Press 1 to Change Customer Service Forever

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If you’ve ever muddled your way through a poorly designed automated phone system — complete with a tinny voice repeatedly intoning,”Say ‘more options’ for more options” — there’s a fair chance you’ve at some point wound up getting frustrated and shouting words to the effect of: “Let me speak to a human being!”

Companies know, of course, that their customers would often prefer to talk to a live agent — but people are expensive. To keep costs low, enterprises have a powerful incentive to shunt customers across to automated systems instead.

That leads to a weird compromise in which companies seek to emulate real human interactions: you’ll hear the simulated clacking of a keyboard in the background, as though the virtual “agent” were really typing your information into their computer, or get cute “Mmhmm” and “Got it!” responses to the things you say. Some systems even hesitate or make breathing noises to create the impression that you’re speaking to a real person.

Such efforts don’t fool anyone, of course. In fact, the effort to simulate human interactions typically feels pretty grating, especially if the automated system can’t quickly and effectively solve customers’ problems.

What’s needed, instead, is a new focus on embracing the things that AI tools do best. Instead of trying to deliver an artificial human interaction, we need to lean into new AI technologies’ ability to be better than humans in certain ways. That means building smarter customer service systems that can deliver more intelligent, more streamlined, and more compelling experiences for our customers. Done right, that will drive more value for customers, while also allowing companies to capture new efficiencies and lower their operating costs — a true win-win situation.

5 principles for AI customer service

Of course, many enterprises are already using AI and automated technologies to streamline customer service, and some of them are doing a great job. But for the most part, such efforts still focus on reducing the cost-per-ticket rather than on optimizing the customer experience.

The AI era gives us an opportunity to do better. Large language models, natural language processing, and other AI innovations will certainly reduce the cost of running large-scale customer service operations. But they can also radically improve the customer experience, and perhaps even turn customer service into a strategic asset for the modern enterprise.

Here are 5 key ways businesses can implement AI solutions to level up customer service:

Empower the user. Customers shouldn’t be left passively waiting for assistance. Using AI tools, brands can empower consumers to actively self-serve the information and resources they need, with chatbots and other low-friction tools surfacing existing information and resources. Advanced search capabilities can also be used to proactively surface information based on user intent and context. With no need to wait on hold or navigate annoying phone trees, consumers will feel more confident and in control as they engage with your brand.

Don’t wait to be asked. In the AI era, it’s possible to predict and anticipate the needs faced by consumers as they purchase and use your products. This might be as simple as linking a customer’s purchase history to your phone system, ensuring that they’re quickly offered setup or troubleshooting support for a new product or service — or guaranteeing that follow-up calls about an existing issue don’t require customers to jump through the same hoops over and over again.

Tailor experiences to individual needs. Existing phone trees and other automated service tools force square pegs into round holes: if your problem or need doesn’t line up with the options presented to you, you’re out of luck. With AI, it’s possible to offer a much richer experience. From personalized greetings to tailored solutions that quickly provide customers with relevant information and solutions, it’s possible to deliver a customized service experience based on each individual’s past interactions and specific needs.

Close the loop. Customer interactions aren’t just something to be rushed through as quickly as possible. They’re potentially a powerful source of insights — and if you can close the loop, and feed those insights back into your AI systems, you have a chance to continuously improve the customer experience over time. This is where AI can seem like magic: by drawing on insights from the whole range and historical experiences of your customers, you can update and refine your AI models in real time to make sure that each new interaction is the best it can possibly be.

Provide an off-ramp. AI increases the amount of customer queries that can be dealt with automatically, but you still need to give customers an easy way to opt out of automated services. It’s a self-evident truth that not every customer inquiry can easily be dealt with by an automated system, but a surprising number of enterprises go out of their way to make their human agents hard to access. The goal should be to automate everything that can be done so effectively — freeing up your team to spend more time with customers who need a creative and compassionate human interaction.

A win-win approach

Will we ever get to the point where our customers seek AI services? Well, let’s be realistic: it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find ourselves so frustrated with a human agent that we wind up yelling, “Let me speak to the ‘bot again — they were way better!”

The data shows, however, that customers are open to AI innovation. In fact, in certain situations consumers already prefer automated services to live agents. For many inquiries, speed is of the essence, and customers would much prefer to deal with a ‘bot for 30 seconds than spend 30 minutes waiting on hold for a human support agent. According to McKinsey, some companies will soon handle 95% or more of their customer interactions via automated and AI-enabled channels.

The key, as we undergo this transition, will be to create AI customer service tools in ways that genuinely add value. That requires a commitment not just to harvesting cost savings by building automated systems, but also to developing and deploying smart AI technologies that intelligently enrich the customer experience and empower consumers to achieve their goals and resolve their problems more quickly and painlessly than ever before.

AI systems won’t replace people because there will always be a need for human empathy and creativity as part of the customer support value chain. The real inflexion point, then, will come as AI systems get smart enough to triage incoming customer calls effectively, and dynamically steer complex requests to human agents while rapidly and effectively delivering results for customers with more routine questions or needs.

The buzz surrounding ChatGPT and other AI tools gives businesses an important window of opportunity to engage AI-curious customers with powerful new technologies. Done right, this approach has the potential to make brand interactions far less frustrating for consumers — and turn customer service into a powerful driver of lasting loyalty and brand value for today’s forward-thinking enterprises.