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Lean, mean, customer engagement machines

Posted: 2 October 2017 | By Chris Streete

How AI, machine learning and automation are opening up a world of opportunity for the customer service industry:

Facebook recently caused a bit of a commotion as rumours circulated that it had to shut down two of its chatbots after they started talking gibberish to each other, as if inventing and learning a new language or a secretive way to communicate.

Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have also publicly wrangled over the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, while the Western tabloid media continues to try to generate mass panic about robots pinching our jobs. Sadly, the “Facebots” in question were in fact using verbal shorthand to better compute tasks. They weren’t planning to take over the world (just yet, anyway!) but finding a more efficient route to task completion.

In the future, access to AI and associated developments will actually be a lot easier than most of us envisage

Let’s have less of the doom-mongering, more about the opportunities that AI, machine learning and automation can offer us in the real future of work.

AI will allow businesses to become more enabled in every way

It won’t be long before industries that are only just experiencing the tip of the iceberg with cloud technology will see the momentum pick up drastically, leading businesses to become more enabled in every way. The cloud minimises the cost and hassle of ownership, offers ease of scalability and provides flexibility for businesses to ‘try out’ services that they otherwise would find too costly. In the future, access to AI and associated developments will actually be a lot easier than most of us envisage.

When it comes to the workforce, cloud services ensure that they are able to easily tap into the latest technologies, are independent of devices, and most importantly, have the convenience of mobility. Services offered on cloud and tailored to each person’s preferences are already changing our personal lives (smartphones, smart homes, Internet of Things), and this dynamic will really make an impact on our working and professional lives in the near future.

Chatbots best serve their role by providing an instant customer engagement touchpoint in a familiar setting (web chat, with natural language understanding) in order to try and resolve the most common queries, before seamlessly handing over to a skilled human, with context and data preserved

There is undeniably a good chance that as technology advances and both hardware and software automation via the cloud become the norm, some job roles may become redundant in the future. But these are more than likely those business processes that could do with some tightening in this age of speed and convenience, for both the customer and the employee’s sake; for example, repetitive, one-and-done tasks and common queries.

And actually, by letting autonomous technology take those roles, human employees have the opportunity to develop new skills and step up to more fulfilling roles.

Take chatbots as an example: developing something that solves every single customer enquiry and essentially ‘takes over’ the role of the customer service agent would be a false economy. The cost of doing so would outstrip the operational cost of solving issues with automation.

Chatbots best serve their role by providing an instant customer engagement touchpoint in a familiar setting (web chat, with natural language understanding) in order to try and resolve the most common queries, before seamlessly handing over to a skilled human, with context and data preserved.

Don’t let chatbots annoy your customers

With services such as chatbots, it’s important to note that offering static, template-based services is a pathway to doom and would make consumers irate more often than not. A recent example is ASOS’s disastrous exchange on its Facebook wall between a number of customers, who sussed within moments they were being targeted with an automated response from a type of ‘bot’.

With services such as chatbots, it’s important to note that offering static, template-based services is a pathway to doom and would make consumers irate more often than not

Copy/paste requests from “Ashley” and “Danielle” at the Australian ASOS page asking for any and all posters (even if they weren’t enquiring after an order) to send their order numbers via Facebook Messenger, and sometimes not even making sense, had customers in stitches, and more than a little frustrated!

But, for a business dealing with millions of consumers each day, carrying out thousands of communications simultaneously across any and multiple channels, it does not make sense to indiscriminately increase the workforce or even worse, burden them with similarly mundane tasks that eventually causes a slow-down in productivity and creates dis-engaged workers.

For retailers such as ASOS, most interactions tend to be ‘transactional’ in nature and automating those does help strike a balance between holding down the business cost and maintaining employee productivity. But perhaps a little more careful fine-tuning in future could be beneficial!

Automation has only been bolstered by AI and machine learning, and the interaction and transactional possibilities for the future seem endless. Many decision makers are only just grappling with what AI encompasses, let alone how it can grow their business, but once you look at it as automation backed by well-structured data, we can build a clearer vision. Think of it this way: if a TV streaming service accurately tweaks what a viewer would like to watch next, based on their history, it could be argued that the machine has learnt.

Augmenting humans, not stealing jobs

There is a sizeable amount of personalisation that only humans can do, such as gauge emotions, rely on intuition, show empathy or build relationships

If we concentrate on the customer service industry example, the concepts of machine learning and natural language understanding are definitely here to stay. Fuelled by data (AKA the new “oil”), this will only help enhance the productivity of a business and save costs throughout.

The explosion of channels, processing data and images, will better serve customers beyond traditional channels and will also assist with personalisation. So, will this make humans less relevant in this industry, or more efficient? In fact, it should diversify our workforce and potentially boost job numbers by creating new roles, processes and skill requirements.

By diverting routine tasks to automation (such as parcel tracking in retail, or bill enquiries for utilities companies), human agents will focus on what they can do best: handling the complex issues that still require a human touch. Decision makers should never jump the gun and underestimate the cognitive capabilities of mankind or overestimate the impact of a technology. There is a sizeable amount of personalisation that only humans can do, such as gauge emotions, rely on intuition, show empathy or build relationships.

Let’s not do the “robots” a disservice and dismiss them as coming for our jobs – there are a lot more arguments to say they will be a welcome boost to business. For the customer service industry at least, as long as any automation is carefully used as part of a wider engagement strategy to save costs and increase the customer experience, and not as a way to make customers feel like they’re being fobbed off (as in the ASOS example), both machine and human can learn to get along gloriously.

Chris Streete, Senior Director, Cloud Solutions Europe & Africa at Aspect Software, which is a customer engagement platform that is powerful yet affordable, quick to implement, and easy to keep up-to-date.

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