Will going digital mean the end of the human touch?

Article originally posted on LinkedIn by Ian Oldrey, our MD

"I was brought up doing business the “old-fashioned” way. Meeting people face to face, shaking their hand, and talking openly – and sometimes bluntly – about business. More often than not you chose the companies you partnered with based on personal connections or word of mouth recommendations. And I don’t think things have changed all that much.

Sure, the net is wider these days, with the internet making it simple, technically, to access a global audience. But in my experience, it is still the human connections that mean the most. Similarly, with technology, I’ve read a lot of articles and opinions suggesting that people are being “replaced” by AI, machine learning, and robotics. Certainly there are roles and functions that technology can perform in place of humans, and in some cases, dare I say it, they can do it better. But the real value of technology, in my opinion, is to simplify and speed up the arduous tasks that suck our focus, our time and our lives away from us, freeing us up to do the things we want or need to be doing instead.

"The business of business is relationships. The business of life is human relationships." Robin Sharma

A lot of merchants, and a lot of the timber and builders’ merchant press, are talking about the increasing importance of digital for merchant business. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the advantages of Cloud software for remote working and seamless operation better than any marketing department could do. And yes, we ourselves have written and spoken at length about the enormous commercial and operational benefits of digital systems and ecommerce platforms for merchants.

But do I think a move toward digital will replace the need for human interaction?

Absolutely not. If anything, I think it can make more time for those relationships we deem important, whether at work or at home. Automated tasks can save significant amounts of time, and if you think how many tiny processes you perform every day at work you can start to see how, with a streamlining and speeding up of every single one of them, major amounts of time can be freed up.

Better relationships with customers are also a massive benefit. With enhanced stock management and agile forecasting you can have better available in shorter time frames, while having the information to negotiate better rates and comply with certification and sustainability regulations. Less time spent digging through records means more time to focus on service, on relationships, and on long term growth for your own business and its workforce. Plus of course your staff will be happier as the ever-elusive work/life balance becomes more realistic; not only are daily functions speeded up and simplified, but remote and flexible working becomes a very real possibility for more people.

Reducing daily frustrations and giving a clear picture of the risks, gaps, challenges and of course opportunities within your business is a huge advantage for business owners. Better, more advanced and insightful reporting becomes achievable without spending hours dredging up numbers from the last quarter manually – analytics and reporting are immensely valuable. Information, as they say, is indeed power.

So while I appreciate there may be a hesitancy around going digital and embracing the technology of the future, I also believe very firmly that we are that technology’s master, not the other way around. It is a vastly powerful and effective tool – so let’s make it work for us, and free up our time to focus on the important things in life. If this extended lockdown has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is more important than human connection."

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