The key success factor in the 21st century

It is not news that COVID-19 has caused a drastic increase in online shopping activities – and the connected need for customer service. At the same time, this week ‘Black Friday’ kicks off the busiest time of the year for retailers: the holiday season. While we have already been able to observe a steady increase in the proportion of online sales over the past years, it is expected that this year’s amount of online shoppers will grow between 30% to 50% –  making previous recorded online purchase volumes look insignificant in comparison. For customer service representatives this means that within an already strenuous year, the next month will be their busiest yet. How are they going to cope with the holiday season in an ongoing pandemic?

A solution and relief comes from automation options, which have already proven their value in the past months. 71% of respondent to a recent report by Inference solutions agreed that intelligent self-service automation helped their organization remain agile during COVID-19. Yet, some business leaders are hesitant to introduce chatbots or automated voice agents into their organization due to a common concern: Will my clients accept talking to a robot?

This question is not unjustified. Human brains are wired against change in general, which includes the introduction of unknown technology. Many reject automation devices simply because they are unknown to them, which in return raises fears. We also tend to judge technology more harshly than humans. According to Hidalgo’s research on ‘How humans judge machines’, we evaluate machines according to their outcomes and humans by their intention. That means that even if a human customer service representative is unable to give us the answer we are looking for, we might feel empathetic if we perceive that the intention of the representative was to help us as much as possible. Machines on the other hand, will be judged harshly without excuses. Lastly, many people are concerned about the loss of the ‘human touch’ through automation devices. Humans act (and buy) based on emotions, so they must prefer to talk to someone that understands those emotions… right?

Not really. The overall customer experience is not determined by having a nice conversation with a representative, but by how efficiently the caller’s problem is solved. Consumers, in an increasingly digital and saturated marketplace, have a rising expectation for their transactions to be instantaneous, immersive and entirely seamless. Great costumer service not only meets, but also predicts the clients’ needs and responds accordingly. The ‘human touch’ is only a plus, which has little value if the client has to wait 30 minutes to speak to an overworked representative, who might have little time or patience for a complex question. The robots’ shortcomings on the human front actually turn into a big advantage in terms of problem solving and efficiency. Automation speeds up all processes – simple questions can be answered immediately, and more complex inquiries can be forwarded to an available human representative. This significantly improves the overall outcome of the call or chat. Moreover, a machine is available 24/7, can respond to several requests at once, and does not grow tired of repeating questions, remaining perfectly friendly over time.

So do we need the human at all to provide the perfect customer service? According the PwC’s Global Insights Survey, the overall public preference today goes towards a so-called ‘hybrid solution’, where clients first talk to an automated service, and get transferred in case their problem is more complex or if they wish to speak to a human representative. This solution includes the best of both: the speed and efficiency of automation, and the option for clients to talk to a friendly and knowledgeable human, if needed.

However, in order to ensure that a hybrid solution gives your customer the service they are expecting, the retail firms need to shift their focus to a different group of people: their own. Are your customer service representatives ready to work efficiently with an AI?

If you are thinking about implementing an automation options and truly want to deliver the best customer service to your clients, it is good to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Do my people know why I am implementing this service? If the change is not communicated effectively to the customer service department, they might misunderstand the purpose of the automation. They see it as an effort to replace, instead of support, them in the long-term and they do not grasp how the technology can make their job less stressful, more insightful, and more interesting.
  1. Do my people have the right skills to work seamlessly with the AI? When it comes to technology, most people consider the necessary skills to work with it to be purely technical. However, working successfully with new technology is not just about being able to use the it, but also about leveraging it. That requires a different set of skills – ranging from a new level of leadership all the way to the ability to work data-driven.
  1. Are my people open to working with an automation service? Also for customer service representatives, it is a natural and evolutionary reflex to say no to new, unknown changes that could pose possible threats. However, it is important that your people manage to move from valuing past experiences over current and future opportunities towards a so-called growth mindset, in which they accept change and proactively search for new opportunities connected with it.

To deliver the best customer service to your clients, the key question is not whether your clients will accept to talk to a robot. The assumption that clients are not open to digitization and robots does not hold true in the 21st century anymore. However, today’s consumers expect that their needs are predicted and problems solved immediately by the customer service department. This can only work if customer service representatives know how to leverage the opportunities of automation and work together seamlessly with the machine.

Only if the company invests in both – technology and its people – will it be able to provide the data-driven, next level customer service that the current pandemic and upcoming holiday season require.

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