computer generated brain graphic representing artificial intelligence

By Scott Logie, MD, Insight at REaD Group

The robots are coming! Well, not quite, but the ever growing trend for implementing AI and automated systems to aid in our everyday lives seems to be showing no signs of slowing.

Recent research conducted by advisor company, Gartner, suggests that by the year 2020 a quarter of all customer service and support will incorporate chatbots or a similar form of virtual customer assistant technology. This seems like an astonishing figure, and one that has both positive and negative connotations.

The last decade has seen a huge jump in the proportion of people engaging on digital channels, and it is therefore hardly surprising that companies are investing more and more in these virtual customer assistants. Purely from a resource point of view such a transition makes a lot of sense; artificial intelligence (at least at this stage!) doesn’t ask for a pay cheque.

There is also a distinct advantage to the consumer – these automated systems are capable of functioning 24/7, without the need for sleep or coffee breaks. Furthermore, the prospect of a future free from hours spent on hold listening to Justin Bieber might not be the worst thing in the world.

However, when it comes to customer service, can human contact ever truly be replaced or replicated? According to research we conducted last year, 62% of consumers rated high quality customer service as the largest factor influencing brand trust and loyalty in the retail sector (Retail Trend Report 2017: New World, New Consumer).

While these virtual customer assistants are undeniably becoming more sophisticated all the time, it is the warmth of human interaction that creates this customer engagement. Some of these systems are capable of detecting frustration and anger in a customer’s voice and will transfer the call to a person in a call centre at a certain point. I find shouting down the phone helps. But by and large there is no doubt that they are still worlds away from being able to react and alter their response or attitude based on things like sarcasm and emotion.

There also comes a stage when we have to ask – where does this end? Do we eventually reach a point where human contact has been phased out entirely and we find ourselves reliant on machine to machine relationships? Say, for example, my bank bot detects that I’m overdrawn and applies for an overdraft on my behalf, and this instigates another chatbot which then decides whether to grant me said overdraft. The possibilities are dizzying, and somewhat terrifying – just one short leap to Skynet!

The question of trust and customer experience is not one to be overlooked lightly. The majority of consumers taking part in Gartner’s survey said that they find it difficult to trust VA’s to assist them with more complex tasks, such as handling their banking, insurance or utility issues (29%, 16% and 35% respectively). Therefore, brands will need to demonstrate to customers that they will still receive the same high levels of customer service once these technologies have been incorporated.

Perhaps if this predicted future comes to pass a balance will need to be struck between convenience and functionality. A system whereby technology and human work in tandem may be considered as an initial compromise – HAVA’s (Human Assisted Virtual Assistants). The idea being that when a VA is faced with a situation it cannot handle or a question it cannot answer, a human agent will then take over the conversation. The growing development of machine learning will also theoretically mean that VA’s are able to learn from these instances and adapt to resolve these situations themselves in future.

Essentially, it will remain to be seen how effective these VA’s are in maintaining the high levels of customer service that consumers have come to expect. Advancements in technology such as natural language-processing and machine learning are perhaps bridging the gap between the soulless and robotic automated systems that we’ve come to know, but can they ever truly hope to encourage the same level of engagement and replace human interaction? The next few years will certainly be interesting, but brands must be sure to put customer experience first, or risk dealing with the consequences.

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