A recent article by Pranshu Verma in the Washington Post argues that contact centers are toast. The article features examples of contact center operations that have been completely replaced by Generative Artificial Intelligence (GenAI) systems, such as ChatGPT.
The Washington Post quotes Sumit Shah, founder of e-commerce platform Dukaan, saying: “It was [a] no-brainer for me to replace the entire team with a bot, which is like 100 times smarter, who is instant, and who cost me like 100th of what I used to pay to the support team.”
Commentators have been suggesting that professional jobs are about to vanish since ChatGPT was released at the end of 2022. The Guardian ran a feature in February that also suggested contact centers will be one of the first types of job to vanish.
But the point to be aware of is that AI is good at performing tasks. It still can’t mimic the entirety of functions a human is capable of. It replaces tasks, not entire jobs. Change is coming, but in the short term the most noticeable impact to customer service will be dramatically improved chatbots for the customer and much better internal systems inside the contact center – agents using AI to perform most of their admin tasks.
Dukaan is a specific type of service. It’s a platform that allows anyone to create an e-commerce store without coding. So it is app-based and therefore much more likely to require in-app text and messaging support rather than a real person on a phone call.
There are still several reasons why it can be advantageous to retain real humans in the customer service process, for example:
- The support channel: As mentioned, in-app support works particularly well with text support, but there are many occasions where a customer wants to hear a real person that can help immediately – such as when a flight is delayed or when they want to talk about a financial transaction.
- The value of human interaction: There can be opportunities to offer ideas, recommendations, and advice to the customer that leads to upsell and cross-sell opportunities. For example, if an online customer has filled their shopping cart, but is delaying the checkout process then a personal interaction to ask if they need help can be all it takes to encourage them to confirm payment, rather than abandoning the cart.
- Novel interactions: AI is smart, but it needs to be trained. Sometimes there will be new problems that the AI has never seen, maybe a problem the entire customer service team has never seen, the type of unusual problem that needs investigation and analysis by an expert.
Nobody can deny that the customer journey is changing. A modern customer with a problem or question is likely to ask Google for help, or check YouTube for an explainer video, or ask Alexa, or interact with the support chatbot. All these steps are extremely likely before the customer uses a support phone or chat service.
This means that the way customer service has to be designed is also evolving. By the time the customer does interact with an agent, they may have tried two or three self-service options. Your agent needs to be better than Google and the AI-powered chatbot. The days of handing a customer service agent a script are long gone.
So here are three likely outcomes of the AI revolution, beyond just stating ‘contact centers are toast.’ These are the questions that major news organizations such as the Washington Post and Guardian should really be exploring.
The role of customer service agents will evolve
Forget the minimum wage entry-level jobs of the past, if the AI and improved self-service is handling most interactions then the remaining human interactions will be problems that need smart investigators – real experts. This elevates the status of the customer service role – agents become subject matter experts. It is likely these will be home-based experts, rather than armies of people based in a single contact center, because if you need experts in League of Legends to provide in-game support then spreading the net globally is more realistic than hoping enough experts live near your Belfast contact center.
Fewer agents, smarter, better paid, in more interesting jobs.
The way companies pay for customer service will evolve
Customer service is typically paid for by the FTE – Full-Time Equivalent person in a contact center. Also known as bums on seats. If the volume of customer interactions requires 200 people in a contact center then the service is charged as 200 x $X… It’s simple and easy to plan for, but if the customer journey uses more sophisticated self-service elements and fewer interactions with agents then the model starts breaking apart. Who is paying for the AI if the traditional charge has only ever been for people in a contact center?
We will need to start seeing contracts that charge for customer satisfaction or transformation targets. It’s harder to measure, but this will need to change.
Total lifetime value
Customer service used to be all about calling after a purchase. I have a complaint. I have a problem. I need help. I can’t get my new TV to connect to the internet. It was transactional and revolved around fixing customer problems. Now customers build a relationship with their favorite brands. Interactions don’t need to be transactional, they can just be about reinforcing the relationship. If this sounds odd then look at how fans of bakery chain Greggs interact with the company. Fans of Nike have tagged Instagram photos #Nike over 118 million times. Nine million people follow Land Rover just to see the latest photos of their favorite vehicle.
The lifetime value of customers and the relationship that is created is far more valuable than any individual transaction – customer service has to be designed to nurture these relationships, not just get a customer off the phone quickly.
It is not just AI that is dramatically changing how customer service is designed and how contact centers will function in future – the way that brands interact with customers is evolving and AI is becoming an important tool that is accelerating the changes that were already taking place.
Let me know what you think about the bots, AI, and customer service. Change is coming, but how do you think it will look in 2024 and beyond? Leave a comment here on this page or contact me direct on LinkedIn.