This year has been the year of AI. We hosted the Global Customer Service Experience Director of Alvarez & Marsal Alex Mead ([email protected]) recently to talk about it, and I wanted to share what we discussed here with all of you, too.
One thing I appreciate about Mead is how his opinions make me think. For example, I asked him about the short-term implications of AI, meaning in the next one to five years. Mead says that he believes AI will reduce customer effort in experiences. He predicts that customers can ask, “Hey! Where’s that order I placed two days ago?” that will be all they need to do for the AI to get them the information they want.
Mead says in this scenario, the AI does two things. First, it picks up the natural language interface, which has been around for at least three years. So, we should be able to speak or type questions like talking to someone. Second, the AI will start its work of authenticating the speaker and finding the information requested in less than a second by checking against various data points and platforms.
Now, many of you might be thinking, “Don’t I already do that with Alexa?” You do, and it works. However, the significance here, Mead says, is that organizations like Amazon do have it already; the prediction is that many more organizations will get there over the next couple of years, too.
Predictive and Proactive
In addition to getting the information, Mead says AI will also discover or intuit whether the information puts the customer on a happy or unhappy path. For example, the AI may determine that the product ordered is now delayed a day by shipping. It may also decide based on the product and the date that it was a gift that will now be late. So, the AI will determine if there is a way to fix the unhappy path, whether from an alternative retail channel or a new delivery method.
It can also eliminate frustration and stress when traveling. Suppose you are at an airport, the airline cancels your flight, and you sit in a call center queue. Instead of waiting, a customer could ask the AI to find the options available that will get them where they need to go, and they can do so with nothing more than a question.
Mead says that the technology necessary to do this already exists. Moreover, tomorrow’s customers will demand this simplicity and fluidity in their AI interactions. Therefore, it’s up to organizations to break out of the “contact us” mindset that asks customers to press one for this and two for that to get us there.
With more time, Meads says AI will also provide more proactive experiences. That means when the AI realizes the airline canceled the flight, it will push out the options before you even have to ask. The same goes for the birthday gift; the option to still have the gift in time will be pushed to the customer rather than the customer asking about it. Instead of having the information, it will share the information.
Plus, Mead says it will consider the human reasons for doing things. AI will determine why a customer booked a flight. Was it for a wedding? A vacation? To visit someone who would be waiting to pick them up. These parts of the interaction will drive the proactivity.
Too Few See the Real Benefit of AI
In my experience, many organizations see cost-saving advantages to leveraging AI in customer service. However, too few recognize the key advantage AI can provide regarding experiences. Mead agrees, adding that it has been frustrating to him for years that organizations see customer service as a cost rather than an asset to the organization’s bottom line.
Further, Mead thinks that the brand and marketing experience is one thing. It gets customer attention and convinces them to buy. The customer service experience is another, which describes every interaction a customer has at every life cycle stage, from pre-purchase to during the purchase to after purchase. The customer service experience occurs at every channel and every life cycle stage. Moreover, these two are intertwined.
The more you invest in customer service experience, Mead says, the more it pays for itself in sales and revenue and average revenue per customer.
In my view, no one is looking at the overall experience regarding AI. Few are saying, “How can we implement AI and generative AI in such a way that will give us the outcome that will create a loyal customer?” Instead, everybody’s off running around doing their own thing and working too tactically without that bigger-picture view of the whole organization.
To avoid this problem, Mead takes a holistic approach to AI in the organizations he works with. When he works for a company, he makes it clear that he owns every interaction a customer has with a company, self-service or human, in every channel and every life cycle stage. Then, he works with the team to solve the whole experience while leveraging the power of AI.
He starts by finding ways to use what is already available to get customer quick answers to their questions. First, by making it easy to ask a question, and second, by ensuring the answer AI generates is personalized and contextual to the customer. When the AI can’t provide that answer, it passes the query on to a human. He says AI can handle most inquiries (as much as 90 percent of them) without forcing customers into a self-service loop that many organizations employ in customer service.
Mead says customers want easy, simple, personalized answers. If it comes from a human, then great. If it comes from AI, that’s also great. If it comes from a combination of the two, then even better. However, AI support at the employee level isn’t happening as much as Mead would like.
However, it’s here, at the employee support level, where Mead sees both the promise and peril of AI. AI is very good at predicting problems because it sees connections humans cannot five to seven layers deep into the data, but it can’t articulate why it’s a problem. This inability to communicate reduces our ability to make strategic decisions based on the problem.
To overcome this hurdle, Mead thinks that organizations will have to turn over some of the decisions to AI and trust the system to do it well. Few organizations are comfortable with that, and perhaps for good reason, he says. The AI isn’t infallible today, and that can lead to negative interfaces with customers. However, Mead is confident that in time, we will get there with AI overcoming these challenges.
So, What Does This All Mean to You Today?
Mead says every customer’s interaction needs EPIC, which stands for easy, personalized, intuitive, and contextual. Easy means making it simple for your customers to use your website, app, or call center to tell you what they need. Personalizing means that you have the customer information accessible. Intuitive and contextual is using clues about the customer behavior to determine what they likely need help with. For example, if they are calling at 6 pm and you can see that a delivery is due to them today and it isn’t there yet, you can intuit what the call is about by the context.
I agree and like this EPIC framework concept. However, I would caution everyone to remember that AI isn’t a magic wand. We should have realistic expectations about what it can do for experiences. Right now, we risk getting our hopes dashed by what AI can do versus what we hope it can.
Building these incremental improvements in the short term towards more significant, long-term changes over time will serve us better. Too much hype from companies around AI can lead to quite a bit of disappointment, and it doesn’t have to happen that way. Many ways exist to make things better right now as we move towards these more extensive, long-term improvements.
I would also encourage people to build AI to a specific description with a strategy defined by many people working together to improve the experience. Perhaps more importantly, considering the benefits of AI rather than the cost savings is essential.
Moreover, we should recognize how we can apply AI to make life better for a customer and the person who serves the customers. By focusing on those two areas—and doing it properly—AI can change the world.
Colin has spoken at hundreds of conferences, including some of the world’s largest brands. Talk to Colin about how he can speak ‘in person’ or ‘virtually’ at your conference. Click here.