(Editor’s Note: The following post originally appeared on the Huffington Post).
Barely a day goes by when a new prediction about robots replacing human jobs doesn’t grab the headlines. Just one example is Institute for Public Policy Research, which has estimated that more than 10m jobs in the UK – a third of the total – could be at risk from automation within the next two decades, particularly in sectors such as retail and manufacturing. I do love a prediction. Looking ahead to the future is exciting, but I’m also a firm believer in the present. What’s happening right now? What kind of service do we, consumers, actually want in 2017? Does the rise in robots have to mean a decline in human customer service?
A cost cutting move
Firstly, let’s be honest about why organizations are eager to explore how they can build Artificial Intelligence (AI) in to their customer-facing operations. One of the primary reasons is it offers speed and efficiency; cutting out traditionally manual steps for employees and providing the kind of customer experience that time-pressured and impatient people want. If it’s possible to do so, it makes sense to streamline processes and make everyone’s lives easier – both employees and ours.
But the cost-saving potential is also a big attraction for businesses, as they strive to manage their bottom lines and boost profits. 02, for example, announced at Mobile World Congress earlier this year that it was investing in an AI robot in its customer services, as it planned to cut costs before a potential stock market float later this year.
The fact is that humans are expensive to employ; the cost of salaries, benefits, pensions and ongoing training means employees have a big financial impact on a business. So it’s understandable that organizations are seeking ways to automate elements of the customer experience.
Using tech in the right way
For customer-facing employees, particularly when dealing with high volumes of enquiries or complaints, the value of technology lies in automating mundane tasks, for example research, administrative, and record maintenance activities. The idea is this will then free up their time to focus on tasks that only humans at present can do, and where they add value.
There are understandably concerns about the risk of human jobs being made redundant, research also shows that some industries are open to how AI can help them do their jobs. A report by Accenture found 79% of banking professionals agree that AI will revolutionize the way they gain information from and interact with customers.
Clearly, some things we do on a daily basis do not require input from customer service employees. As people wanting to live our lives in the most streamlined and easy way possible, we have largely embraced autonomy, particularly when it comes to mobile banking. If we want to quickly transfer money between accounts, pay a friend back for dinner or set up a standing order, it’s generally faster and easier to do it ourselves – rather than ring up a cell center or queue up in a branch during our precious lunch hours.
Don’t forget we’re humans
But I’d argue there are still crucial areas where we value speaking to actual humans, especially when it comes to more complex financial decisions, or if we want to discuss the details of changing our mobile tariff or insurance policy, for example. This is where the human touch is still relevant – and I’m not alone in thinking this. A 2016 report by market researchers Vanson Bourne found that 91% of respondents agree that there should always be a way to contact a real person.
Although AI technology is advancing at a rapid rate, there isn’t a chatbot, virtual assistant or voice-activated home device in existence which has the in-built intelligence to identify the full range of human emotions – and then adapt its responses accordingly to keep the customer on-board and not rile or upset them further by saying the wrong thing. Despite claims by some, the tech industry has a long way to go before it can prove it can offer products and services sophisticated enough to understand human sentiment, for example, and apply the learnings appropriately throughout the customer journey.
So far, probably the closest inventors have got to this is the Emotional Chatting Robot (ECM); a chatbot developed by a team in China which is able to produce factually coherent answers and also express feelings such as happiness, sadness or disgust.
Technology is clearly a hugely important part of the service organizations want. But it’s only part of the picture. People still want to talk to people, particularly in high value situations such as car sales or investment banking. Where the technology comes in is supporting humans in giving them the information they need intelligently at a time they need it. It complements the job, not replaces it.
When it comes to what we want from businesses, it’s speed, efficiency and feeling valued and understood. What’s important is organizations are able to seamlessly tie the back-office technology with the front-end customer service, which after all is what we experience when we ring a call center or pop in to a branch.
We should be able to take it for granted that the employees we speak to have all our data and previous interactions at their fingertips – we don’t want to tell our life story every time we interact with a business.
The future of AI in the workplace
The rise of automation will reinvent traditional business practices. Neither organizations or consumers need to fear AI. But it needs to be embraced in a realistic and pragmatic way; and considered in the wider picture of the whole customer experience, and deployed at appropriate times. Although robots grab the headlines, they won’t be grabbing all our jobs any time soon.