Though automation and artificial intelligence (AI) have existed in some form or another for many years, it’s only been recently that both have achieved levels of maturity permitting more widespread application and meaningful use. With the promise of greater efficiencies at lower cost, companies are racing to deploy these technologies into their business. Customer service has been one such area to see automation and AI move in.
These revolutionary changes to the workforce have led to many divergent opinions. Most often raised is the likelihood of widespread job losses for those employed in routine jobs that can be automated and driven by AI (not limited just to customer service). On a more positive note, customers seeking assistance will benefit from faster answers and customer service will be more critical than ever due to new technologies creating more questions for its users.
The truth is automation is not a new threat to the workforce; in fact, it’s been taking place for centuries as humans have sought to more speedily, accurately, and efficiently perform routine tasks. Despite these advancements, there is still work for humans today. As we have witnessed automation replace some forms of human labor it has also raised demand for other types of work and even creates new types of work. Again, nowhere is this truer than in customer service where humans aren’t going away any time soon.
Some customer questions and problems are more common than others. Be it how to set up recurring billing for a service to exchanging a product, there are often multiple steps necessary. These types of issues are typically higher volume and follow the same path from problem to resolution. With straightforward solutions, the steps can be documented so that customers can follow the direction themselves. To ensure success, the process must be clearly documented, tested for accuracy, and periodically rechecked when business processes change.
The level of AI commercially available is not yet at a point where it can reason through a problem it hasn’t encountered–simple or complex. It excels at identifying the traits in the customer’s issue and recommending a likely solution based upon past successes. It cannot solve and therefore document solutions to problems it’s unfamiliar with. This job lies squarely in the hands of humans for now.
Connecting customers to answers
Analysts have been saying for years that customers prefer self-service. When they have problems, they want to get answers at a time and place convenient to them. The most common forms of customer self-service in existence today are knowledge bases, chatbots, and online communities. Each of these, to some degree, rely on the existence of the human-documented solutions described above to be beneficial. Self-service options also rely on humans to remain viable.
Knowledge bases are a repository for answers that grow over time. Without proper curation, their value quickly diminishes: too many articles convolute searches, article quality reduces as information changes, etc. Search logs must be monitored to understand under what circumstances customers succeed and fail to find answers. All of this analysis and action requires people.
Similarly, chatbots require their own care and feeding. Humans must determine the best issues for them to address. Though assisted with AI, those conversations must be manually architected in a manner that quickly leads customers to the correct solution (which are often in the form of knowledge articles). Terms customers use that the ‘bot is unfamiliar with must be evaluated and added to its vocabulary. As with the knowledge base, the ‘bot must be kept up-to-date with the latest high-volume conversations its simple conversations can assist with.
Delivering complex and empathetic answers
Automation and AI are most successful in places where the same solution can be delivered over-and-over with a high likelihood of success. Under these circumstances, human-maintained, AI-powered automated systems backed by human-curated knowledge make for a powerful combination in customer service. But this doesn’t account for ever situation.
Not all issues are simple and can be documented. Some might require questioning and decision-making to lead to the solution. New problems might require sleuthing to find an answer. The ability to reason through an issue remains a critical component to customer service, and it’s a skill only a human agent can provide today.
Another type of customer interaction still falling squarely in the human camp are those requiring empathy. When orders don’t arrive on time, an additional fee is assessed, or a warranty doesn’t cover certain types of damage, customers won’t typically find the comfort they need and the resolution they desire from a machine. And though empathetic chatbots might be on the horizon, customers might not be ready to accept them.
What does the future hold?
We sit in a moment in time where rapid change is occurring all around us. New developments in automation and AI are revealed daily, and they are changing and improving the way the world works. This is especially true in customer service.
Companies and their customers benefit from the rapid improvements in these technologies and the speed by which it means problems will be solved. Humans play the important role of developing the solutions, with automation and AI connecting customers to them more rapidly. As history has shown, technology will continue to change what is work but it will be humans leading that transformation with new and different opportunities occurring in the wake.