It’s no secret that AI has incited polarized reactions from consumers. People are often excited about the futuristic promise of AI, but are equally hesitant to introduce it into everyday life. Last year, however, we saw a shift. The pandemic established a fundamental need for technologies like AI to help navigate a digital-first world. From productivity platforms to healthcare solutions, AI appeared in all corners of life, keeping consumers seamlessly connected to the companies that impact their lives.
No industry experienced this shift quite like customer service. Consumers turned to businesses for support in navigating the upheaval of life, while those same businesses were dealing with mandated remote work. AI-powered technologies offered a timely alternative to in-person customer service and helped meet the growing volume of inquiries coming through digital channels. As AI adoption grew, consumers experienced greater exposure to and confidence in the technology, which has fundamentally shaped their perspectives today.
The pandemic didn’t create an interim reliance on AI-powered CX, but rather a full-fledged desire for it. In fact, a new survey by my company found that a significant majority of consumers (82%) actually want companies to maintain or expand AI-powered customer service solutions (and other digital channels) after the pandemic subsides. So what was it, exactly, that inspired this perception shift surrounding AI-powered CX? I believe there were three primary factors:
AI went from necessity to norm in CX.
Prior to the pandemic, consumers preferred speaking to a human agent when given the option, despite significant advances in conversational AI. This is likely due to the prevalence of chatbot and IVR solutions that subjected consumers to clunky “robot speak,” miscommunications and repetition. When the pandemic hit, however, consumer ambivalence towards AI-powered solutions was quickly overridden by the need and desire to reach businesses more quickly and efficiently. According to a recent Salesforce report, 87% of consumers reported that they expected companies to accelerate digital initiatives due to COVID-19. AI transformation quickly became a necessity for businesses to maintain customer loyalty and retention.
While accelerated digital transformation began as a solution to bridge COVID-induced gaps in business, it has quickly set a new standard and become the norm. Today, most consumers (65%) are comfortable speaking with an AI-powered customer service solution, provided they can speak normally and get their problem resolved quickly, according to my company’s recent report. AI is no longer a question of when it will gain mainstream acceptance, but rather how its widespread adoption will improve customer experiences.
Sophisticated AI showed consumers they can accomplish their tasks with ease.
While the pandemic has accelerated AI adoption across customer experience, not all AI is created equal. According to Salesforce’s report, 67% of consumers say COVID-19 elevated their expectations of companies’ digital capabilities, and 78% believe this year’s crises should be a catalyst for business improvement. These numbers indicate that the pandemic has not only increased an interest in and need for CX technology, but also raised consumer expectations.
Businesses can’t just blindly invest in whatever AI solution is marketed to them. They need sophisticated AI that can cater to their customers’ unique needs. Think solutions that leverage personal data (ethically) to deliver more tailored experiences, or provide agents with relevant insights and prompts that allow them to help customers achieve their goals more quickly. As the pandemic pushed advanced AI technology to the forefront of CX, consumers experienced more personalized, seamless interactions without having to wait in queues for an agent—saving time and eliminating frustration.
As we return to “normal,” rising comfort levels remain consistent.
As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more readily available and we near the end of widespread social distancing, businesses are looking towards a more stable future. The travel industry, for example, is beginning to see an uptick in bookings as consumers plan their first post-pandemic vacation, while brick and mortar retail stores are raising capacity and serving more customers in person.
Despite this progress, the increased desire for AI-enabled customer experiences persists. While we may soon return to more traditional ways of life, businesses have now carved out a permanent space for AI in customer service by introducing a new standard. Customers now want and expect the fast, seamless and personalized experiences that AI can provide. The increased reliance on and acceptance of AI is more than a temporary shift in sentiment; it’s sticking around for the long haul.