Thoughts on Bots: Death By Automation


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This post was originally published on the FCR blog on August 2, 2016. Click here to read the original.

I’ve been thinking a whole bunch about bots and automation lately. It is after all the golden egg that promises to automate customer service while both reducing costs and improving the customer experience. While the upside is huge, let’s just slow down for a moment and think about this. Here are two stories for you:

Banking on my business

I recently started getting emails from my bank advertising the fact that they offer home loans. I actually really like my bank and have been a customer for almost fifteen years. The funny thing about these advertisements is that they started right after I purchased a home and hence was no longer in need of a loan.

I responded to one of the emails and told the bank that I wasn’t in need of a mortgage and asked them to stop emailing me. I actually went so far as to point out the fact that they probably could have observed when a large sum of money entered my account (sold my home) and a large sum of money exited my account (bought a new home) to see that they missed their window of opportunity.

Fast forward a few months and I never received a response to my message and I continue to receive mortgage advertisements to my email.

“Dude, we just spoke on the phone”

We are vetting a piece of software currently and reached the stage in the process where we wanted to see a demo. Our sales representative has been great to work with. No less than an hour after the demo, however I received an email from the sales rep telling us about their software and asking who at our company might be interested in learning about it. Huh?

I kindly wrote the guy back and said something to the effect of “Hey, we just spoke. I think this might be some sort of a mistake.” I received another reply telling me again all about the wonderful features of their product and asking who they could speak with at our organization. I responded and said something more like, “Dude, YOU just showed me a demo of your product. Why do you keep sending these emails?”

After that second message I finally received an apologetic response explaining that I had been entered twice into their marketing automation system. In this case it appears the system was programmed to email me with two separate emails but wasn’t programmed to listen to my response. Oops!

Words of caution

In these two cases, I encountered marketing automation at its finest— designed to reach out to me automatically as a potential lead for purchasing their product. I’m sure it works more times than not when used correctly, but in an age where we completely wrote off SPAM a couple decades ago, fake just isn’t going to cut it.

There are a few lessons to be learned here as we ring in the age of bot technology. Here’s what I observe:

  • Make sure your response is correct- The whole point of bots is for the customer to not know it’s a bot. This requires comprehending the question and responding correctly. I guess humans sometimes struggle with that one. Natural language processing promises that it can understand what the customer asked and respond with the correct answer.
  • Approach cautiously- The real opportunity for automation is when you have enough contacts about a certain topic that it makes sense to automate the response.
  • Err on the side of human- If the initial bot response doesn’t resolve the issue or the bot doesn’t understand, err on the side of handing the case off to a human to respond. The only thing worse than one response that doesn’t resolve the customer’s issue is two.

As I’ve said before, the human connection is a precious thing. It’s something your customers will cherish about you if you do it well and they have no tolerance for not being listened to— even if it was a machine’s fault. It’s good business to become more efficient, but be wise about automation. Use it to enhance the customer experience, not detract from it.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jeremy Watkin
Jeremy Watkin is the Director of Customer Support and CX at NumberBarn. He has more than 20 years of experience as a contact center professional leading highly engaged customer service teams. Jeremy is frequently recognized as a thought leader for his writing and speaking on a variety of topics including quality management, outsourcing, customer experience, contact center technology, and more. When not working he's spending quality time with his wife Alicia and their three boys, running with his dog, or dreaming of native trout rising for a size 16 elk hair caddis.


  1. Jeremy, you have a couple of valid points that resound with what I recently wrote.

    Basically the organisations need to get their basics straight, before going deep into automation. Or else they do themselves more harm than good.

    The problem here, however, seems to be less the use of ‘bots’ than the more general/traditional setup. The bank probably used a wrong trigger to remind you that you might want to consider a mortgage with them (maybe the incoming money even came from another lender) and in the case of the vendor it is either wrong data entry (human error) or a case of left hand not knowing what the right hand does (acquisition of a marketing list) in combination with an improper setup of the campaign that does not allow for a return channel.

    2 ct from Down Under

  2. Hi Jeremy – I attribute your experience to poor design, a lack of testing, and inattention to detail. When automation is involved, those failures are spread far and wide, and the bank’s lack of empathy for positive customer experience becomes even more heinous.

    I’m curious – with your knowledge of how these backend systems operate, who (or what?) were you expecting to receive and respond to your email reply? Knowing that the marketing communication was auto-generated, were you expecting an understanding human to pick up your request, and take action?

    I ask this, not rhetorically, but to underscore the disconnectedness of marketing automation that we deal with and tacitly accept. Companies use bots for automated communication, but their intent is strictly mercenary. As a prospect, if you want to covey anything that doesn’t follow the purchase path (as the vendor designed it), well, that throws their whole automated system into a funk. The vendor might as well hijack the speakers on your computer, and blast “WE CAN’T HEAR YOU” straight back. At least you’d know right away.

    “The whole point of bots is for the customer to not know it’s a bot.” – this is a delusion that marketers have used on themselves. Personalization (ugh!) – the term marketing people lavishly use when they want software to simulate human connectedness. I understand. It’s a comfortable word when what’s really created is algorithmically-generated targeted content. Only the gullible would think of that as “personalized,” or indistinguishable from what a real person might say or write.


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