AI is not coming for Customer Service teams. AI is coming to elevate Customer Service teams.

October 2, 2017 Suneet Bhatt

One of the most heartening discussions around AI is that it will “increase productivity by sharpening the human mind.”

The balance between productivity and impact is why I believe AI will have a positive, and transformational effect on Customer Service teams and individuals in the profession.

As AI advances, the work done by machines won’t be what differentiates a company. It will be what is expected. While the human beings working on the front lines, collaborating with AI and standing on its shoulders, will be what differentiate the best companies from their peers.

Customer Service as the Torch Bearer.

Let’s start with a universal truth: customers are tired of being sold to. They just want help getting their questions answered. . Technology, data, and design, core pillars of the Customer Experience (CX), will enable this experience — but how will it be delivered?

Traditional disciplines responsible for carrying this burden, like marketing, sales, account management, customer success, have all had an amazing run. They’ve done an excellent job of delivering the right message to the right customer at the right time. As a result, customers have access to more information than ever. But, is it helpful? I look at my own purchase decisions, I think of the complexity of the buying cycle, especially for considered purchases, and the writing on the wall is clear: customers are more “informed” than ever but they aren’t smarter.

Funny enough, a Customer Service team already spends its entire day doing precisely what the modern (increasingly informed, increasingly confused) customer needs: help cutting through the noise to find the fastest way to a helpful answer.

The Customer Service philosophy, “just being helpful”, is engulfing the entire organization. It’s why, over time, you’ll see customer-facing roles converge and move away from vertical, isolated ideas about what individuals do to customers (I sell to you, I market to you), and more about what you do for customers (I help you at this part of your journey.) Integrating these functions and putting the customer first is how customer experience improves.

As these disciplines converge, Customer Service, the longest tenured torch bearer of “being helpful”, will undeniably see its role elevated.

Company, meet Expectations. Expectations, meet Disappointment.

The operative word is “will” because we are still talking about a future state, albeit, more optimistically. Customers have a minimal set of Customer Service expectations already: advocate for us don’t sell to us, be accountable to us personally, solve our problems, and once you do all that, be proactive and innovative and pull our relationship forward.

Modest, reasonable … and unmet, customer expectations. Customer Service teams are falling short for two fundamental reasons: dollars invested and priorities set. AI will assist with both head on.

From Conference Stages to Active Company Strategies

For all the love and celebrity CX has received over the past five years, it’s been all presentations on conference stages and white papers available for download. Per Forrester:

· 95% of customer service leaders say providing good CX is their top priority

· 75% say good CX provides a competitive advantage

· 37% have a dedicated budget for CX initiatives

Put lofty expectations alongside miniscule budget investments and you get initiatives focused on spreadsheet level scalability and frictionless design. You also get ideas that move people out of the equation altogether, which is too extreme for both the companies implementing strategies to the customers being served. (Think, for example, of the progressive spiral online trading went through from 1998 to 2017, with a heavy push into self-service vs. broker led, followed by a recession which forced collaboration between the two, into a new generation of investors who were raised on a more robotic, faceless investment experience that we see today — we’ll see if we’re ready for another spiral when the market turns again, but even if we have one, it will be less sever). For the next five years we will still be talking about collaboration. And as a result, AI provides a unique answer to resource investment by shifting the discussion from resource requests to resource redeployment.

Confusing Speed with Productivity

Another part of the equation is that Customer Service teams are still, most often managed by operational metrics (response times, time-to-close) or explicit customer self-reported metrics (NPS, CSAT). We’ve confused speed with productivity. And we’ve altogether ignored the idea of sharper minds, instead forcing our teams to scale in number but not in impact. AI will help shift how Customer Service teams are managed and measured, by elevating what they work on, and by moving our smartest and sharpest resources, the minds of our people, to our most impactful and valuable customer questions and needs.

The Golden Age of the Customer

Over the short-term, AI in customer support will be focused on deflection (automating responses to frequently asked questions) and engagement (helping engage with and manage customer expectations while humans aren’t available.) There are some Turing level concerns about the application of AI more broadly, but there are also creative strides being made to combat those concerns (everything from pooling conversations to having recommendations fall back to humans for final delivery.) All in, progress is constant, explosive, and exponential.

The benefit to deflection and low-level engagement is that existing customer support teams will finally be in position to address the very minimum set of expectations customers have today. AI, chatbots, in partnership with more traditional tools (self-service materials) will help liberate Customer Service teams to move beyond customers’ base level expectations. And that’s when the fun happens.

Confusing Speed with Productivity

Another part of the equation is that Customer Service teams are still, most often managed by operational metrics (response times, time-to-close) or explicit customer self-reported metrics (NPS, CSAT). We’ve confused speed with productivity.

And we’ve altogether ignored the idea of sharper minds, instead forcing our teams to scale in number but not in impact.

AI will help shift how Customer Service teams are managed and measured, by elevating what they work on, and by moving our smartest and sharpest resources, the minds of our people, to our most impactful and valuable customer questions and needs.

The Golden Age of the Customer

Over the short-term, AI in customer support will be focused on deflection (automating responses to frequently asked questions) and engagement (helping engage with and manage customer expectations while humans aren’t available.)

The benefit to deflection and low-level engagement is that existing customer support teams will finally be in position to address the very minimum set of expectations customers have today.

AI, chatbots, in partnership with more traditional tools (self-service materials) will help liberate Customer Service teams to move beyond customers’ base level expectations. And that’s when the fun happens.

True Colors Shining Through

Customer experience is the new frontier. Customer Service is the new torch bearer for the ideal Customer experience. Artificial intelligence is Muhammad Ali in Atlanta in 1996, lighting the heck out of that torch. And as a result, all that talk about creating a differentiated, exceptional Customer experience will finally become … real.

While the best, smartest, fastest machines find ways to outdo one another and become more efficient, customers’ expectations will increase. New standards of excellence in support will be set.

Thankfully, Customer Service teams will now have the time, energy, stamina, and mandate to focus more on forward-solving (vs forward-selling) their customers.

(Update from 9:29pm ET on 10/2: A quick thank you to Ben McCormack from FullStory for requesting some clarification here. When I speak about collaboration between AI and Customer Service teams I don’t believe that AI will focus purely on the mundane while human beings focus on the complex. This won’t be linear or sequential. Instead, I believe you’ll see a continuum. On one end, you’ll have the most basic and repeat questions, which will fall into the realm of Self-Service and AI. On the other end, you’ll have the most forward-looking, innovative, unique, potentially even emotionally-driven, which will fall almost exclusively to human beings. For everything in-between, you’ll see some part played by both, whether it’s AI getting answers to 80% accuracy and requiring a human translator, or AI identifying a potential item of significance that a human being than evaluates, researches, and carries the remaining 80% to delivery.)

The human mind, our curiosity and our imagination, will outpace the work AI threatens to “take away” from us in customer service for the foreseeable future simply because our teams on the front line will be motivated and inspired — but also required — to do more to deliver exceptional value to customers, which will be paid back via loyalty and advocacy, in spades.

One Last Thing, It’s Always About the People

The service industry continues to noisily celebrate the idea of “customer first.” There’s something romantic about getting all the information you possibly can on your customer and making sure the customer is central to the service they are receiving.

The best way to put the customer first, is to put your Customer Service team first. This hasn’t happened. It wasn’t the exciting investment to make. It wasn’t the flashy strategy to talk about at a Board Meeting.

But it’s upon us.

Customer expectations continue to increase and we continue to fall short, partially because we’ve made providing excellent Customer Service more complicated for our people on the front lines.

AI fills me with optimism because it changes what is fundamentally possible, and it will work in concert with Customer Service teams to evolve and elevate the Customer Experience in a way that customers want.

Even more exciting?

If we get this union of AI and Customer Service right, we’ll be in position to do something for our employees and our customers that we haven’t been able to do in a very, very long time: raise expectations.

Suneet Bhatt, Chief Growth Officer of The Help Scout Team

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AI is not coming for Customer Service teams. AI is coming to elevate Customer Service teams. was originally published in Machine Learnings on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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