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May AI Help You?

There is an ongoing debate in the Customer Experience (CX) community about the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in supporting customers. The argument is generally around how many customer interactions can be handled automatically by AI systems and how brands need to balance automation with human interactions – the handover between bots and human customer support being one critical aspect that has created a lot of analysis.

A colleague of mine, Doug Overton, recently wrote a detailed white paper that explores how automation can be intelligently applied to customer service interactions, but I think there are many ways in which we are often overlooking just how useful automation might be in our lives.

Think about a patient with Alzheimer’s disease asking their Amazon Alexa questions that are repeated several times throughout the day. In a care home that would become tiring for even the most caring of medical staff, but Alexa can keep on answering without any impatience. Many in the medical community believe that this type of automation will allow more elderly people to age in their own homes rather than requiring care facilities.

What about a customer with a credit card bill they are struggling to manage? We all know that the sensible thing to do when you have a difficult debt is to talk to the company you owe and try to arrange a different repayment schedule – something more realistic that you can actually manage to pay. However, the shame that accompanies debt often means that customers avoid their statements and bills until the problem can no longer be ignored – usually making it far worse than it ever needed to be. What if the bank offered an interactive AI-powered system that could have a voice or text chat with the customer, offer some different repayment options, and allow the customer to take control of their debt without ever having to speak to a real person?

These are all ideas that demonstrate that sometimes automation can be a real benefit, in some cases talking to a robot really can be more effective than speaking to a person who may judge you or grow tired of your questions. I think this is where we should also consider the future for automation within the more general customer experience too. Where questions can be easily answered, or they are commonly asked, then an automated system should usually be able to handle them better than a human.

If you call a technical support line because of a problem with your new laptop then the agent probably has quite a tightly controlled script to follow, because in a technical support environment there is a strict approach to determining the problem. Paradoxically this feels a little like humans behaving like bots.

Where we already know that the customer question is going to be driven by the need for technical support it should be possible to create an automated landing environment – the customer should be able to describe their problem using their voice, or text, and the AI bot system should be able to determine an answer if it matches a problem that any customer has faced in the past. For the most common problems, the bot will almost certainly be able to instantly provide the right information.

A recent feature in the New York Times describes how an IT support agent faced this exact problem. Time after time, people were calling for help because they had forgotten their password. He kept himself engaged, when not answering calls, by learning how to create a bot that could handle every simple customer question he was handling. In the end, the software company providing the bot control system hired him to make their software better.

The real question is, can the customer experience be improved by providing an automated experience. In cases like a password reset the answer is yes. The system is always willing to help, it is never bored of answering the same question over and over, and it will not judge the user who keeps making the same simple mistake. The automated system is always available and will answer with no delay – and always with a virtual smile.

Where some thought and system design is required though is in the handover from a bot to a human agent. I have personally experienced some customer service interfaces where the initial question from the customer is to a bot, but then the brand makes it very hard to access a human when the bot is struggling to answer. This should be a situation that cannot happen. The bot may well be able to handle all those repetitive customer support questions, but when something gets a little more advanced you must make it easy to switch over to a human – making it difficult will in fact have negative consequences for the customer experience.

AI and automation is not replacing humans, it is helping customers to get their simple questions answered faster and ensuring that human agents can focus on more interesting and challenging customer problems.

Let me know what you think about this approach to AI and automation by leaving a comment here or get in touch via my LinkedIn.

Photo by Ars Electronica licensed under Creative Commons.

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