The Future of AI in the service industry

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According to media reports, China and the US are leading the way in adopting AI, with the former’s percentage of AI patents granted growing by 190 per cent in a five-year period and the latter investing close to $10 billion in venture capital. Not to be left behind by the other two superpowers though, Russia’s president has announced his intentions to make 30 per cent of its military equipment robotic by 2025.

The compound annual growth rate of AI has hit 60 per cent and is still growing. The UK is itself funding over £603 million investment in AI and one industry here that stands to benefit from AI is field and customer service.

Which industry stands to benefit most from AI adoption?

Field service organisations increasingly feel the pressure to maximise the productivity and efficiency of their workforce so they get every job right on the first try, keeping customers happy and reducing costs through increased productivity and SLA compliance. AI makes this possible. AI enables “predictive field service”, which anticipates service requirements and automatically adjusts business processes accordingly. For example, the technology automatically reshuffles technician schedules if there are more optimal ways to deliver service as the day progresses.

If an emergency situation arises, such as a gas leak for a gas utility company, the system can propose how best to address this from a resource perspective, while minimising the impact on other previously scheduled tasks.

How can AI benefit an organisation? 

AI can access a wealth of historical information (the weather, the parts required, at what point in the day the appointment takes place, the number of similar tasks the technician has done and more) to then discern which of these characteristics correlate, and to what extent, with the length of time the task takes. Using this much more complete knowledge, and adding to it over time, the system can use the characteristics of future tasks to predict a likely task duration. This approach is much more effective as evidenced by customers of ClickSoftware who have improved task duration accuracy by -20 per cent, greatly increasing efficiency and customer satisfaction, after the implementation of AI-infused field service management solutions.

AI covers a wide span of capabilities and, despite past fears, is becoming something that enterprises see as potentially having a positive impact as it uncovers trends and makes human lives easier. In the world of field service, for example, where you have 1,000 tasks and 100 field service technicians available, AI more quickly and efficiently determines who to send where. With all the permutations and combinations, this is not a task for humans!

How can AI be leveraged to deliver a more effective service? 

One of the most common use cases for AI in field service is for AI to identify the right field service management resource to address a particular task at a time that makes sense for both the customer and the business. This is a challenging problem that depends on the characteristics of the task and the capabilities of the field service professionals, amongst many other variables, to determine the solution.

Using AI to estimate travel times, task durations and other key components of service delivery enables organisations to deliver greater efficiency and resource utilisation, improved effectiveness through better first-time fix rates, and faster responses to emergency situations. In addition, customer satisfaction is enhanced through customers getting a more precise estimate of when service will take place and an overall higher quality service.

By incorporating AI into field service processes, organisations can do more work with the same number of resources, and benefit from more accurate resource plans and smaller service windows that improve both customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction.

Are AI robots likely to replace humans in the workplace?

There’s no doubt that technology is becoming faster, smarter, better - but to-date there’s no technology that is not powered, at least initially, by a human. Many jobs, by their very nature, require human intervention, which to date cannot be programmed into a machine. From doctors and nurses to artists and writers; the world will seemingly always have a need for compassion, empathy, trust and personality. It will take a long time for robots to have social skills that rival human beings. 

Forrester’s The Future of Jobs 2027: Working Side by Side with Robots report reveals that automation “won’t destroy all jobs, but it will transform the workforce”. One example of this is how AI can make a positive impact on employee experience. Within field service, the use of AI will allow dispatchers to become exception handlers, freeing up their time to focus on more strategic priorities, while technicians are able to spend more of their time helping customers.

Rather than replace employees, Forrester’s report highlights how AI and other automation technologies “can augment human capabilities to help employees do their jobs more efficiently.”

While some jobs may be lost due to AI, automation will also still create a new division of labour, with humans being retrained to work in robot support and programming roles.

This idea is supported in a survey done by workforce solutions company, Adecco, where almost 65 per cent of senior leaders felt that AI technology would increase the number of jobs available while the majority believed it would make jobs easier and free employees up to work on more important and enjoyable tasks.

Will AI create new roles for employees within the workplace?

While tasks that are simple and monotonous can be easily automated, gradually resulting in certain roles becoming obsolete, today’s consumers demand an unprecedented level and speed of service. AI solutions can be used here to enhance the ability of technicians to resolve issues on the first visit, or perhaps resolve an issue remotely, avoiding a truck roll.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning also help close any skills gaps by applying data on individual performance to the task at hand to determine who is the most adept at a certain activity. If there’s a lack of workers with the skills to complete the task, it is flagged immediately, allowing leaders to either fill the hole or find another solution. Machine learning can hold information on employees’ past jobs and behaviours and make informed decisions to optimise the service provided by engineers. At the end of the day, innovation and changing consumer demands has led to the death of transactional service and the prioritisation of customer experience.

The Forrester Future of Jobs 2027 report[1] goes on to say organisations – or individuals – can “plug in workers with specific skills sets or credentials to solve problems on demand, often in real time” and prompt the “involvement of humans in a workflow” as and when they are needed, such as preventative maintenance measures to reduce downtime.

Why should communication about the use of AI be a priority from day one? 

When it comes to handling communication with employees about the potential for jobs to be replaced, a recent Infosys survey of 1,600 business and IT executives found that AI is a long-term priority for innovation, with 76 per cent of respondents agreeing AI is “fundamental to the success of their organisation’s strategy.” Sixty-four per cent stated the future growth of their business depends on AI adoption. All businesses should, therefore, have a clear strategy as to how they will communicate the use of AI in their organisation.

The best way to handle the communication process is to start it early and ensure that regular conversations happen on an ongoing basis. Updates should be provided as and when they arise, keeping everyone in the loop. From project inception all the way through to the automation roll-out, the CEO needs to include everyone in the company in the communications, and this can be done more seamlessly via the initial selected stakeholders.

Being involved from the start means that the stakeholders will not only feel like they have a say, but they can also spread the word to their peers about the benefits of AI and automation, and answer any concerns that those employees may have, but are reluctant to speak with management about.

What will the future bring for AI?

While the promise of AI is not yet fully realised, there are already many ways to integrate it into existing service and support channels. This will not only free employees to focus on important tasks, but it will also create new opportunities to delight and retain customers.

Experts agree that AI is still in its infancy, and, while we can surmise about the future, the seemingly endless potential and human-like capabilities of AI look very promising. By helping manage simple customer interactions and streamlining complex processes behind the scenes, AI can become a secret weapon for supercharging customer experience.

Technological advances and saturated markets have led to products and offerings that are largely comparable, and sometimes indistinguishable from one another, competing on price with narrow margins. This is where companies have an opportunity to differentiate with service. One example of AI that is already helping solve the problem of long hold times in customer service centres are chat bots. Chat bots are often able to solve a customer’s problem without wasting the customer’s time waiting for a person to respond.

In the future, AI will play an even greater role in the service delivery process with machine learning models able to predict with greater and greater accuracy the likelihood that a customer will cancel an appointment, what parts will be needed to fix a particular customer problem, or the likelihood of a first-time fix.

AI will enable service organisations to create new business models where customers pay for uptime, rather than buying or leasing equipment from manufacturers. In this case, it is critical the machines never go down, because the penalties for violating SLAs is costly to service businesses. AI will set prescriptive maintenance programmes for this equipment, so it is always in good working order.

Paul Whitelam, senior VP of marketing, ClickSoftware
Image Credit: Shutterstock/Mopic