artificial intelligence

Artificial Intelligence and the Customer Service Experience

Some of you may remember the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this 1968 science fiction movie, HAL 9000 is the onboard computer deemed “foolproof” and “incapable of error”. ‘Hal’ was one of the first cinematic examples of artificial intelligence (AI). Even in that movie world,  it was at times tough to tell if Hal was machine or human! Nearly 50 years later, AI is all around us, making a difference in our every day lives.
Remember when you dialed a number to report a power outage? You knew you would eventually speak to a live person, even if you were put on hold.  Now? You’re more likely to speak with a “chat bot” that tells you it understands complete sentences! If you’re having a hard time telling if you’re talking to a real person or not, you’ve entered the world of artificial intelligence. AI isn’t science fiction anymore.  It is very real – and it’s getting smarter every day!

What is AI?

Artificial Intelligence  is the area of computer science that deals with intelligent computer systems that can mimic human-like learning, thinking and behavior for the purposes of prediction, decision-making, problem solving, and analysis.
AI is now being used in all walks of life, from speech recognition to real-time translation and well beyond. The ability of AI to store, analyze and gather insights from large amounts of data makes it an extremely powerful technology to improve the customer experience in an organization.
Examples of AI in Current Customer Service Roles
You know that online “chat” feature that comes up when you’re shopping on some websites or looking for technical support? Not every site actually has a live person on the other end of the line. In many cases, you’re “talking” to a rudimentary AI. Many of these chat-support bots aren’t much more than automated responders, but others are able to extract knowledge and options from your inquiry and statements, as well as the website, and present it to customers in the form of a response.  

Siri, Alexa, OK Google, and Cortana are all examples of digital personal assistants, and we wonder how we lived without them a decade or so ago!
“Hey Siri, where’s the closest Sushi restaurant?”
“Alexa, dim the living room lights.”
“OK Google, how far is the train station from my location?” 

Negatives of AI in the Customer Experience

Have you ever browsed for an item online, and later found yourself looking at ads for that product and similar products in your email browser? Or in your Facebook feed? Or as a “recommended item” on Retailers with a large on-line presence such as Target, Walmart, and Amazon stand to make a lot of money if they can keep an item you’ve expressed interest in at the front of your mind, and anticipate your browsing and shopping needs. This can defintely seem like an unwelcome intrustion into our browsing experience, not unlike a persistent telemarketing call. 
Loss of Privacy/Data Security.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than 90% of consumers agree that they have lost control of how their personal information is collected online and used by companies. As technology continues to evolve, more business than ever will be conducted online, and the expectation of privacy is diminishing – along with the expectation of security. Instead, this critical personal data is becoming a commodity to be purchased for uses both legal and illegal. Consider the experience of the more than 145 million Americans affected by the Equifax data security breach. This theft of this data leaves all those consumers highly vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.
Negative Impact on the Job Market
Use of AI to manage customer service is trending upward, and the current focus seems to be on how AI can replace the human component of an  interaction that’s inherent in the customer service process. AI has reduced many traditional service jobs by enabling customers to handle simple tasks themselves, such as using the self-checkout at a grocery store or automated systems for bill payments. However this means that by the time any problems make their way to a customer service representive, they are already more complex and potentially more difficult to solve.  Add to that the fact that most firms are investing more in the development of technology, and less on training and developing their employees. This one-sided approach creates an unfortunate ripple effect: poorly-trained customer service representatives will be ill-equipped to deal with important customer issues. And as we have discussed in previous blog articles, today’s customers have a much higher level of expectation when it comes to the customer service experience. The end result – if this trend goes too far – will be high employee turnover, and an overall decline in customer satisfaction.
Losing the Human Touch
Customers – and even businesses – are leery of over-dependence on AI in operations. Successful companies know the importance of personalized service.  And for all of us, there is a fear of the “rise of the machines”. In a survey performed by AI-provider Pegasystems, Inc., 24% of respondents expressed a fear of “the rise of the robots and enslavement of humanity”. 
Additionally, a computer program cannot replicate human judgement, and lacks the ability to exercise the creative problem-solving process. We all need “the human touch”.  While AI tools can address  some technical situations ( such as a chatbot walking you through how to reboot your modem), there is no substitute for human empathy. There is still a distinct advantage to the customer having access to a real person. According to the Pegasystems survey, 45% of consumers prefer dealing with a live representative on the phone when they need customer service, and that number jumps to 80% when using an online chat system for customer service. Ideally, AI can be used in the performance of repetitive, techinal tasks, and free humans to perform tasks that AI isn’t so good at – like human interaction.

How AI Can Enhance the Customer Experience

The goal of AI in customer service should be to improve human interaction in the process, not take its place. Individuals and organizations who recognize this and plan accordingly will stand out from the rest. The use of AI cannot be a replacement for a successful customer service program, but can be used to support and supplement the process.
For example:

  • Incoming routing of calls by AI will allow the customer to reach their party more quickly, and help an organization begin to understand segmentation in its marketplace.
  • AI can efficiently collect preliminary data from the customer, allowing the customer service professional to more quickly identify the customer, personalize their communication and understand the nature of the problem.
  • In the handling of lower-end, menial tasks, AI can actually help elevate customer service professionals into roles that better develop their skills, problem-solving abilities, and effectively participate in revenue-generating activities for an organization.

Another advantage of AI is that it provides consistency in the customer service experience. AI is able to function on a 24/7/365 basis, can handle structured requests, and is ready to serve your customer at any time. “Urgency” or immediacy in responding to the customer is fully supported, and allows for faster service. The phrase “human error”, comes from the fact that humans do make mistakes from time to time. Assuming they are programmed correctly, AI communication systems would have a lower error threshold, with more accuracy in utility and support. AI is also able to communicate data consistently,  across an entire enterprise,  so that all representatives have access to the same information,  in real time.
Combining High Tech with High Touch
Customers expect an exceptional customer service experience. They want to interact with a company with the greatest ease possible. They want to be able to get their issue resolved with the least amount of time and effort on their part. High tech efficiency has to work hand-in-hand with personalized service, and there are no short-cuts in this regard.
As customer service expert Chip Bell pointed it in our recent webinar “Wired and Dangerous“, high tech doesn’t do any good unless we also have high touch. With that in mind, AI can be an excellent tool to minimize customer effort and still efficiently meet their needs. However, AI is only one component of a successful customer service experience. Even with the streamlined processes AI has brought about, it is also important to remember that fast customer service does not necessarily mean good customer service. Products, services, and pricing can be matched from one business to the next, but leading companies make sure “human touch” plays a big role in their service. As high tech increases and evolves with our rapidly changing world,  it is always the human touch that makes for successful, profitable and long-term relationships with customers.

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Customer Service Institute of America