If the conference presentations, media articles and tech budgets of the UK’s leading service providers are to be believed then the age of digital-by-default, consumer portals, and digital service offers will continue to revolutionise the ways that services are delivered despite the waning influence of COVID as a catalyst for change.  There is good reason to think so; digital services have been proven to allow remote delivery from anywhere in the world, to reduce costs, improve efficiency, create valuable data to drive performance and customer service as well as automate repetitive tasks.

Nevertheless, there are real limits to this migration online and we see significant impacts on cost and customer service when the possibilities of tech are over-estimated or the delivery challenges are under-estimated.

There are three fundamental limits to digital service delivery:

Source: Office for National Statistics, Internet Access - Households and individuals: 2020, published 07 Aug 2020

Limit 1: The people who will not use your digital service

Internet use in the UK is at an all-time high with 96% of UK households connected to the internet.  However, that still leaves 2.1 million UK adults unconnected and these people are not randomly distributed as highlighted in the graphic below:

1 in every 5 single-person households over 65 years has no internet connection and 18% of over 65’s have not used the internet in the last 3 months.  People with a disability as defined by the Equalities Act are twice as likely not to have used the internet in the last 3 months as the rest of the population.  When we engage with customers on this topic, the reasons that they decline to use online services are many and varied but can be summarised as follows:


Beyond internet connectivity, customers need access to the financial means and physical hardware to use online services. 


Not everyone feels confident using technology and those with Mental Health, Learning Disabilities, language and literacy challenges are particularly affected.  Access to learning is also needed.


Those who prefer not to use services through choice will state their data sharing preferences, not seeing any advantage to using an online service, a perception that accessing services will be more difficult or that they prefer a human interaction, which is especially common amongst elderly customers.

Confidence and trust:

Online is not always a safe place to be and concerns exists around identify theft, security, online standards, and the trustworthiness of online services.

Limit 2: The services elements that aren’t suited to online delivery

Lots of effort usually goes in to designing customer journeys and touch-points but it’s just as important to consider whether the content of the communication is appropriate for online delivery.  The graphic opposite highlights a useful way of thinking about this topic.

Unambiguous content:

This is the straightforward factual information that needs to communicated in a service transaction, from appointment bookings to billing and payments.  Most people prefer to have the flexibility to manage this sort of activity online at their convenience.

Complex content:

This is communication likely to require explanation and context from an expert for the customer to understand and evaluate it.  Conveyancing search results and blood test results would fit in this category.  They can be put online but would need some form of explanation, guide or bespoke advice to provide the context required.  Sometimes the context can be provided online but sometimes it is best delivered by other means.

Emotive content:

Much of our work is in Health + Care and Legal Services where customers are often reliant on help from professionals through challenging and stressful episodes in their lives.  Effective delivery often involves empathy, reassurance, listening and dialogue at certain stages and the proper channel for doing so needs to be thought through.

Some of the worst shortfalls in service delivery occur when the categories of content listed above are confused.  A request for personal information may be routine, but not if it requested for someone who is recently deceased.   An invoice is commonplace, but not if sent to someone who has complained about the service it relates to that same day.  In short, there are exceptions to every rule and digital services need to be flexible enough to recognise and respond differently to those exceptions when they occur.

Limit 3: The non-customer facing elements of the service that are too difficult to integrate

Digital services are always connected to your current ways of working and an extension of them.  If the new customer portal is integrated with a legacy booking system or paper-based invoicing, their performance won’t be transformed and can often be made significantly worse.  The answer is to spend just as much time on understanding the needs of your internal stakeholders when implementing new digital services as you do with your customers and not to expect a digital service to transform performance all by itself.