On the Scene—Smart Customer Service: Companies Can’t Overlook the Human Element

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Above: Twilio’s Nico Acosta noted that AI can keep service costs down.

There is no shortage of new and shiny technology available for customer service operations, but in many ways, the human element is still the most important thing that companies can offer their customers, speakers emphasized at this year’s Smart Customer Service conference in Washington April 29 to May 1, which was collocated with the CRM Evolution, SpeechTEK, and Digital Experience conferences.

The theme was set from the opening keynote, in which Jarno Duursma, a trendwatcher and author at Studio Overmorgen, discussed advances in artificial intelligence (AI) technology and the challenges that those advancements are creating.

AI, he argued, “is the future of customer service,” giving consumers 24/7 access to companies via intelligent avatars.

He said that AI will dramatically change language, vision, facial, and emotion recognition, providing instant insight into consumers’ ages, genders, ethnicities, and emotional states and also allowing instant authentication of customers’ identities.

The technology, he said, falls into four categories: business AI, humanizing AI, assistant AI, and autonomous AI.

Travel booking site Booking.com is an example of business AI, according to Duursma, who said the company “can make predictions [such as] people who book a room in Dubai also go to Bogota and to Milan,” basing that on “a combination of statistics, machine learning, neural nets, A/B testing, etc.”

Humanizing AI, Duursma said, is “where human capabilities are being taken over or matched by artificial intelligence systems.”

With this level of artificial intelligence, “you now have systems that can listen, talk, produce speech, read, see, etc.,” he said.

Customer service automation platform DigitalGenius is an example of humanizing AI, according to Duursma. “They started as a recommendation engine. Employees were chatting with customers, and the system made recommendations for the right answer,” he said. “It is now automated, so the system makes a suggestion, the employee picks the right answer, and the machine learns, and now some of the chats are automated by algorithmic machines.”

He likened assistant AI to today’s digital butlers. “They know who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. They understand us before we understand ourselves. They will give us answers to questions we never knew we had. They will help us before we knew we needed help. They are increasingly making decisions about us, for us, and on our behalf,” he explained.

As for autonomous AI, Duursma said the technology will be able to take on increasingly more complex tasks within the next seven years, leading to applications “that will answer emails on your behalf, that will change your calendar based on a recently received voicemail, renew or stop your phone subscription based on data and price, and autonomously help you with certain tasks [like] making a grocery list based on a recipe.”

But for all its promise, AI is not without its disadvantages, Duursma cautioned. “The first disadvantage of artificially intelligent systems is that we cannot distinguish anymore—through voice cloning technology, face swapping technology, generative adversarial networks that are creating text—what is fake and what is real,” he said.

The second disadvantage is that “algorithms are increasingly making decisions for us, about us, and on our behalf.”

At the same time, AI is making people intolerant of inconveniences, delays, and boredom and giving them the false sense that the world revolves around them. It also makes consumers less aware of their consumption habits because systems automatically order or renew products once they run low.

To address these disadvantages, Duursma asserted that enriching human qualities is essential. “We have to expand and strengthen our human capabilities, things like the use of fantasy, creativity, thinking outside the box—the things we do better than AI systems, especially focusing on things like empathy, affection, and warmth. These are the emotions we are going to need to maintain the human touch in the decision-making processes of the future,” he said.

Writing is another human skill that needs to be emphasized more in customer interactions, and Leslie O’Flahavan, owner of E-WRITE, urged contact center managers to look for that ability right from the start during the hiring process.

“Hire people who like to write and are good at it,” she said during one breakout session. “If you’re hiring people who have been wonderful customer service agents on the phone and then you’re moving them to a written channel, it may work but it may not,” she said.

O’Flahavan also emphasized knowledge management organization to help humans—both agents and customers—find the information they need. “If your knowledge base is untidy; if your template library is untidy; if you have a ghastly, long, 1,200-page word document with all your templates in it; if people need historical knowledge of your company to find the templates—that’s bad,” she said.

Saying that we are now in “the age of analytics,” Geoff Ables, managing partner at C5 Insight, said that analytics is on the brink of permeating entire organizations, but it will still need to be governed by humans.

“We know it’s amazing. We’re all a little bit scared about it. We know it has to be controlled in some way, shape, or form,” he said, pointing out that if used properly, analytics will allow humans “to live up to our potential like never before.”

Abels also noted that analytics will eventually be democratized. “Analytics is not something that you do with a few people. You don’t hire a couple of data scientists and start getting your data together,” he stated. “That’s your first baby step. Analytics is a language…and it has to transform your culture, not just a few people inside of your organization. Every person ultimately will own a piece of this.”

Andrea Wenburg, CEO at Voice of Influence, said that human beings—employees in particular—can be turned into the best brand ambassadors. To do so, Wenburg suggested that organizations explain the significance of the company’s vision to employees.

“Extrinsic motivations are good, to a certain degree. They give us little boosts of energy as we go through life. But it’s when we’re connected to a purpose that’s outside of ourselves that we are compelled to move forward, even through difficult situations,” she elaborated.

Wenburg also emphasized that organizations need to listen to individual employees. “Employees want to know that they belong to something that’s bigger than themselves, but also to feel like they’re unique in that setting as well, not just an interchangeable part of the whole,” she explained.

Stan Phelps, author/speaker at Purple Goldfish, strongly encouraged companies to have their employees carry out the “little things that truly make the biggest difference.” Companies, he said, don’t want to exist in the brain, but rather in the heart.

“Your brand is no longer what you tell people it is. It’s what your customers experience, it’s how they feel, and most importantly it’s what they tell other people.”

To get to that state, companies need to do “a little something extra to honor the relationship” with their customers.

Hilton DoubleTree does this quite well, providing guests with fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies to engender positive emotion, according to Phelps.

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