Why digitalisation does not mean losing the personal touch

We’re living in a digital world. From booking a flight, to ordering a meal, and shopping for just about anything, you can do it all from your laptop or phone. Quick, easy, and convenient, it’s become a norm that, quite frankly, we’d find it hard to do without.

But what is the price of this convenience?

In 1980, when I started my career, business was mostly done in person. Business lunches, frequent phone calls, and personal relationships were essential. But now, as technology has streamlined communication, we see less and less of what many may consider to be the ‘personal touch’.

Some argue that digitalisation replaces the personal touch, saying that while we find efficiency, we lose connection, that digitalising processes means we lose human engagement. But I believe this is a false dichotomy.

Technology doesn’t replace the personal touch, it reimagines it.

Industries across the globe have been transformed by digital systems and processes, and the shipping and logistics industry is no different. Although moving at a slower rate, digitalisation is essential to the future success of the industry.

As the Chief Digital & Information Officer of MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company, and the chairman of the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA), I spend much of my time working toward this digitalisation. It’s a goal that we, as an industry, must commit to achieving if we hope to keep up with the pace of change and continue to adapt to our customers’ demands.

But such change is not without its challenges.

How do you implement digitalisation in a complex industry built on relationships, human interaction and manual processes? How do you use technology to gain efficiency without losing the personal touch?

Long before the ease of today’s instant mobile communication, we relied on the telephone. And in the early days of the telephone, making a phone call meant speaking to a switchboard operator.

As the scale of calls increased, such a manual process was no longer efficient. New technology emerged and the switchboard operator was replaced by direct dialling.

We may have lost an element of human interaction, but we gained much more.

The personal touch is about more than simply talking to a person.

It’s about providing customers with personalised service. Fast, efficient, and helpful service that helps them do what they need to do.

Today, in the shipping industry, inefficiencies in data flow create an increased dependence on manual processes performed by people. But just because a task is performed by a person, doesn’t make it a personal touch.

Inefficiencies create friction. And by removing friction and improving the flow of information, we can free up our time to innovate, to grow, and create better experiences for customers, end to end.

Everyone can relate to a time where you want to talk to an actual person but you get bounced around FAQs, chatbots, and automated messages. Frustrating experiences like these fuel the fear of digitalisation.

But technology is a tool. It’s how you use it that matters.

At MSC, strong customer relationships are core to our values, so our approach to digitalisation will always consider how we can use it to better serve our customers.

We can use it to deliver quicker answers, faster quotes, and a more personalised experience. It can free up time and allow people to focus their attention where it makes the biggest difference.

It’s not about phasing out the personal touch, but giving customers the power to choose. They may prefer a low-touch self service option at times, but a higher-touch human-driven interaction at others. It’s important that in our quest to digitalise we find the right balance of technology and personal touch.

As the world evolves, we must evolve with it.

Digitalisation is the fuel that will power the next evolution of our industry. And if we’re to keep up with the pace of change and attract the top talent, we must embrace it.

Looking forward, the next generation of shipping professionals will be digital natives. They will have grown up with the technologies many of us have adapted to. To them, digitalisation is not a process, it’s the norm.

As we continue to lay the groundwork, they will further the push to digitalisation. And I’m optimistic that we can embrace digitalisation while maintaining the relationships which make our industry great.

Digitalisation will never cause us to lose the personal touch, but simply reimagine it.

Husband, father, bass player, shoeaholic. CDIO at @MSCCargo and chairman of DCSA. I mostly tweet about the digitalisation of container shipping!