Customer service is accelerating towards ever greater automation. In some sectors we’re already seeing chatbots and virtual assistants transforming the customer experience.
But at what point do the cost efficiencies that technology provide become less compelling, and can the human touch ever be fully replicated or replaced?
We asked Chris Cullen, head of sales and marketing at outsourced customer contact specialist, Echo Managed Services, to assess the changing consumer communication landscape and to explain how businesses can incorporate new solutions alongside traditional methods of customer contact.
The robots haven’t taken over (yet)
Technology is driving a shift towards self-service, with consumers performing many of the tasks originally reserved for customer service professionals. Today’s consumers are quite used to completing tasks online, like payments and bookings, without interacting with staff.
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) powered chatbots and virtual assistants are becoming more sophisticated. The previous stilted “conversations” are being replaced by slicker systems which can predict and pre-empt customer queries, incorporating past browsing history into their algorithms to deliver a more personalised service to customers.
Richard Peers, Microsoft’s EMEA Banking Industry Director, believes that by 2020, 85% of customer interactions will be carried out by digital platforms and engagement tools.
“Watson” – the sign of things to come
A pertinent example of this would be “Watson”, software giant IBM’s artificial intelligence supercomputer. One of the world’s best known AI systems and often pegged as IBM’s “great white hope”, Watson has already been used to combat cybercrime, diagnose medical patients, compose bespoke recipes, and even compete in game shows.
Following the recent news that a Japanese company replaced more than 30 of their employees with Watson, many have speculated that technology of this nature could theoretically replace the human element in customer service.
While to some, the vision of a fully automated future holds the promise of lower costs and increased revenue, others are taking a more nuanced approach.
It’s true that customers are generally favourable to today’s new multi-channel communication offering, but research we recently conducted (pdf) suggests businesses should not throw out their customer service desks to make way for server stacks just yet.
Organisations which overlook human interaction completely are gambling reputation and revenue.
Listen to your customers
It’s important to be wary of absolutes in customer service.
Customers invariably are a diverse range of people with different needs and preferences. Therefore it’s vital to understand which contact channels your customers want to use and cater for all requirements.
Web chat, self-serve portals and even social media are gaining ground in customer communication as many customers enjoy the speed and convenience of these channels. However, our research also indicates that more than half (53%) of customers still prefer to engage with businesses face to face or over the phone.
The research also found that talking to a real person was the primary choice for customers when they are discussing an embarrassing or complex query, as these queries often call for the intuition, empathy and expertise of a well-trained customer service advisor.
Trust is key
The trust and confidence offered by real time conversation with a trained advisor is particularly important when an extra level of detail is required. We found that while 27% of customers still prefer to use email for more basic customer service requests, only 11% would choose the channel for a complicated enquiry.
Choice is clearly the key factor. While our research found that traditional contact channels still dominate, there is a significant portion of customers that have a preference for the speed and convenience offered by digital communication channels.
So to avoid customer dissatisfaction, it’s better to offer a wide contact channel choice and allow each customer to choose how they wish to engage with you.
It’s important to avoid forcing customers to use a particular communication channel, as this risks increased dissatisfaction and can negatively impact customer retention and brand reputation.
Is your touch as good as it could be?
Although technology is no doubt transforming the traditional role of customer service advisors, the empathy and professionalism offered by the human element of customer service should not be traded off for the speed and efficiency offered by emerging technology, and business leaders should never overlook the human touch.
While digital platforms can help effectively handle the more routine enquiries, customers often expect an ever higher level of service from their human helpers.
To cater for these expectations, businesses should ensure they upskill their customer service team to be able to handle more complex enquiries, while still being able to cover the basics if and when the digital channels fail – or for those customers who simply prefer to make all their enquiries face to face or over the phone.
Lingering frustrations can cause long term financial issues
Substandard customer service can cause commercial challenges with wide reaching implications.
For example, in our recent research, a third of consumers said they would switch service provider as a protest against poor customer service. That’s a lot of customers who will be reluctant to forgive a business when it slips up or deliberately ignores what they want.
No business is perfect, but resolving customer concerns and complaints promptly can avoid any long lasting negative impact.
Problems arise when customers are repeatedly disappointed – they are less likely to stick with a supplier that repeatedly lets them down.
But simply providing the human touch is not always enough on its own. Poorly handled human contact also has the potential to frustrate customers. 10.5% of customers said poor quality staff and overseas call centres were their biggest annoyances – so direct contact should truly add value to customers, and this takes investment and training.
Don’t try to fool your customers with code
Businesses need to ensure a transparent approach to customer contact, as neglecting this can have a negative impact on customer trust. This also has commercial consequences, as more than one in four consumers have cited transparency and trust issues as the biggest motivation to consider switching their supplier.
As chatbots and virtual assistants become more advanced, there is the temptation to use them to not only mimic, but falsify, human interaction. This is a big risk.
We’re all highly attuned to the nuances of real human contact, and it’s inevitable that artificial intelligence used in this way will be found out at some point, making customers feel conned.
Businesses should ensure they use technology responsibly, and are completely upfront about how they are using it to avoid exposing themselves to any potential negative perception.
Humans and robots – together in harmony?
Technology is going nowhere. The possibilities and opportunities are simply too big to ignore (and your competitors certainly won’t think twice).
Advances in AI and machine learning are powering the evolution of chatbots and virtual assistants, enabling businesses to provide both pre-emptive and proactive engagement.
For businesses with a customer-facing element, it’s well-worth delving into the latest channels to see where they can add value for customers – especially those that are more digitally savvy.
But remember that technology platforms ought to be chosen on the basis of overall merit, rather than purely short-term economic reasons. If a system cuts costs while also removing value, it’s wise to reconsider.
The optimum solution is a blended approach combining the efficiency of automated solutions with the irreplaceable empathy and professionalism that can only be delivered with the human touch.
About the author
This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Chris Cullen, head of sales and marketing at Echo Managed Services, a specialist outsourced provider of complex multi-channel customer contact services, comprehensive debt recovery solutions and the developer of the market leading water customer care and billing system, RapidXtra.
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