When automation was first introduced into customer service channels, the results were often spectacularly underwhelming. Confusing phone menu systems in call centres and canned responses to emails led to frustrated customers and lower satisfaction levels.
Automation has also tended to fall below expectations in the retail space. Online shopping carts are regularly abandoned before checkout due to bewildering options and self-service terminals in supermarkets continue to annoy customers with non-intuitive interfaces.
However, despite these challenges, customer service automation isn't going away. In fact, according to research company Gartner, by 2020, 85% of customer interactions will be managed by businesses without any human interaction at all.
Rather than disappearing, customer service automation is getting smarter. Powered by rapidly evolving artificial intelligence and machine learning tools, automation is beginning to provide a much more satisfying experience. It's no longer being perceived just as a cost-cutting poor relation to human service.
The changes come at a time when consumers are more digitally empowered than ever. Thanks to rapid advances in mobile technology and the adoption of an always-connected lifestyle, consumers are demanding higher-quality automation when it comes to service channels.
AI is helping businesses to meet these demands. By simplifying user interfaces through its ability to recognise and emulate human speech, AI has allowed service channels to evolve from being rudimentary avatars into dynamic, multi-dimensional chatbots. Thanks to sophisticated algorithms, these next-generation chatbots offer a far deeper understanding of a consumer’s status, objectives, and nuances of personality.
The chatbots can add further value when linked with social media services. Integrated with the likes of Facebook Messenger, Kik, WhatsApp, and Slack, they can understand what customers are saying in real-time. As a result, the chatbots are able to deliver the kind of personalised and intuitive experience needed to capture the attention of the time-poor, but digitally savvy customers.
With access to more relevant and contextual content, their ascendancy proves that automation and personalisation need not be mutually exclusive.
The continuing rise of the chatbot
With businesses facing increasing pressure to provide seamless and frictionless customer experiences, reliance on chat-based interfaces is exploding and is set to account for almost 40% of all call centre transactions by 2020.
Their evolution is particularly evident within next-generation call automation systems. Fuelled by increasingly sophisticated cognitive capabilities, these customer interactive voice response systems can deliver advanced conversational interactions by detecting a caller’s intent and by using natural language for a more authentic dialogue. In some cases, they can even predict a user’s responses which are then processed accordingly.
At the same time, businesses are harnessing text messaging bots that can handle common questions much faster than a human advisor, and do this in a conversational manner. Using such tools to check bank balances and undertake transactions will quickly become the norm.
Bots versus people
Rather than pursuing the wholesale replacement of humans with bots, many organisations are coming to realise how the two can work together to create the best possible customer experience. Having a blend of human operators and automated bots can allow a business to retain a human touch and soft skills while also taking advantage of technological prowess.
Interestingly though, in the not-too-distant future it will be possible to have bots equipped to do it all - able to also deliver on the soft skills. On the cusp of being equipped with emotional intelligence, chatbots will be able to recognise a customer’s emotional state and respond to their feelings appropriately during a conversation.
This development will signal the next major disruptive phase in business communication. It is likely to render humans effectively redundant in certain service capacities, or at least obsolete from a certain level in the service chain.
It must be remembered, however, that despite all the potential that AI offers, it is not infallible. The unrestrained nature of many of the systems around robotic process automation, for example, will require rules and structures if they are to fully thrive without becoming loose cannons.
Tools and solutions that can read metadata and visualise the output of machine learning systems to interpret anomalies and create rules in an accessible and easy to understand way, have never been more important. With these in place, AI will be able to reach its full potential in the customer service space.
Erich Gerber, General Manager Asia Pacific and Japan, TIBCO Software
Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks