Customer service is critical for business success and brand reputation. Exasperated or angry customers have numerous avenues to vet their frustrations and discourage others from becoming customers of unfriendly or hard-to-work with businesses. Lance Zingale, an Executive Vice President for Global Sales and Client Management at Sykes Enterprises, observes, “If you’ve ever shouted ‘SPEAK TO A REPRESENTATIVE’ in exasperation at an interactive voice response system or tried to buy beer in a self-checkout lane, you understand that there is still a very real need for human interaction in the customer service process.” Finding the right mixture of customer assistance aids, however, has proven tricky. P.V. Kannan, co-founder and CEO of 7.ai, and business strategy author Josh Bernoff (@jbernoff) observe, “Customer service is traditionally considered a cost center, so many organizations have focused their customer improvement efforts on reducing costs. This proves to be a critical mistake, as everyone is left unhappy. Even as customers are sick of pressing two for reservations and three for service, service reps are sick of answering the same questions over and over.” They suggest a balance of artificial intelligence (AI) and human assistance will characterize the future best-in-class customer service companies.
AI and customer service
Admittedly, cognitive technologies, like chatbots, are getting better all the time. It’s one reason Umesh Agarwal, Founder and CEO of Jolly App, calls AI-powered customer service a revolution in consumer support. He explains, “AI powered customer service has picked up its fastest pace. It is a new revolution, which every industry is working on, to transform conventional customer service into AI-powered digital solutions and improve every aspect of [the] customer journey including brand awareness, product knowledge, customer acquisition, after sales support and loyalty programs.” Self-proclaimed customer experience futurist Blake Morgan (@BlakeMichelleM) insists companies delaying the implementation of AI-powered customer service operations are missing the wave of the future. “Artificial intelligence and cloud computing are both dynamic technologies on their own,” she writes. “Put them together and you get a customer experience powerhouse.” Dale Renner (@_DaleRenner), CEO and Founder of RedPoint Global, believes many companies haven’t implemented AI-powered solutions because they don’t yet understand the technology. “While there’s a lot of excitement about artificial intelligence and machine learning (ML),” he writes, “there seems to be significantly less understanding of their capabilities and how marketers can utilize them to potentially change the customer experience. Even so, many brands are rapidly embracing both.”
Customer experience and customer service are two sides of the same coin. Customer experience generally refers to the lifetime interaction between an organization and a customer, from the journey along the path to purchase to after sale support. Customer service generally refers to after sale support. When companies consider implementing AI-powered customer service solutions, they should use the broader customer experience perspective. It’s not easy. Micah Solomon (@micahsolomon), a customer service consultant, writes, “When you’re already slammed running your business day in and day out, the thought of integrating AI into your customer service and customer experience mix can seem too daunting to consider.” Nevertheless, consider it you must, because Solomon asserts, “AI is here, and here to stay, in the world of customer service and the customer experience.” He offers three reasons why AI-powered customer experience/service is not going away.
- Customers are already very comfortable with self-service technology (including AI-powered self-service) as long as it’s well designed. He explains, “It’s only when they think of AI as ‘other-powered’ rather than self-powered that their reaction becomes more of a mixed bag. … Anything that is essentially self-service [and] relies on sophisticated AI, feels comfortable to today’s customers. … While some customers are uncomfortable with obvious applications of AI, this is hardly a majority position. And even when AI is not their favorite type of service response, customers overwhelmingly prefer AI-assisted service to no service or slow service.”
- AI can be extremely helpful in customer service and customer support while allowing a human being to remain the visible face of your customer interactions. “One of my favorite ways to look at AI in a customer support context,” Solomon writes, “is as part of a triangular model: There’s the opportunity for the customer to interact directly with the AI, but there’s also the opportunity for AI to feed a human customer service employee information that can help the customer via this truly superior interface: the human agent. This can be an elevated and wonderful way to work and is a good antidote to the fear that AI is an either/or proposition. AI plus human can be a particularly attractive way to serve customers if you get it right.”
- Anticipatory customer service is the ultimate level of customer service–and the one most likely to boost customer engagement and loyalty. Solomon is a bit more cautious about this point. “AI can help, or hurt, here,” he writes. He believes satisfactory customer service has four elements: a product or service; timely delivery of that product or service; an empathetic manner of delivery; and an effective problem-solving process. “Exceptional customer service moves beyond these four elements,” he writes, “by being anticipatory: by serving even unexpressed desires and needs: the questions and wishes that a customer hasn’t put into words.” Even when implemented correctly, some customers may perceive anticipatory services as being too pushy and personal.
Agarwal offers seven benefits he believes can be derived from implementing AI-powered customer experience/service solutions. They are:
1. 24/7 availability.
2. Customer handling capacity.
3. Cost savings.
4. Customer satisfaction.
5. Work automation (improved speeds and reduced errors).
6. Sales assistance.
7. Better lead generation.
Why AI/human collaboration is required
It is no coincidence that most of the experts cited above believe AI/human collaboration provides the best mix for customer experience/service solutions. Zingale observes, “While automation can complete simple tasks quickly and accurately, live agents can resolve complex customer issues with reason and empathy. And with tedious processes being handled through RPA [Robotic Process Automation], agents are more available to do just that.” Kannan and Bernoff add, “Our combined experience in customer strategy and running a company that helps build virtual agent systems has demonstrated two fundamental — and counterintuitive — facts about customer service and automation. First, the most significant gains from virtual customer service agents are from improvements in customer experience, not cost savings. And second, successful virtual agent systems depend on bots working with humans, not replacing them.”
Although I agree humans enjoy working out solutions to problems on their own — because it generates a great deal of satisfaction — it should also come as no surprise that humans enjoy interacting with other humans when they can’t solve a problem. Companies generally work hard ensuring their human customer service representatives are well-trained to deal with customer issues. Morgan says companies will put the same effort into ensuring AI-powered segments of the customer experience/service are up to snuff. “Artificial intelligence in cloud-based solutions has the power to transform customer experience,” she explains. “This technology can create cohesive omni-channel experiences that cater directly to the needs of customers. As more companies adopt the technology, we’re bound to see an uptick in personalization and efficiency.”
 Lance Zingale, “Customers Need a CX That Blends Human & Automated Interactions,” Business2Community, 16 April 2019.
 P.V. Kannan and Josh Bernoff, “The Future of Customer Service Is AI-Human Collaboration,” MIT Sloan Management Review, 29 May 2019.
 Umesh Agarwal, “Why AI is The Next Revolution In Customer Service,” Entrepreneur India, 1 August 2018.
 Blake Morgan, “The Customer Experience Advantage Of Artificial Intelligence In The Cloud,” Forbes, 8 October 2018.
 Dale Renner, “The Role Of Artificial Intelligence And Machine Learning In Driving Customer Experience,” Forbes, 8 February 2019.
 Micah Solomon, “AI (Artificial Intelligence) And The Customer Service Experience: 3 Key Principles,” Forbes, 11 December 2018.