As AI Takes Over Customer Service, T-Mobile Says Not So Fast

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Over the last several years, a whole new industry has evolved around applying the latest in AI-powered innovations to customer services operations across a wide swath of businesses around the globe. It’s a commonly held belief that such innovations represent a long-awaited panacea for an important pain point in the modern customer experience. Wireless carrier T-Mobile, though, seems to be swimming against that current – and if they succeed they might create a counter-revolution in customer experience with wide-ranging consequences.

Building On Success

To begin with, the US wireless industry isn’t known for customer service excellence. Year after year, it ranks among the least well-regarded industries in that area, while customer service ratings for auto insurance companies and credit unions dominate the best-in-class lists. T-Mobile, though, has always been something of an outlier in an otherwise grim customer service landscape, and it’s a big part of why they’re gaining traction in a cutthroat industry. They’ve managed to outdo their much larger rivals to become the number one ranked full-service wireless carrier for customer service in the United States for two consecutive years, but they’re not resting on their laurels yet.

An Un-Carrier Approach

T-Mobile bills itself as the un-carrier, touting their willingness to go against the grain to create a unique value proposition for consumers. Although they’re already at the top of the heap for customer service in their industry, they don’t appear satisfied. In keeping with their non-traditional approach to most business imperatives, T-Mobile just announced plans to do away with interactive voice response (IVR) and other automated customer service technologies in favor of small, local groups of customer service experts that will provide individualized human support for all customers. In an industry that’s at the forefront of the push towards chatbots and AI, the announcement is nothing short of a rejection of the prevailing wisdom.

An AI Counter-Narrative

According to T-Mobile, the genesis of their new customer service plans came from various existing research, that indicated, among other things, that up to 83% of customer service contacts that begin with IVR result in communication with a live agent. That means that a large majority of consumers are already doing everything possible to circumvent IVR systems and that they serve little purpose other than to cause frustration for those forced to deal with them. Despite that, T-Mobile claims, major brands spent $3.73 billion on automated customer service systems in the past year. In addition, the carrier reports testing of the new plan resulted in their customers’ willingness to recommend the brand to others, all while lowering employee churn and overall employee engagement.

A Non-Automated Future

Only time will tell if T-Mobile’s bold decision to ditch technology in their customer service operations will pay off. They claim that the early results are promising enough to warrant a full rollout. At the same time, customer experience analysts continue to advocate for massive increases in the usage of AI-powered chatbots and other automated customer service tools. In effect, the die has been cast. If T-Mobile’s approach wins the day, business managers around the world might be forced to reevaluate their customer service plans and rethink the faith they’re putting into AI. Don’t worry, though, because T-Mobile expects that many will do just that – and they’re willing to provide the blueprints for their service and free access to their patented technology to any company that commits to the model – and that may prove to be their biggest customer experience masterstroke of all.

Philip Piletic
Techloot
I have several years of experience in marketing and startups, and regularly contribute to a number of online platforms related to technology, marketing and small business. I closely follow how Big Data, Internet of Things, Cloud and other rising technologies grew to shape our everyday lives. Currently working as managing editor for a UK tech site.

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