Artificial Intelligence On The CX Frontline

Much has been written about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is changing the way that customers interact with brands. Tools such as chatbots are offering a way to provide an immediate and automated service and successfully handling many simple questions from customers. People are getting very used to asking ‘Alexa’ for help when they have a question about almost anything.

AI is becoming very pervasive, even for people who might generally avoid new technologies, but how does this change the customer service frontline – the contact centre? It is clear from the recent Webhelp study undertaken with YouGov that customers are actually quite wary of too much automation – they still prefer human interactions – but what do the people in the contact centre think?

I thought it would be a great idea to talk to some of our team, so I arranged a focus group with our customer service advisors who handle customer interactions on behalf of our clients every day to find out what they thought about AI and how it might change their role at work and their life in general. They had some really interesting insights that I’d like to share with you here.

Our first topic was the customer experience itself. How do customers experience a brand when they are usually interacting with a contact centre and how might this change if an AI chatbot was managing the interaction? Comments included:

“Customers don’t always get what you’re saying when you’re on the phone; or they don’t want to hear it, so they just ignore it. How is a computer going to be able to navigate that?”

“Chatbots are really fast and quite responsive.”

“There is nothing more infuriating than phoning someone up and having to keep pressing buttons.”

These are quite measured responses. It’s true that when automated systems are implemented poorly they can be very annoying, but as mentioned, when they do work they work well. However, that’s a great comment about conversing with people. If customers ignore or miss information when they talk to other people, how will an AI system learn to manage that?

What about the question of whether a brand should automate, or use human advisors, or should the customer be able to choose? Should there even be a customer choice here or should a company just make the decision?

“I think the option always has to be to speak to someone.”

“As long as you give them the option, you may find that people actually choose the automated version over time. But the majority will probably start with humans because they’re comfortable with that. It’s important not to take the human element away from them.”

“It’s about choice – and being able to choose when you speak to a chatbot and when you speak to a human in order to get to something, rather than going through a complicated process.”

“There are some people who get a little anxious about calling up as it creates anxiety for them to actually speak to another human. They might find it comfortable to speak to a chatbot or a speech recognition assistant.”

This is very interesting because the team acknowledged that sometimes the customer doesn’t really want to talk to a person anyway. Think about a company that is calling people to collect outstanding loan payments. The collections process might even work better if the customer can just talk to a computer rather than a real person – nobody feels any shame talking to a robot. It’s also interesting to see that the team believes that the customer should have some choice, but they should always have the right to change their mind. For example, they might think that a chatbot can handle their simple question, but it starts struggling. At this point it should be easy to switch to a human, otherwise the entire process will start feeling complex and challenging.

I talked to the team about some of the day-to-day examples they can think of where they regularly interact with AI. This focused on normal daily activities rather than any complex use of technology. They had some great comments.

“I can just say ‘Alexa, play Spotify!’ without even looking for my phone, without even grabbing a remote. The technology is there to make it more convenient for me to do whatever with Alexa  - it can follow commands without any effort. It’s there to make your life easier.”

“AI is great when it works but there are still faults. My Echo dot seems to just start playing YouTube whenever it wants.”

“You forget the microphone button is there and it’s constantly listening and will hear you talking all time of the day to your family and friends.”

So in many cases there is great convenience. Many of us are now used to asking Alexa for help and find it a chore to search for a remote control or keyboard when it’s now normal to just speak naturally to a device. However, it’s clear that the devices still have some flaws and there is also a sneaking suspicion that we are allowing many of these devices to listen to our entire lives. People are getting concerned about privacy.

This led into a more specific discussion about security, personal data, and privacy. The team tried to explore some of the questions about how well we really want brands to know and understand us.

“Technology as a whole has progressed. It’s the security side that has not progressed as much.”

“In this day and age, you’re being watched 24/7 even when you just step outside – you’re being watched by cameras everywhere you go.”

“AI is an amazing thing, but you’ve got to be wary of the security side of things … Can you allow a computer to make decisions on your behalf? A computer doesn’t have any morals. It doesn’t know what’s right.”

It was really interesting to see this discussion about morals because this is one of the classic problems that many companies now face as they use AI more and more. Self-driving cars are a great example. Should the car always protect the passenger or always try to minimise loss of life? It’s an interesting question because sometimes a car may need to take a decision to save several pedestrians at the cost of the life of the passenger. Would you allow your car to make that kind of decision?

We explored the generational divide and how technology is generally evolving and one of the team summarised it by saying this: “The big mistake humans make is that they rush into things. They see a gap in the market, and they rush into it without thinking about what it actually means. Look at all the people who have iPhones and don’t know how to actually use them.”

This is a very powerful point. We know that the use of smart phones and social networks has been affecting attention spans and how people interact, but nobody knows how this will affect education or relationships or health in future. Some researchers are raising the alarm, but the genie is out of the bottle now – to reject technology and say you want to live a slower, less connected, life would be far from the mainstream. We will soon see AI play a much more significant role in our life, even more so than smart phones, but are we ready to welcome this change with an awareness of what is changing? At the moment our team really don’t think that people are aware of how fast their world is changing and that’s concerning.

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Author: Ewan Mckay