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AI Isn’t Inevitable—It’s a Choice

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‘I’ll say it again, in the land of the free/ Use your freedom of choice’

—Devo (‘Freedom of Choice’)

As part of my day-to-day analyst-ing, I end up talking to companies that think that chatbots will take over the world of service and inside sales in the next few years. Maybe “arguing with” is a better choice of words, since I often have to make the case that, like the common FAIL memes floating around the interwebs, “You’re doing it wrong.” Now I understand some of where this thinking comes from: The Wall Street Journal and other mainstream publications globally have been touting a doomsday scenario for contact center employees for at least the past three years. The theme of all these articles: “Robots are coming to take your jobs.”

Companies—and the authors of these articles—often act, however, as if automation and AI are forces of nature, like hurricanes or tsunamis. In fact, presentations at industry events about automation and AI often use images of massive weather events as an illustration of the “threat” facing brands. Automation becomes the sort of thing that would be covered under an “act of God” clause in an insurance policy. In this conception, then, companies are just borne along by a wave of external forces.

But of course, that is absurd. Automation is a choice.

From the cotton gin in the 1790s to a B2B manufacturer using AI to predict a customer health score today, the use of automation is the result of choices made by people and by companies. AI does not change the essential equation. People and companies decide: Should we automate? Why? What? When?

  • Whether to automate: Companies are clearly choosing to automate, especially when it comes to customer service. A Forrester Research survey of digital business strategy professionals found that 73 percent are using, piloting, or testing chatbots for their brands’ websites. Given that the folks that run customer service operations often have to squeeze blood from the proverbial turnips, this is completely understandable.
  • Why to automate: See above. However, this “cutting costs at all costs” thinking has started to lead companies astray. It has nudged many of them toward the wrong answers to the next two questions. Importantly, cost reductions don’t really ring any customer experience bells. “Why” needs to be a combination of creating new and compelling service experiences, cost reductions, and ways to drive better employee experiences.
  • What to automate: This where many companies really are missing the boat. They are, for the most part, trying to replace their agents, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy out of those news articles. But if you answer the why question with better customer and employee experiences, you’d probably then answer the what question differently. Why not try to use AI and automation to augment the performance of your employees? AI tools can make those agents more efficient and more effective, creating both better customer service experiences and providing cost efficiencies (by reducing average handling time, for example). Also, by not obviously trying to replace agents, companies will create better employee experiences. Feeling like you are playing musical chairs with a robot for your job is not a great motivator!
  • When to automate: If businesses decide to focus their efforts today on automating the mindless parts of their employees’ jobs, they are also setting themselves up to learn about what will work for automating customer interactions. So the answer here likely should be today andin a year or two, once we know more.

So the biggest piece of advice here: Don’t get caught up in the AI wave—because there isn’t one. All there is are judgments to be made.  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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