Balancing bots and humans in a digital-first world

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We all know it’s coming—the day when bots assume a majority of customer service operations. In fact, Gartner has predicted that by 2020, 85% of all customer interactions with a company will be handled without human involvement. Forrester reports that 86 percent of consumers already regularly engage with bots, while 65 percent of service providers are investing in chatbot infrastructures and artificial intelligence (AI) to create and deliver better customer experiences. A future with bots may be inevitable, but it cannot be without conscientious design. 

The advent of bot-driven digital customer service is driven not just by the efficiency and cost cutting that bots promise, but by consumer demands for faster, more personalized, responsive service. I’ve been in tech innovation for more than 25 years now, and I know the balancing act between deeply listening to what consumers tell us they want and delivering what they don’t know they want until they get it. It’s a fine line to walk and bot-led digital customer service is no exception. We’re in the early days of this evolution where we need to fail fast, learn, and iterate faster. And do so in an environment where 71% of consumers will stop using a brand after just one bad experience. We’re caught between trying to invent the next generation of customer care while navigating technology so new that early deployments come with a high risk of failure.   

But it’s not just about overhauling customer service. It’s about shaping how humans will relate to the brands that impact their lives in very real ways. Keyword: relate. 

As a CEO, I sense the pressure to keep pace with customer experience-driven differentiation and still design a future that represents core human values of empathy, connection, and trust. How do we walk that line? How do we call time-out long enough to come up with a winning strategy, while staying in the game? Designing the future of digital customer service has to be a team sport. We may be competitors, but if we don’t design the playing field for the best interests of business AND people, we’re going to have a problem.   

Consumers drive us, but they can’t lead 

Everything you read these days affirms that customer experience is the last competitive playing field. And it is. As C-suite executives, we care deeply about what consumers want and need and how we can meet those desires better than our competitors. Consumers are in control and own tremendous power via their social voices. They drive the demands for innovative digital customer experiences. First it was email, then Twitter and Facebook. Now one of the new frontiers appears to be in direct messaging apps. In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2019, requests for customer support through consumer messaging apps will exceed requests for customer support through social media. And this will no doubt change again when a new preferred channel emerges. Is constantly following our customers around via changing social channels the best way to deliver great customer service or is there a time and place to decide that certain channels are where we can truly deliver exceptional customer service experiences? We go where our customers are, but when and where should we lead them?   

We must meet consumer expectations, but we can’t defer our responsibility to lead. Leadership demands wisdom, judgment, discernment, foresight, humility, and courage. Consumers may clamor for faster, more responsive service and bots may seem like the perfect way to satiate that desire, but as leaders we have the responsibility to craft and shape the future of customer experience with care and forethought. It isn’t just about meeting the desires of today on the channels our customers prefer, we are creating the type of world our kids and grandkids will relate to. And I believe, regardless of the channel, we must keep the human at the forefront of this equation.   

Bots serve, human relate 

As we collectively design the future of digital customer service, let us discern and decide the true value of bots. What are bots good at? Recognizing keywords and delivering up formulated responses. Directing customer service traffic. Automating functions of customer service to free up human agents to focus on delivering value-added personal service. Helping customer service agents quickly find answers to customer issues – giving them more time to really listen to the customer and talk with them to better understand the issue and find the best solution. Bots can also empower peer-to-peer support communities to drill down to the most relevant forum responses. All of these things bots can become very good at. But bots are not yet good at reading human emotion, understanding subtext, or intuitively applying empathy. Simply, bots can serve; only humans can relate. Bots need to be designed to do what offers the most value – not replace humans, but to serve them.   

We must not underestimate the value of retaining our ability to relate to customers as humans. Customer experience is determined by emotional judgments. Good customer experiences make people feel good; bad experiences make them feel bad. Emotion and feelings are at the heart of our ability to compete on customer experience. Ultimately, it comes down to a customer feeling cared for and valued – and often to feeling more cared for than they expected to be. Nowhere does making a customer feel cared for carry more weight than in a customer service interaction because in a lot of those interactions, your brand has already failed in some way. Or simply put, we must harness the power of bots without losing the power of humans. 

Agile, creative digital customer service solutions 

Even as bot technology develops and matures, technological innovation guarantees to disrupt the best-laid digital customer service strategy. This is a fast-paced game we’re in and we must be agile in the channels, technology, and infrastructure we deploy for customer service. We need to design and deploy digital customer service infrastructure that will support existing and emerging channels, allow for a seamless CX across channels, and give customers options to relate to us in ways that will best serve them. We need to empower agents with bot support to ensure they have a complete view of the customer, easy access to helpful answers, and are able to hand off cases to other agents without customers ever having to repeat themselves. Agents need to have advanced training in human relations and personal service and be hired for empathy and kindness, as well as hard skills.   

We also need to get creative and think about digital customer service not just in terms of the brand helping customers, but in the simple terms of problem solving. In other words, it doesn’t matter who helps solve the problem as long as the problem gets solved satisfactorily. There are some innovative brands who are taking unique approaches to do this. Giffgaff, for example, has no call centers, they run all their customer support digitally and all customer service is run by their customers in an online community. Constant Contact has saved millions of dollars and reports a 98% retention rate by customers who use their digital support community. And then there is Flybe, who uses an innovative social-first support model and now resolves issues within 15 minutes.   

In conclusion, as executives it’s our responsibility to be sure we steer the design of digital customer service in a mindful, intentional manner that retains and exemplifies the deep value of human interaction, empathy, connection, and trust while leveraging the potential and value of AI and bots to deliver exceptional digital customer experiences. Now is the time to take the time to do so, and do it right. 

Pete Hess, CEO of Lithium Technologies 

Image Credit: Montri Nipitvittaya / Shutterstock