NEW YORK: All brands are aware of the opportunities and efficiencies offered by digital channels for consumer engagement, but a new study warns they risk alienating customers if the human touch is lost.

For its "Digital Disconnect in Customer Engagement" report, professional services firm Accenture polled 24,489 consumers around the world, including more than 2,000 in the US.

From this US sample, Accenture found that around four-in-five (83%) of American consumers prefer dealing with fellow humans over digital channels to solve customer service issues.

This matters because just over half (52%) say they have switched brand or provider over the past year because of perceived poor customer service and, worse, more than two-thirds (68%) say they will not return.

However, there are measures companies can take to hold on to their custom because 80% of switchers believe the company could have done something to keep them.

If companies could provide customers with better live or in-person customer service, that would have an impact on 83% of those surveyed.

Accenture warned that the estimated cost of customers switching because of poor service in the US amounts to a huge $1.6 trillion and advised brands seeking to improve customer loyalty to rebalance their digital and traditional customer services.

"Companies have lost sight of the importance of human interaction and often make it too difficult for consumers to get the right level of help and service that they need," said Robert Wollan, senior managing director of advanced customer strategy at Accenture Strategy.

"Companies wrongly assume that their digital-only customers are their most profitable, and that customer service is a cost.

"Consequently they over-invest in digital technologies and channels and lose their most profitable customers – multi-channel customers – who want experiences that cover both digital and traditional channels."

Common complaints include frustration dealing with a company that does not make it easy to do business (81%), customer service that should be easier and more convenient (73%), and the speed with which an issue is dealt with (61%).

The report also revealed that physical or in-store experiences are highly valued among consumers with 65% agreeing that in-store service is the best channel for getting a tailored experience.

In addition, nearly half (46%) say they are more willing to be sold new or upgraded products when receiving a face-to-face service compared to online.

Data sourced from Accenture; additional content by Warc staff