, and may still do with small private establishment to-date. With the growing scale of markets, and correspondingly the businesses serving them, customers and companies have drifted more apart. Advanced database management and communication technologies allow companies again to get better in touch with their customers. But over-reliance on technology and customer analytics and negligence of the human aspect tends to make the management of customer relationships too technical and too automated, cold and unappealing. It is hard to believe that customers can establish genuine personal relationships with their wireless (mobile) phone company, insurance company, or a supermarket chain. It is not clear if many customer even want so. It is a new brand of relationships. But for relationship marketing to succeed in the long run its practitioners must preserve a positive and pleasant human discourse with their customers.

Small businesses, with an owner possibly aided by a small team, may still keep close and personal relationships with a few dozens of their customers, at least the more loyal and constant customers, with little information technology. As a business grows it may allocate its customerbase among a few account managers, each of them able to maintain closer relationships with a group of a few dozens customers. But as the business grows bigger, and its customerbase expands (say reaching a few hundreds customers), it is more essential to employ tools of information technology to assist employees facing customers (e.g., account managers and CSRs) to cater better to the needs and preferences of their customers. It is therefore unfortunate that enterprises who grow into midsize companies do not take necessary measures to allow employees retain closer and more ordinate relationships with the customers.

One aspect of relationship marketing is keeping a sensible balance between human competence and computer technology in creating productive yet pleasurable customer experiences. It holds true whether a company serves on a regular basis a thousand customers or a million customers. On part of the employees facing customers, it requires them to demonstrate professional aptitude (e.g., domain knowledge, proficiency in using information, responsiveness), and certain personality traits that can contribute to dialogue (e.g., reaching-out, extravert — sociable but not dominating, courteous, open-minded, enjoying to help people). The task of management is to strengthen those propensities and encourage behaviours of employees that help in building long-lasting relationships. It means, for instance, guiding less talented or less skilled employees in ways to improve, and support the more talented and service-oriented ones when they face difficulties in serving less convenient customers. Bruce Temkin (Temkin Group) gives a strong emphasis to the role of employees in achieving superior customer experience, commanding investment in them on different levels to gain their collaboration. He sees employee engagement as one of four customer experience core competencies on which a company needs to excel in order to  be considered a customer-centric organization: Winning the support and conviction of employees is crucial for stimulating them to create productive and enjoyable experiences for customers.(2)

Many companies may find that the human factor is the more difficult challenge in executing relationship marketing. Electronic interactive self-service applications can help in some circumstances but cannot be a primary solution. While some customers may feel happy enough resolving their issues in this mode to order and receive service, many others may still find it difficult and frustrating to access what they want. What kind of relationship does one truly have with a company like Amazon.com, where you enter some specifications on a website one day, and receive books or CDs by mail after a few days or weeks? Even when considering the friendly tools and customized computer-based recommendations they provide, customers would often like to know that there are real people behind it. Moreover, customers may seek assistance from a forthcoming human agent, communicating on the phone, by e-mail, in an online chat or face-to-face .

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)     


(1) Information on the Customer Experience survey by Temkin Group was originally accessed in a guest blog of Bruce Temkin (managing partner) at  1To1 Media (Peppers & Rogers Group). The findings cited are based on this blog post and on two posts at Bruce Temkin’s personal WordPress blog “Customer Experience Matters”: “The 2011 Temkin Experience Ratings” http://experiencematters.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/2011-temkin-experience-ratings/  and “Customer Experience Industry Leaders”  (http://experiencematters.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/customer-experience-industry-leaders/ )

(2) “The Four Customer Experience Core Competencies: Assess Your Strengths and Gaps”, Bruce Temkin, White Paper, June 2010, Temkin Group [The four competencies are Purposeful Leadership; Employee Engagement; Compelling Brand Values; and Customer Connectedness.]

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