“The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope.”
- Sarah Connor
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Some of you may think quoting from the Terminator movie franchise is a little extreme when discussing the possibility of AI replacing humans in their jobs. Afterall, Terminator is just science fiction, and we are discussing customer service and not the end of humanity as we know it.
Having grown up in a household where science fiction ruled and Star Trek was the TV show of choice on Thursday nights at 8:30 pm, science fiction has become science reality. The ubiquitous iPhone has far surpassed any personal devices seen on the Star Trek TV series, except of course the hand-held phasers which fired directed energy that could stun, kill or even vaporize its target!
How about NASA's Artemis program? Sure, the last time we walked on the moon was 1972, 51 years ago. Ancient history. But the end game for the Artemis program is to send the first astronauts to Mars. Think the 2015 science fiction film "The Martian" with Matt Damon. Artemis is a perfect example of science fiction becoming science reality.
So what does science fiction and science reality have to do with AI and customer service? AI manifesting itself in the form of Open AI’s ChatGPT, Google’s Bard or MicroSoft’s delusional Sydney was science fiction to most of us before November 2022. Now it is science reality.
Is replacing customer service entirely with AI possible? Maybe. Is it likely any time soon? Let’s explore that question.
In October 2022 I wrote an article entitled “Will AI Replace the Contact Center? 7 Actions to Deliver Exceptional Service, with a Human Touch!” In this article I wrote about how AI chatbots are a useful customer service tool to field many of the easy, repetitious questions that many customers often ask, improving response time and creating more time for human contact center agents to answer the more complex customer inquiries.
In November 2022, ChatGPT was introduced and the AI world as we knew it turned upside down. While the 7 actions referred to in my article remain as relevant today as they were back in October, ChatGPT is a game changer! It is a platform that has spawned the development of AI customer service chatbots that will dramatically improve customer service response time. The AI arms race has begun. With ChatGPT’s ability to research and compose a response to a customer’s question almost immediately, or by assisting a human customer service agent by gathering, organizing and summarizing information quickly, the net result is a significant reduction in customer service response time. The savings in time will free up customer service agents to work on higher level tasks.
The question on many people’s mind is, can AI totally replace humans in customer service? Before I answer this question, let’s first define what customer service is.
Customer Service definition:
“Customer service is the support you offer your customers — both before and after they buy and use your products or services — that helps them have an easy and enjoyable experience with you.” - salesforce
Customer service by this definition involves more than a contact center answering questions. It involves sales, demo services, customer onboarding, applications support, training, field service, technical support, and customer success teams. This customer service mosaic comprises what is customer service support, that when done correctly, results in an easy and enjoyable experience for the customer.
Can all these functions be done by AI? Probably not. Field service is the obvious outlier. In order for AI to be effective it has to have access to all of the relevant information required to resolve a customer’s inquiry or issue (and a robot body too!). In a small business environment where information silos are commonplace, this would be a significant challenge for AI driven customer service to overcome. In 2022, small businesses made up 99.9% of U.S. businesses according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
What is an information silo? Here is a definition from Investopedia.
“An information silo is an information management system that is unable to freely communicate with other information management systems. Communication within an information silo is always vertical, making it difficult or impossible for the system to work with unrelated systems.”
Why are information silos a problem for customer service?
“When data is isolated, you can easily lose track of your customer's story with your company — and nothing is more frustrating for a customer than having to repeat their story over and over again to different people.”
- Swetha Amaresan - HubSpot
How common are information silos in small businesses?
It is common for small businesses to keep their costs down by buying packaged, off-the-shelf software solutions to address core business requirements such as accounting, CRM, inventory management, and production scheduling. This is in lieu of purchasing a more expensive ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system that could provide an integrated solution for all these core business functions. As a small business grows, the problem often gets worse creating customer dissatisfaction.
Scott Clark, a journalist for CMSWire writes,
“Ironically, while AI and ML can be effective tools in the fight to eliminate data silos, in order for AI and ML applications to be most effective, data silos must be dealt with to remove conflicting versions of the truth. This requires every team within an organization to be on board with the goal of eliminating data silos. Communication and collaboration between teams must be encouraged and supported. Finally, a business must embrace a data warehouse solution that has the scale and performance to facilitate every department’s data needs.”
There are a lot of dependencies packed into this quote! Getting every team within an organization onboard with the goal of eliminating data silos is a monumental task. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be such a pervasive issue. For the time being at least, AI and ML (Machine Learning) have limited ability, without assistance, to deliver customer service the way that customers expect and want, especially in a small business environment.
Another issue is data quality. In an editorial written by Gerry McGovern, Founder and CEO of Customer Carewords, entitled Clean up Your Data Mess: Be Careful What You Feed AI, McGovern writes,
“AI and all these models depend on data. AI cannot develop anything approaching intelligence without being fed with lots and lots of data. If my experience of almost 30 years of working with the data of some of the largest organizations in the world is anything to go by, then we should be genuinely fearful of the artificial "intelligence" that will emerge.”
“Garbage in, garbage out”.
McGovern believes that organizations typically do not put a lot of care into maintaining data quality. To fix this problem requires “human wisdom”.
So how can AI and ML augment customer service today?
In an article written by Jennifer Torres for CMSWire, Level AI shares an exclusive first look at it’s newest AI system for customer service teams, AgentGPT. Torres writes,
“According to Ashish Nagar, CEO and founder of Level AI, it’s built on Level AI’s existing Natural Language Understanding (NLU) product suite for contact centers. Like ChatGPT, it can respond to customer queries. But AgentGPT, which self-learns from conversations and improves based on agent feedback, also claims to understand the nuances of human language.”
According to Torres, Nager states that the intent is to assist customer service agents, reducing call handling time, speeding up the onboarding process for new contact center agents, while increasing customer satisfaction.
In addition, Torres writes,
“According to Level AI officials, AgentGPT improves through agent feedback, with a built-in system where agents can give a “thumbs up” when they find a solution relevant to the query inputted and “thumbs down” when they do not find it relevant. These serve as indications to the model on what has worked well and what hasn't. It then takes this feedback into consideration and automatically takes action based on that feedback.”
Now that is pretty cool!
Working together, customer service agents and AI can up the customer service game by providing faster, higher accuracy responses to customer inquiries. Research firm Gartner predicts that a “connected rep strategy” could increase call center efficiencies by up to 30%.
Salesforce’s recently released Einstein GPT is an example of this collaboration between AI and humans by creating personalized interactions such as email to customers. It can also research and create specific answers to customer inquiries, facilitating a faster response time by the customer service agent.
While customers care more about getting quick resolution to their issues or questions than about relationships, relationships are still part of the bedrock of customer service, especially in small companies. Relationships are after all part of what makes us human.
So perhaps Sarah Connor was right. While the future of AI is uncertain, there is reason for hope. It is what we choose to make of it.
“The future has not been written. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
- John Connor
Leader of the resistance against the machines
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
To learn more about how to deliver exceptional customer service experiences that drive customer satisfaction, loyalty, revenue and profit, please visit Bass Harbor Group’s website at www.bassharborgroup.com.
Patrick Sandefur is the Founder and Managing Director of Bass Harbor Group / Customer Experience Solutions. His 30+ year career in Customer Service, Sales, Marketing, Product Management and Business Development has given him a unique perspective of what customers want and expect when interacting with a brand.
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