As the requirements of the shipping and courier sector become ever more complex, the industry has developed an understandable obsession with advancing technology to meet these needs. But with the rise of AI in particular, Mike Gratton of World Options argues that retaining the human factor will always be part of meeting the gold-standard in terms of customer experience, alongside embracing the latest advances in tech.

Shipping should be a simple business: a case of getting item X from A to B in the quickest time possible. But in reality, how that process plays out very much depends on the exact nature of the X the A and the B – what is being shipped, and from where to where.

The differing combination of those seemingly simple factors can create wildly different scenarios in each case. Shipping a small gift package between two addresses in the UK will provide a very different customer experience to shipping the same package to Europe, the Americas or South East Asia. The same again for an oversize parcel containing industrial goods, whether that’s nationally or internationally.

But there are also two further factors in the equation, which we might call Y and Z, that are a huge part of the process – the person Y sending the shipment and the person Z, waiting to receive it.

A crucial element in achieving a successful experience is the understanding that both Y and Z are human beings. And where there is a human factor in any equation, there is a further factor: emotion.

Customer anxiety and frustration in the courier industry almost uniformly comes from unknowns; the big “where’s my stuff”, as Amazon used to call its Track Package page back in the 00s.

While there have been huge advances in tech to help answer that question for customers over the past few years, the truth is that when things go awry, a complete reliance on tech will always run the risk of a “computer says know” experience for already frustrated customers.

So, while the industry quite rightly embraces new technology, our view is that the function of tech should always be that of cobotics, not robotics.

A growing term in the industrial automation industry, cobotics refers to machines that work to assist humans, not replace them. The thinking comes from an understanding that, yes, machines can speed processes up and take over the work that humans would find so repetitive it could lead to errors. But achieving a balance between humans and machines is where the highest quality outputs are to be found.

So while this rule can be applied in a highly technical industries such as advanced manufacturing, it’s even more appropriate when it comes to achieving the best customer experience in the shipping and courier industry. No matter how smart the tech becomes, given the option, humans would always rather deal with an actual human when they have a problem – or even just a perceived problem.

A real human experience is something that cannot be fully delegated to the machines to achieve maximum customer satisfaction, and it’s hard to imagine a future where it will be.

Even as AI advances, and no matter how efficient it becomes in mimicking humans, it cannot replace the reassurance factor that comes from knowing you are dealing with an actual human, who is on your side and dedicated to helping you achieve what you need.

Our industry is a vital component of the global economy. Quite literally, the world relies on us to keep things moving, and it’s our duty and role to do that as efficiently as possible and to the highest standards.

To achieve that, it’s important that we value the humans that work within the industry at every stage of the process, supporting them with increasingly advanced tech, but not seeking to supplant them with it.

Mike Gratton is managing director of World Options Holdings Ltd which manages three brands in the UK; Mail Boxes Etc., PACK & SEND and World Options, providing ecommerce, fulfilment, shipping, virtual office, marketing and print solutions to SMEs and consumers. Companies within the group now maintain and support over 260 franchisees, generating combined annual revenues of £80m.