Automate or Humanize? The Great Customer Service Debate

Can companies trade the human touch for automation without sacrificing the quality of their customer service?
Customer Service

Humans versus robots. This scenario is playing out across a widening swath of industries as businesses weigh the value of replacing human workers with automated and artificial intelligence systems. And while the human touch still has merit, business leaders are exploring more and more opportunities to increase efficiencies and cut costs with robots.

Last month, at a few of its San Francisco locations Target tested robots that roll through store aisles and can determine if products have been misplaced, mispriced, or are low in stock. And later this week, Whole Foods Market will open its first 365 by Whole Foods Market store, which includes the teaBOT. The teaBot is a self-service kiosk that allows customers to brew and pay for loose-leaf teas on a touch screen or app.

As technology improves machines will be able to carry out an increasing number of tasks handled by humans but companies should think carefully about replacing humans who can find innovative solutions to problems with robots.

"Machines and humans are evaluated as simply two different ways to produce a product or service, and the trade-off is strictly economic," notes Don Peppers, founding partner of Peppers and Rogers Group, who is working on a new book that examines the relationship between human workers and machines. "However, even the most routine and repetitive tasks can still be improved, altered, upgraded, or modified into better, more efficient tasks, and machines will never suggest those kinds of changes. Human beings will."

As an example, Peppers points to Toyota, which has begun placing humans in certain roles that are typically handled by automated manufacturing operations. The automaker is doing so for competitive reasons. Humans are replacing machines in areas like the metal forging division so that workers can develop new skills and hopefully find new ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

"We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again," Mitsuru Kawai, a senior managing officer at Toyota, tells Bloomberg. "To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine."

Finding a Balance
Research has shown that customers want to interact with both digital tools and humans. Therefore, companies should find ways to balance the strengths and weaknesses of humans and machines, says Robert Wollan, senior managing director of advanced customer strategy at Accenture Strategy.

"For the first time in nearly a decade, customers who have an appetite for digital solutions had reached the tipping point and were telling us that they prefer to speak with people in some situations," Wollan notes. "What customers are saying is it's not all or nothing when it comes to digital versus human interactions."

According to a recent Accenture study, 83 percent of U.S. consumers prefer dealing with human beings over digital channels to solve customer service issues. For all the advancements that are being made in self-service and automated systems to improve the customer experience, human beings are still needed for "unpredictable or complicated" requests, Wollan says. "There are clear benefits to using technology," he notes. "But when you try to digitize every possible customer touchpoint, things can get complex very quickly."

Ally Assist
Ally Bank, a subsidiary of Ally Financial, is an online bank that doesn't have any physical branches. Instead, the Utah-based bank strives to offer an easy-to-use digital interface that allows customers to manage their banking needs anywhere at any time. In an effort to further personalize the experience, last year the company expanded its mobile banking app to include Ally Assist.

Ally Assist serves as a virtual assistant that users can interact with via speech or text to perform tasks like transferring funds, paying bills, and making deposits. And by using automated intelligence and customer data profiles, Ally Assist can analyze a customer's accounts and transactions to provide detailed information about spending and saving patterns, as well as generate reminders and flag potential issues.

Ally Assist also learns from user interactions to identify information that each person is mostly likely interested in. For example, it can automatically provide the date and amount of a recent deposit, or a duplicate charge posted to a checking account.

"We recognize that our customers want an easy and convenient way to delve into their accounts and get information," explains Carrie Sumlin, digital consumer executive for Ally Bank, a subsidiary of Ally Financial. "And so we created Ally Assist to give our customers even more options for customizing their experience."

Since launching Ally Assist in May 2015, downloads of the company's mobile app have "gone up tremendously" according to Sumlin. At the same time, the company understands that customers may need to speak with a human associate. Ally Bank has more than 600 agents in contact centers across the U.S. who can assist customers through live chat, email, and phone. Providing human agents as a backup to the company's online services is important, Sumlin notes. "We're not shy about letting our customers know we're available to speak with them whenever they need us," she says.

For now though, agents do not automatically receive a history of the caller's online activities, which could help the agent identify and sole the customer's problem faster. Giving agents a richer view of a customer's history and user activity is something that the company is working on, Sumlin adds.

A Work in Progress
Facebook created some buzz in the customer service space when it recently debuted chatbots for its Messenger platform. Introduced with much fanfare, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed the chatbots would enable businesses to communicate with people just like they do with friends and family on Messenger.

At the company's F8 developers conference, Zuckerberg explained that developers will be able to build chatbots that useartificial intelligence and natural language processingto understand what customers need. 1-800-Flowers was one of the partners who received early access to the chatbots. Customers can now order flowers through 1-800-Flowers' Facebook Messenger account. "Now, to order from 1-800-Flowers, you'll never have to call 1-800-Flowers again," Zuckerberg joked. It turns out the bots are far from perfect and as many reports pointed out, even simple tasks like asking to see other items was less efficient than simply visiting a company's website or store.

"It's important to remember that it's early days with the chatbots and only a few companies have access to the technology so there's still a lot to work on," says Royston Tay, general manager of messaging at Zendesk, which helped online retailer Spring add the chatbots to its Messenger platform.

Furthermore, there are other ways to provide a valuable customer experience through messaging apps without the use of bots, Tay adds. "Don't get carried away with just implementing bots. Scaling operations and linking conversations with CRM data to give agents a full history of your customers so that they can better serve them is also valuable," he says.

BarkBox, a subscription service for dog-themed products, is one such example. Earlier this year, after noticing that more customers were communicating with the company through Facebook Messenger, BarkBox turned to Zendesk to help it scale its ability to respond to queries on the app. Agents now have a timeline view of customer conversations so that they can quickly see the context of previous responses. Agents can also assign and manage conversations, which has helped the company shave its response time on Messenger from 60 minutes to 4 minutes.

All of BarkBox's communications on Messenger are sent by humans. The company hasn't announced whether it will implement chatbots but it is "very encouraged" by the responses it has received from customers who engage its agents on Messenger, says Hern?Giraldo, head of Happy Operations at Bark & Co.

"We receive a wide variety of Facebook Messenger customerinquirieslike 'what type of BarkBox subscription should I get for my pup?' Or 'I just had to share this photo/video of my pup enjoying BarkBox,' to something more traditional like 'My pup was not that into the toy you sent, can you help me find a good alternative?"' Giraldo notes. In other words, until a chatbot can understand and connect with customers who may share unpredictable comments like these, human agents are still necessary.

Indeed, technology should help customer service reps spend "less time on routine administrative tasks and more time solving customer problems," says Jeff Foley, director of product marketing for customer service applications at Pegasystems. "Instead of using technology to replace as many people as possible, companies that use technology to help their employees provide a better service will ultimately provide a better customer experience."