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PHOTO: Sportpoint

“The essential difference in service is not machines or 'things.' The essential difference is minds, hearts, spirits and souls." ― Herb Kelleher, Former CEO, Southwest Airlines 

Much has been written lately on engaging with empathy, particularly in our automated responses as the pandemic has forced so many activities to digital. However, humanizing automated responses (and by association using analytics and AI) is not a new concept. Case in point; Sophia the social humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics. Sophia was activated on February 14, 2016 and made her first public appearance at South by Southwest Festival in mid-March 2016 in Austin, Texas.

Sophia even has her own YouTube channel with clips of recent interviews by Jimmy Kimmel, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Tony Robbins and neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin. Viewers of the neuroscience interview done in April 2020 picked up on the humanizing aspect (which is the exactly point of the interview tour) with comments like these:

  • For being a robot, Sophia sure seems like she wants empathy and compassion.
  • Sophia looks genuinely fascinated by the concept of learning to read emotions.
  • This was a truly interesting interview. And funny. Loved her joke about not wearing legs (during the pandemic)!

We might not see humanoid robots making jokes with customers quite yet — but all signs suggest that the relationship of automation to customer experience is transitioning from integral to inescapable. And quite rapidly.

According to Futurum Research, agility and extreme automation are not only driving brand engagements today, by 2030 they will become the twin pillars of customer experience; the foundation upon which most interactions are based.

The research posits that by 2030, 66% of customer engagements via digital devices (i.e., online, mobile, smart assistant) and 67% of traditional in-person engagements (i.e. information desk queries, sales assistance, concierge help desk requests) will be completed by the brand using smart machines.

Related Article: When Customer Experience Needs a Human vs. a Machine

Keeping the Human-Machine Balance in Automation

Futurum believes that automation can provide businesses the agility they need, speeding up decision-making and execution, as well as minimizing risk. Equally important however, is the need for brands to balance the use of smart machines for performance with the empathy that the human element brings to the equation. If this balance is to be achieved, technology, especially if consumer-facing, should be a tool used to augment, not replace, humans.

Let’s look at some of the way’s automation is being employed — along with tips to “keep it human”:

Embracing the use of AI-powered automation in customer service operations to streamline processes and serve up better, more rewarding experiences for customers (and employees). 

Chatbots and AI-assisted agents are two ways that companies are using AI powered automation in their service operations. Front-end bots handle transactions from start to finish and AI-assisted human agents support service reps during the customer interactions. The front-end bots typically handle first-level queries such as FAQs or basic questions. Automating responses to these queries allows companies to decrease training time for service reps and reduce the number of people needed to handle highly repetitive service queries. Call handle times are generally shortened, first-call resolutions are increased, and service costs go down. Some banks are starting to make significant use of these front-end bots which can handle many thousands of customer conversations a day, in areas such as account balances and credit card payments.

With AI-assisted agents, AI is used support human staff by routing enquiries, interpreting incoming messages to develop initial responses that can be edited by the service rep, and by finding and delivering relevant knowledge-based content to the rep. This almost always shortens both call wait time and call handle time.

Related Article: How to Walk the Empathy Talk

Empowering customer service agents to work alongside automation enhancing service and problem resolution.

Accenture highlights this concept in its Technology Vision 2020 paper suggesting that combining AI and analytics has the potential to “supercharge insights” to create an environment where human decision makers are presented with a more dynamic set of choices rooted in live data. For example, the analytics from a vehicle’s data system can help a repair person working on a sophisticated engine to determine that a specific part has failed. But an AI system, fed with data from 20 other repair centers spread across the country, could augment the repair by suggesting that the repair person also replace several other closely related parts that appear to be working today, but are at strong risk of failure.

This is a simple example of the powerful potential of AI and automation to inform human decision making, enabled by analytics capabilities — and it can be applied to a host of large and small decisions that take place in any organization every day.

Related Article: Call Center Employees: The Superheroes of Customer Experience

Keeping It Human, don’t chase the cost savings from automation so far that you risk lowering customer satisfaction. Pushing too many interactions to bots, particularly complex problems, can cause frustration for both customers and the human agents who must eventually deal with them. Cutting the training requirements of service personnel that will be using the AI assisted mechanisms, such as the automated repair system highlighted above, can backfire as customers will always want explanations as to why things are being done.

Many companies underestimate the resources they'll need when automating customer service operations. Knowledge management databases must be developed and continually augmented. Voice of the customer feedback mechanisms must still be monitored to highlight problems. Chatbot conversations must still be reviewed to surface areas where the problems are too complex or the bot misunderstands. Cutting resources before truly understanding the types of human touch that will be required can be a big mistake.

Before jumping into automated environments, consider developing a set of customer journey maps to illustrate how customers actually navigate through the organization and to differentiate repetitive automated tasks from the more complex issues better resolved by real people or AI-assisted agents.