AI Is Reshaping Consumers’ Expectations for Customer Service

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There was a time when getting out of a taxi meant reaching for your wallet, sorting through cash, calculating the tip, and sometimes doing it all while the next rider tried to pile in behind you. Then a company called Uber Technologies changed all that. Over the past decade, Uber has reset our expectations for the payment experience. That’s because, for Uber customers, payment takes place before each ride begins, and checkout is as simple as getting out of the car.

By eliminating the need to fumble with cash or credit cards, Uber created a new benchmark not just for the taxi industry but for all payment and checkout experiences. After several Uber rides, consumers begin to view even ordinary acts like standing in line or waiting for a server to fetch their bill as unnecessarily burdensome and time-consuming.

Now, as a result of Uber’s frictionless payment experience, retailers and other businesses are under increasing pressure to reduce friction in their own checkout processes. Across a range of categories, there are numerous examples of top retailers experimenting with new options like curbside pick-up, self-checkout, or scan-and-go technology. More and more consumers want to tap a button and get a product instantly.

A 2015 Economist article refers to this as “liquid expectations,” and it’s making a big impact on the global economy. Liquid expectations emerge when innovations in one industry raise our standards and expectations for other industries. Digital technology has made it so that nearly any organization is now capable of introducing new solutions that reshape our expectations—both for that company’s particular industry, and for all industries.

Why Customer Service Is Under Pressure

These days, consumers’ liquid expectations are making a big impact in the customer service industry. Advances in artificial intelligence technology have allowed organizations to improve the customer experience tremendously, regardless of what product they sell. And most of today’s consumers have had positive interactions—and some negative ones—with AI-powered virtual agents.

Done right, these agents can provide efficient answers to customer questions, saving time that would otherwise be lost sitting on hold, navigating phone trees, re-explaining issues to multiple representatives, or drafting emails and waiting for replies. The efficient, helpful experiences we have with these AI-powered brand ambassadors is shifting our expectations for customer service in much the same way Uber changed expectations for the checkout experience.

AI and Virtual Agents: No Longer Optional

Customer service provides a great example of the phenomenon of liquid expectations, as it is a core business function shared by many organizations across many industries. While leading tech companies were among the first to implement AI in their customer service programs, the resulting improvements have changed consumer expectations for every customer service organization. Now it’s becoming increasingly difficult for customer service organizations to keep their customers happy without some amount of AI-powered support.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the incredible advantages that AI is bringing to the customer service organizations that use it:

Instant Responses and 24/7 Availability: According to HubSpot, 90 percent of consumers rate an immediate response as important or very important when they need support. Customers want product information at the click of a button, and they quickly get frustrated if they have to navigate a complicated website or wait for a human customer service agent before they can get the answers they need. AI-powered chatbots are available 24 hours a day and answer customer questions faster than a human agent can, leading to higher rates of customer satisfaction.

Efficient Routing to the Right Human Agents: Today, the best customer service organizations in the world are not those that fall on one side or the other of the “human vs. AI” debate. Instead, it’s the organizations that successfully combine the two that are thriving. Virtual agents can answer simple questions much faster than human agents, for example, but humans are much better at answering questions that are complex. This means that virtual agents can take the lead on quickly engaging customers when they first reach out to the organization and can also efficiently transfer those customers to a human agent with the appropriate subject matter expertise when necessary. 

Proactive Customer Care: AI is enabling proactive customer service, which improves the customer experience by providing support before the customer asks for it. When executed correctly, proactive customer support can drive loyalty and significantly improve rates of customer satisfaction. LG’s Proactive Customer Care program, for example, uses AI to help customers more effectively use their products, to catch technical malfunctions, and to suggest general product maintenance before bigger issues arise. As this technology continues to advance, it won’t be long before customers start choosing companies that offer this kind of support over those that don’t.

AI is the Imperative

Businesses can no longer afford to leave AI out of their customer service strategy. That’s because, in addition to traditional category competitors, consumers’ liquid expectations mean that today’s businesses must also compete with a new class of perceptual competitors. Perceptual competitors may sell a completely different product, but they can still shape expectations for your customers by innovating in ways that cross industries. And when it comes to providing great customer service, the AI-powered competition is rapidly getting smarter.

Mike de la Cruz is CEO of Directly, provider of a CX automation platform that companies such as Microsoft, Airbnb, and Samsung use to understand what their customers want, provide automated solutions, and tap community experts to solve customer problems. He served as senior vice president of customer relationship management at SAP after a five-year tenure at Siebel Systems, where he developed industry-specific CRM software. De la Cruz led a global team of 15,000 professionals at Hewlett Packard Enterprise to deliver front-office software and automation solutions for the financial services, telecommunications, consumer goods, transportation, and high-tech industries. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from Yale University.

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