Balancing Automation And Human Warmth in Customer Support


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The trend of implementing automation into customer services is as inevitable as it is ubiquitous. By 2022, experts suggest that 70% of customer interactions will use machine learning technology and virtual agents, up from 15% in 2018.

But in this rush toward automating customer service functions, companies need to understand the personal aspects of the customer journey and strike the right balance between the cool efficiency of automation and the warm touch of empathetic human interaction in the customer experience.

In an oft-cited study by Bain, “Closing the Delivery Gap,” 80% of companies say they provide great experiences for their customers – while only about 8% of customers agree. If we are to truly close that gap, we need to understand how automation can help empower our people to better serve our customers. And how we harness it to augment their existing skillset and capitalize on the experience and expertise they bring into each customer interaction.

Use AI to Challenge the Status Quo

The rules for customer support are not fixed, and as the customer base is continually changing, so should our processes and procedures. One of the best uses of automation in customer services is to help us change our ideas of what is possible. The ability to process transactions rapidly is the obvious first step. Still, we need to look beyond the bottom-line advantages of speed and efficiency and see how they translate into top-line improvements through a better customer experience.

Every minute saved by automating manual and repetitive tasks with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) is another minute our team can spend doing the things they do best – helping customers navigate complex situations and manage emotional responses.

When we strike a balance between automation and human touch, we can build a proactive support model that positions the customer service team exactly where it can be most relevant at the most critical moments for our customers. For example, we can use bots to triage an initial support question. If it is simple enough, we can route it to a self-service resources center. However, if the customer has more complex needs, we need to be able to connect them with the right person, who can provide them with the right answer at the right time.

Scale With Technology, but Let The Customer Choose Their Pathway

Using automation to help scale your existing resources and infrastructure makes sense. Gartner suggests that in 2021 AI augmentation will create $2.29 trillion of business value – or roughly 6.2 billion hours of worker productivity globally.

Self-guided service, feedback gathering and analysis, chatbots, and automated recommendations for frontline support all deliver value, improve speed and accuracy, and improve the overall customer service experience.

However, customers need to feel empowered in these interactions, and they need to be able to choose the way they want to connect with your customer service team. One piece of data from a 2019 Forbes article suggests that as many as 86% of consumers would still prefer to speak to a human agent over a chatbot. The Customer Service Barometer, a widely-cited 2017 study by American Express indicates that 68% of customers say the service representative is key to a positive service experience.

It’s important to note that these numbers are changing as Internet-savvy Millennials and Internet-native Gen-Z customers demonstrate different contact preferences (social media, for example) and different expectations for customer service. And while they may not turn to a human voice for their first contact, they have higher expectations because they understand the type of data collection and sharing from their experiences with companies like Amazon and Netflix.

Understand Where and When the Human Touch Matters

Low-touch transactional interactions and general information-seeking should be automated wherever possible. For example, 86% of existing B2B customers preferred using automated self-service tools to place reorders compared to going through a salesperson. Other research shows that 2/3 of consumers prefer a self-service customer solution over speaking to a company representative.

Still, it is critical that we understand the circumstances that require a human touch – and provide the customer with a simple and direct line of access to a qualified and knowledgeable support person. Three common reasons that customers seek out human interaction include:

– Any time there is ambiguity that needs clarification – Chances are, your product manuals and documentation isn’t so crystal clear that no one will ever have a question.

– When a complex decision needs to be made – No one is going to sign up for a mortgage or commit to investing in sophisticated software with a chatbot.

– When there are multiple elements to a decision – anyone who has ever tried to make plans with a group of people via text or email quickly realizes that the more individual people or factors involved, the less likely that technology is the solution.

– When there is a dispute or complaint – The last thing a heated customer wants is to work through an automated decision tree with a bot or voice system.

The more complex the customer service issue, the more likely customers are to seek out a real person on the phone (40%) or a face-to-face interaction (23%) instead of online chat. And that reason is simple. No machine is willing to go out of its way like a human will. We can never underestimate the power of empathy in the customer experience.
Automation shouldn’t be the gatekeeper; rather, it needs to enhance the connection between your brand and your customer while helping your support team create value.

Measure Both Sides of the Customer Service Equation

Measuring performance benchmarks is vital to understanding the well-being of your customer service organization. Monitoring the speed and volume of ticket requests handled by your team should be a baseline for any customer service organization. The average speed of answer, average handle time, and first contact resolution can also help us paint a clearer picture of what benefits you reap from automation and how much value comes from direct interaction with your customer service people.

But we need to make sure that our Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) aren’t just focused on what automation can do to improve our performance and efficiency but also understand the impact that technology can have on improving our customer’s experience.

Measuring customer satisfaction, loyalty, and intent to repurchase can help shed light on your customers’ experience, positive or negative. KPI’s such as Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT), Customer Effort Score (CES), and even Net Promoter Score (NPS) can also be barometers for how well your company is delivering on your customer experience promise. Ultimately it is critical to understand (1) How customers perceive the unique customer experience you have designed: and (2) how aligned their expectations are with the actual outcome.

Deliver a Consistent Experience

To successfully implement automation in customer services, you need to focus on data management. You have to ensure that both your AI tools and your human agents are drawing their information from the same knowledge bank and that it is current and consistently updated. There is little more frustrating than being transferred to an agent (or escalating through multiple agents) who don’t seem to know what your situation is. Nearly one-third of consumers rank this as their number one frustration with customer service.

Automation can help here as you can use AI to help mine conversations (voice and text) for insights to inform automated and personal interactions with a specific customer. This delivers a more consistent experience and helps create a seamless experience for when customers transition from automated to human support. Nearly 7 out of 10 American adults say that they shop more with businesses whose online and offline customer service is consistent.

In a proactive customer service environment, this deep knowledge bank can also help improve the way you manage similar situations in the future.

Moving Forward with Automation

In our excitement to implement AI and other automation tools, it can be easy to lose sight of why we turn to automation in the first place. We need to constantly remind ourselves that technology is best utilized when it empowers humans on both sides of the customer service equation. For customers, it’s the ability to find the answers they need quickly and easily – whether self-guided or through a seamless transition to human intervention. And for customer service professionals, technology should empower them to act quickly and decisively to help solve customers’ problems and allow them to focus on providing a warm, empathetic face and voice that improves the overall customer experience.

Mara Vicente
Mara is the Vice President of Customer Support at Pipedrive, the leading CRM for sales and marketing teams. With several years working for large multinational organizations with multicultural teams in different countries, Mara combines a hands-on management approach with contact centers skills, and believes teamwork is the most important tool in any organization.


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