How AI will -- and won't -- dominate customer service in 2019

AI

Is artificial intelligence the future of customer service, or is it the jump-the-shark moment that slows our society’s reliance on technology and automation? It’s fair to say that 2018 didn’t make the answer any more evident. In 2019, most businesses will seek a balance between the added efficiency and responsiveness that AI customer service can provide and the human touch that customers still value.

There are two significant areas where businesses are finding success with AI in customer service: chatbots and data. Expect to see both areas grow in 2019 as companies look for ways to serve their customers more efficiently and intelligently.

The appeal of chatbots is obvious for businesses. Dealing with inbound customer queries is not easy, especially not now that questions are coming from so many different directions, from phone calls and text messages to instant messaging, emails, and social media DMs. Customers now use all these different methods to get in touch with businesses. Most of those queries follow a similar template or ask identical questions: customers want to know where their shipments are, what their account balances are, and how to initiate returns among other repeated questions.

Having human representatives handle these queries is unnecessary. They can easily be handled through AI-driven means, saving employees from menial tasks and sometimes saving a business money on an extra employee, department, or call center.

By all accounts, businesses are only going to increase their reliance on chatbots in 2019. News recently broke on VentureBeat that a Canadian chatbot startup called Ada had raised $14 million. Ada makes it easy for companies to set up and implement their own chatbots without the need for advanced coding skills. Startups like Ada will only drive the growth of the chatbot market further in 2019.

Data is key to unlocking next-level customer experience. Incorporating big data and machine learning into customer service tools can allow businesses to anticipate customer needs and meet them proactively. From better product recommendations to chatbots with a superior understanding of what customers are asking for, AI implementation can effectively mimic human-to-human interactions in many capacities. According to Gigabit Magazine, machine learning could even solve the problem of dealing with customers smoothly across multiple channels.

Where Human Interaction Will Persist 

As technology evolves, customers are expecting a superb experience every time they interact with a company. AI can help deliver the hallmarks of good customer experience: personalized recommendations, fast response times, and seamless cross-channel service. What it can’t deliver is the sheer charm of human interaction.

While modern consumer might expect awesome customer experiences, many have also become cynical about the way that companies try to offer these experiences. For instance, it was recently revealed that Facebook gave Netflix and Spotify access to users’ private messages -- a gross invasion of privacy that caused backlash against all three companies. Customers are tired of businesses going to any lengths necessary to "personalize their services." Many are nostalgic for the days when algorithms and AI weren’t the norm in customer service. Studies have even shown that customers want more of a human touch in their interactions with brands.

We are likely not headed toward a future in which chatbots dominate every customer-brand touchpoint. For simple queries, it makes sense for many companies to use chatbots. Bots can help customers get the help they need faster without requiring businesses to invest employee time to resolve those queries. However, for this model to be successful, businesses will need to find a way to make the switch from bot to human representative seamless.

If a bot cannot gracefully resolve the customer’s question or complaint, a human customer service representative is the only solution. Figuring out how to work this passing of the baton in an efficient and smart way will be one of the core challenges businesses face on this front in 2019.

Surprising Ways to Respond

Some companies will differentiate themselves by walking back their reliance on AI in customer service. This Forbes article talks about how T-Mobile is standing apart from the crowd by not using bots at all. We have reached the point in the adoption of automation and AI at which companies can make a splash by deliberately not using it. Expect at least a few more businesses to follow T-Mobile’s lead in 2019.

The other priority for 2019 should be nailing down a balance between personalization of services and respect of privacy. Companies mining online data should think critically about their methods. Bots or algorithms processing data that no company would ever allow a human customer service representative to collect should raise red flags.

Finally, businesses need to remember that if human employees are still going to be central to customer service, those employees need to be properly screened and vetted. The average customer service representative might not have access to the kind of personal and private data that companies have used algorithms to collect in recent years, but they still often have access to customer accounts and sensitive customer information. Vetting these employees is a must to ensure that "human interaction" remains an asset instead of becoming a liability.

Image Credit: Mopic / Shutterstock

Michael Klazema is the Chief Marketing Technologist at VODW and the lead author and editor for backgroundchecks.com. He has a two-decade background in digital consulting, online product management, HR, employee screening, and technology innovation.

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