As the old adage goes, “There’s just no pleasing some people.” I’m reminded of the story of a grandmother who was walking along the beach with her grandson. A big wave unexpectedly swept the shoreline and dragged the child out to sea. In desperation, the grandmother looked heavenward, reminded God she had attended church faithfully all her life, and begged for her grandson’s safe return. Just as she finished praying, another large wave crashed along the shoreline safely depositing the child on the beach. The grandmother once again looked heavenward and said, “He had a hat.” As difficult as it can be to please everyone, business leaders know, if they want return business, providing customers with the best possible experience is essential. Before the age of ecommerce, great customer service generally involved face-to-face contact. Today, with more consumers than ever taking the digital path to purchase, customer service is often an on-line-only experience. Michael Gerard (@michaelgerard), Chief Marketing Officer of e-Spirit, writes, “Creating the best customer journey is critical to your company’s success, yet developing a strategy and deploying technology to establish a superior customer journey is challenging.”
Customer Experience and the Human Touch
Even though a significant amount of customer service is now experienced online, many customers still yearn for a human connection. Marketing expert Tom Martin (@TomMartin) reports, “In 2018, PwC research found that 82% of U.S consumers felt the need for more human interaction in their digital experiences.” He continues, “Let’s think about that for a moment. Before a time of lockdowns, humans wanted more out of their online interactions with a brand. And then came a global pandemic and what we saw was the use of digital channels accelerated at an unimaginable pace in an attempt to bridge that gap.” As we return to some kind of new normal, Martin asserts, “One thing that will remain is the need to support online strategies and initiatives that came out of this need to recreate the in-person experience. Innovators know that they need to solve the human connections gap in their online channels.” Martin insists the best way forward is through the use of Guided Customer Experience (CX). He explains, for some customer queries, there are “easily solvable and automated answers.” Use of chatbots and other automated systems are ideal in those circumstances. However, he notes, there are also high-touch engagements he calls “Critical Advisory Moments.”
Martin writes, “Critical Advisory Moments are forks in the customer journey — where one path advances the process, and the other terminates it (and often starts a new journey with your competitors). Critical Advisory Moments, when executed correctly, can provide some of the highest value outcomes for a business by providing real-time, in-the-moment assistance. A guided customer experience empowers your staff to reach customers in the moment, build relationships, and solve problems quickly.” You should also keep in mind that in a Critical Advisory Moment, consumers don’t want to be hanging online for long periods of time waiting for a human customer service representative to help them. Finding the right balance between automated and human assistance can be tricky; but, getting it right can pay big dividends.
Most analysts agree that significant growth in ecommerce will continue beyond the pandemic. Keeping up with customer service requirements of a growing ecommerce consumer base won’t be easy. As noted above, companies are turning to automated solutions to help them deal with the customer service crunch. Neil Murphy, Global Vice President at ABBYY, writes, “Automation has helped to drive business operations, but consumer-facing processes rarely meet our expectations. In fact, Gartner suggests 91% of organizations plan to deploy AI within the next three years to enhance customer experiences.” Recognizing that consumers still want a human-like experience, Murphy asserts, “Conversational AI might be the solution, but with chatbots limited to question-and-answer engagements, it’s clear a more intelligent platform is required.” Too often, Murphy notes, “Systems [are] created inside-out. These can be incredibly frustrating for the customer — the dreaded automated phone call, for example, or the mobile app where all you can do is check status but not conduct new transactions. … To be successful such systems need to be implemented from the outside-in, to act in a way that is logical from the customer’s perspective.”
Many organizations believe that chatbots are the bridge between automated solutions and human service representatives. However, João Graça, Co-Founder and CTO of Unbabel, notes, “Chatbots are infamous for putting their metaphorical feet in their mouths.” He adds, “While these debacles are tough to watch, the underlying problem is not artificial intelligence (AI) itself. AI succeeds when underpinned with sound strategy and well-trained models. In fact, I’d argue AI is a technology customer service organizations can’t afford to ignore.” He goes on to suggest five ways AI is upleveling customer service:
1. Production of high-quality writing. According to Graça, “AI can help customer service agents write more clearly and with better grammar. Improving the quality of writing in customer support channels can increase customers’ perception of a brand. Credibility matters, especially when a customer is already confused or upset.”
2. Measure conversations for successful outcomes. “Too often,” Graça writes, “customer support interactions go off the rails because the agent (human or bot) is following a script, rather than focusing on solving the customer’s problem. … AI-powered intent management tools can capture the customer’s goal and measure whether the interaction is moving in the right direction. That’s key to ensuring issues are resolved quickly and to the customer’s satisfaction.”
3. Automate FAQs and support ticket triage. Graça explains, “Many customer support teams rely on knowledge bases to provide answers to commonly-asked questions. However, keeping FAQs updated and pinpointing the right information at the right time is challenging. … AI-generated templates can simplify knowledge base updates. AI tools can also provide self-service, so customers can get answers to straightforward questions without interacting with an agent. Furthermore, these tools can automatically triage incoming requests so teams know which tickets to respond to first.”
4. Detect (and reflect) tone and sentiment. “Humans naturally excel at detecting tone and sentiment,” Graça explains, “which isn’t always the case for machines.” He points out that sarcasm is particularly difficult for machines to understand. “An AI-powered sentiment engine can use natural language processing to analyze customer text and understand the sentiment. This empowers customer service representatives to respond with insight into how a customer is feeling. Understanding tone and sentiment can help representatives interact with more empathy, prioritize communications and measure customers’ brand perception over time.”
5. Translate any language. Ecommerce is now conducted around the world; which means, it must be conducted in many languages. “Previously,” Graça writes, “a business could get away with only supporting customers who spoke one of the world’s major languages. Today, smart businesses offer customer support in as many languages as possible.” He goes on discuss numerous challenges with automated translation systems and concludes, “One solution is human-in-the-loop machine translation. This means machines handle the rote tasks of translation while building in a quality assurance system with native speakers. Humans check computers’ work for accuracy and empathy and feed this information back into the algorithm to refine it. This strategy overcomes many challenges when it comes to machine translation.”
Most experts recognize that great human-to-human customer service is the gold standard. The closer automated solution providers can come to simulating that gold standard the better customer service will become. As noted above, Martin believes the hybrid, Guided CX strategy is the best one currently available. He concludes, “Businesses that employ a solid Guided Customer Experience see short-term and long-term gains. Short-term, you’ve helped solve customer frustration. Long-term, you have gained trust and built a loyal customer. … The Guided Customer Experience bridges the human connection gap for businesses selling and supporting complex products and services.” Gerard concludes, “Creating a superior customer experience is more critical now than ever before based on an increasingly crowded competitive landscape.”
 Michael Gerard, “Your #1 Goal Should Be Providing the Best Digital Experience—Here’s How,” MarTech Advisor, 11 November 2019.
 Tom Martin, “Guided CX: The New Online Digital Norm,” Business 2 Community, 10 May 2021.
 Neil Murphy, “Conversational AI to shape future customer experiences,” TechNative, 2 June 2021.
 João Graça, “Five Real Ways Artificial Intelligence Is Upleveling Customer Service,” Forbes, 15 October 2020.