Who’s afraid of the big, bad bot?

When discussing anything related to artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on marketing or customer service, people tend to fall into one of two camps: 1) the futurists, who believe that it will simplify, streamline, and ultimately revolutionise the ways in which brands communicate and interact with their customers; and 2) the skeptics, who believe that the very impersonal nature of AI will eventually undermine the already delicate brand-customer relationship.

Regardless of what side of the debate you sit on, there’s a good chance you hold a fairly strong point of view on AI. This opinion might be amplified even more in the context of the growing role that chatbots (aka, “bots”) now play within today’s digital customer experiences. No doubt about it, there’s a lot of hype surrounding these technologies and the positive impact they can have on a brand’s customer service efforts. But is it really worth all the hype? Yes and no.

>See also: Artificial intelligence: how it’s transforming financial services today

In the same way that no two brands are created equal, the ways in which they implement different technologies to augment and improve their unique digital customer experiences is not equal either – or, it’s not always reflective of the kind of experience that a brand’s customers want, need, and expect from them.

Leading brands are quickly becoming the early adopters of technology today. They’re now at the forefront of introducing new experiences to their customers, using “trial by fire” tactics to pressure test whether these technological trends hold up to all the hype. So, on one hand, as an industry, we have to appreciate these risk takers for buying into the promise of AI and bots way ahead of the curve and paving the way for other brands to follow suit; on the other hand, however, in spite of all the good that can come from adopting new technologies, introducing “unknowns” like AI and bots haphazardly into your customer service efforts can quickly become a customer experience nightmare – that is, if implemented poorly.

The truth is, we’ve still barely scratched the surface with AI and bots in the context of customer service. Most brands just use it for rudimentary tasks like information gathering or query triaging – and knowing just how much AI has advanced over the years, this use case seems like a serious underutilisation of its capabilities as well as its potential to make a positive impact on digital customer experiences.

>See also: 5 ways bots will impact our lives in 2017

This may be because we don’t truly understand, at least yet, what kind of value AI can bring to customer service interactions. Whilst it can eliminate mundane tasks from the workload of customer service representatives – allowing them to spend more time on resolving issues than on collecting information or providing answers to very basic queries – what’s clear is that the pass off from bot to human as well as the interplay between the two still needs to be refined.

Even so, the introduction of bots into customer service interactions has driven significant efficiency gains for brands, making it easier for customer service teams to scale their efforts and respond to more customer inquiries faster than ever before, even during peak periods.

In essence, AI has made it possible for customer service teams to focus more squarely on addressing and resolving customer needs through the automation of information gathering and other simple processes. And although it doesn’t push the envelope in terms of what AI can truly do for brands, this is still a big win for customer service teams. The time savings alone means they can help more customers get the answers they need. That’s the ultimate end goal.

Here’s something else to think about – and this goes against the beliefs of skeptics suggesting that AI will eventually replace humans altogether (which is just not reality). As intelligent as machine learning can be, it serves a very specific purpose today: to make humans more effective. AI is not and, in my humble opinion, will never be a full replacement for humans within a brand’s business, customer service operations, or otherwise.

>See also: Bots, brands and why we need to start trusting AI

There are just certain things that humans can do that technology can’t. For all the efficiencies that AI and bots bring to the digital customer experience, there’s nothing that can ever replace a real “human touch,” especially in high-stress or complex situations. Knowing that there’s a human on the other end who understands your needs and is willing to do whatever they can to have you leave that experience as a happy customer makes all the difference.

However, this is where most brands are still getting their sea legs. As they’ve tested different ways of using bots at different points along the customer service journey, when they’ve chosen to automate certain experiences that would normally be handled by living and breathing customer service representatives, the end result can sometimes come across as cold and detached, unintentionally creating a negative experience for customers.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. You have an issue. You go to a brand’s website to get help. Instead of picking up the phone – which is typically the last resort for most consumers these days – you start a customer service chat. The bot that replies asks for basic information. So far, so good. But as you get deeper into the process, trying to get whatever issue you have resolved quickly, you get frustrated that the bot just doesn’t seem to understand what you need. That’s the point when you (likely) get frustrated and then finally succumb to picking up the phone to speak to a real human being. Not ideal.

There are two takeaways from this: 1) always be transparent about when a customer is interacting with a bot instead of a real human – this will help temper their expectations and give them the option early on to reach out to a customer service representative from the very start; and 2) unless your implementation of AI is sophisticated enough to handle more detailed or complex customer service inquiries, don’t give a task to a bot that should really be managed by a human (at least, unless you’ve thoroughly tested it and know it’ll actually work, every time).

>See also: Chatbots should be experts, not virtual assistants

So, what’s the moral of this story? Don’t be scared of bots – or AI, for that matter. Although it’s clear that these smart technologies aren’t going to replace real humans anytime soon, their capabilities are still far too misunderstood and underutilised to realise their full potential for improving the overall efficiency and scalability of a brand’s customer service efforts. To be honest, the issue isn’t AI at all; the issue is its implementation.

Done well, it can make an incredibly positive impact on your digital customer experiences. Done poorly, it can leave you and your team with a massive headache. Just remember, in spite of all the hype surrounding these new technologies as well as your desire to be early adopters of those technologies, never forget that your customers’ wants, needs, and expectations should always come first.


Sourced by Dayle Hall, SVP Marketing at Lithium Technologies

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...