We’re living in a moment of expectation and promise, but also of deep anxiety, for what AI, automation and robotics will bring to our lives and to society as a whole. Questions on fundamental changes in the quality of, and access to, work are both challenging and commonplace, and have been acutely manifested in western politics. Disruption, hand-ringing and displacement are inevitable, pitting the interests of society and businesses into conflict.
Speaking of which, last week at Davos automation & AI were once again hot topics. A part-humorous, part-terrifying reflection by a New York Times reporter reveals (maybe not surprisingly) that many of the movers and shakers of the Davos set are giddy about the profit potential of automation. While some disguise their excitement with tropes like “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, others are less tactful, stating nakedly: “I hope my company would be 100 percent automation someday”.
In time, difficult decisions will need to be made given the obvious, arguably existential, challenges to civic life. In the meantime, I’d like to weigh up the short-term impact of automation, by considering DigitalGenius’ area of focus, customer service as a bellwether for what opportunities exist for job transformation, and hopefully improvement.
What does Customer Service Automation Mean?
A thoughtful piece in Customer Contact Week asks us to consider what automation would mean for customer service agents, “yes, the job is repetitive. The alternative is...thumb twiddling?”. The author is pointing out that if you automate the repetition out of a repetitive job, no work will remain. Instead of cynically viewing automation as zero-sum, executives must consider how to transform roles, to train and incentivize workers to perform new responsibilities, in parallel to planning for automation in customer service.
Since 2016 we’ve spoken with literally thousands of customer service leaders around the world from various sectors and markets - so you’d expect that we’ve uncovered some commonality in what customer service leaders consider valuable. While these insights are not exhaustive, and every business must individually decide which new activities would be worthwhile, it’s an attempt to identify different avenues customer service teams can take to add value in a post-automation world.
1. Improve Customer Experience
Probably the most common aspiration among customer service leaders who wish their teams had more time, this goal breaks down in a few ways.
Be Proactive. This is a widely discussed idea, but it’s also very vague. To do this, customer service teams must be laser focused on specific activities because the risk is harassing customers to buy. If leadership can arm support with clear parameters, service teams can:
- Engage at a specific part of the buying process. This can be on targeted interaction on certain web pages, or prompting a customer who abandoned an order just before shipping, and so on. All of these can impact the bottom line if done right.
- Pre-empt disruptions in the customer journey. Research substantiates that customers who experience disruption are not as perturbed if the issue is pre-empted or forewarned; for example announcing delays to travellers over SMS or Whatsapp.
- Launch new (and possibly) proactive channels. Without sufficient staff, new channels add to contact volumes and strain customer service. However, automation enables an added dimension to flex support to highly mobile channels like SMS, Mobile Messaging and/or Social.
Reward Customers. Many service teams wish to create a VIP experience for specific customers to encourage loyalty, but cannot do so for bandwidth or budgetary reasons. With millennials in particular, and customers in general, looking increasingly for an experience and community, this element should not be underestimated in brand loyalty and repeat purchasing. Customers could receive a VIP experience based on number or size of purchases, or perhaps even opt-in (and pay) for premium service, and so on.
Personalize to the Hilt. Another driver in CSAT, loyalty and purchasing size is personalization of interactions. As customers feel better known and understood, they develop trust in brands and will make larger, and more frequent purchases. Agents who are incentivized, instructed and have time to put their efforts into personalization will make their company money - something that traditional service teams are rarely accused of.
2. Transform the Role of Agents
Other service leaders believe that the core role or incentive of customer service agents can evolve with less repetitive work.
Commercialization. This is a common wish: agents should upsell and cross-sell customers. A good goal, but tightly dependant on creating a trusted customer experience, strong knowledge of customer preferences and the product, while there is a potential to lose customers if they feel pressure. While these are caveats to overcome, service can be a engine for boosting commercials when captivated customers encounter the right culture.
Process improvements. Working on the front lines, agents have an unfiltered view into how systems, processes and technologies work within customer service. We often hear that the relationship between customer service and other departments can improve, or that workflow can be streamlined. While agents have the insight, as well as the incentive to improve their working environment, it is up to the business to empower and support them, after all, these improvements should benefit the company. In such environments, retention improves and progression opportunities open up for the individuals.
3. Promote Career Development
With more time, businesses can pick off low-hanging fruit like skills training, personal development and so on, which impacts retention, but there is a broader opportunity in advancing agents’ career and, at the same time, reshaping the customer experience.
Product Upskill. With more time, agents can focus on becoming experts in particular products or services, which is an essential ingredient in proactive customer engagement and upselling. Eventually, teams segment into specific fields of expertise, eventually opening up opportunities to transfer to other roles in the business.
Technical Account Management. While not applicable to all businesses, agents in this case can combine technical product knowledge with relationship management. In this mold, they become a one-stop-shop for the majority of customer queries, increasing the number of one-touch interactions and building greater trust with customers.
It is clear automation will bring substantial disruption; it is up to governments, regulators, businesses and individuals to ensure the transition is managed with minimum pain and hopefully utilitarian benefits. While that may be wishful thinking, in the immediate term, any jobs in which repetition is a built-in feature, like customer service, will be impacted.
The above is not a panacea, it’s an amalgamation of conversations we’ve had with customer service leaders. Clearly, more thinking, trialing and imagination are needed to guide job evolution to a humane, but also, effective conclusion, in which businesses, employees and customers all benefit. The good news is that AI & automation (so far) don’t possess the creativity, ingenuity and humanity required for the challenge.