Has the rise of AI put another nail in the coffin of decent customer service?

AI another nail in the coffin

AI, for some people, is a godsend. If you’re in a hurry at the supermarket, with just a few items in your basket, for example, self-service tills can be a much quicker solution than waiting in a queue behind those whose weekly shopping is being methodically scanned by the cashier (that’s provided you don’t need an ID check and nothing triggers the self-serve red light—otherwise you can be waiting just as long for a human to come and remedy the issue!).

Buying tickets via an app before boarding a train (rather than trying to find a guard on board), self-service points at the Post Office, being able to take a picture of a cheque with your phone to pay it into your bank account (rather than trekking to the nearest branch); all of these things, I believe, are technological advancements that genuinely save consumers a lot of time and trouble.

NB: I understand that such technology is completing a task that a person used to complete, and so, in terms of the job market, it could be argued that AI is more of a problem than a solution. However, for the purposes of this blog, I’m focusing on the impact of technology and AI on customer service.

There’s no doubt that chatbots, apps and digital solutions save companies a huge amount of money. Digital assistants, whatever their sector, don’t need breaks, they’re available for work 24/7, and they’re not likely to hold their employer ransom via a union or cite working directives. However, they do not—and I can’t see that they ever will—give the same level of customer service that a human could provide.

And that’s the rub. If you want the convenience of a digital transaction, you can’t expect the warmth and interaction you’d get from another human being as they deal with your business. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg could pool their finances, resources and their knowledge, and they’d still not be able to design artificial intelligence that could assess body language, read between the lines and understand what going above and beyond would mean to a customer more than a human could.

Customer service assistant

Maybe no one expects anything other than a completed transaction through AI, which is fine (I think). That said, if you decide to only offer AI solutions as your customers’ first point of contact, at least ensure it can sufficiently do the job.

AI is the new gatekeeper?

A friend of mine has been incredibly frustrated by her interactions with a large organisation recently. She was required to set up a direct debit to pay the company on a monthly basis, and whilst this is a process she—and, no doubt, the majority of the general public—has done many times before, she experienced nothing but problems on this occasion. Firstly, her bank cancelled the mandate for no apparent reason, before the first payment was even collected.

She tried to get in touch with the company in question to find out why this happened and to set it up again, but the only option she received was an automated phone service. Even when she thought she’d set up a new direct debit mandate via the AI, the money still sat in her account, uncollected. She subsequently received countless texts and emails from the company saying she owed them money. She had no idea what the problem was; all she wanted to do was speak to someone at the company and get to the bottom of the issue.

The company’s chatbots didn’t have the scope to deal with her issue and there was no live chat function. She tried emailing the company but got no response. Seemingly, her only option was the automated phone system. Though there was an option on the phone’s menu of speaking to a human, when she chose this, the AI simply told her to ‘call back later’. Which she did, numerous times.

The problem, weeks later still hasn’t been resolved. She’s still receiving texts and emails to say there’s no direct debit mandate set up on her bank account, despite her providing the necessary details many times over. She feels that the company’s AI is acting as a gatekeeper, preventing her from speaking to someone who could sort her issue in minutes.

I don’t doubt that an automated phone system and chatbots save organisations lots of money, but they’re of little use when the service user’s problem is not a simple one—then, AI is a hindrance, not a help. With its pre-programmed, limited questions and responses, a chatbot was never going to be able to help my friend and, given the number of times she has unsuccessfully tried to speak to someone via the ‘any other problem’ option on the phone, it’s clear there aren’t enough employees manning the lines that actually exist.

Chat bot

Too accustomed to shoddy service

The pandemic, in its early stages, forced companies of all sizes to adapt to remote working. During this time, the public understood that calls would likely take longer to be answered, that documents may take longer to be issued, and that products may take longer to arrive. However, the first lockdown was more than two years ago…companies should have adapted by now.

The WHO has recently confirmed that we’re ‘at the tail end’ of the Covid crisis. Does this mean that standards of customer service will rise to the levels they were before 2020?

I won’t hold my breath. There are far too many organisations holding on to the pandemic as an excuse to put profits before people—the people working within their walls and people handing over their hard-earned money.

Maybe the popularity of AI combined with the ‘put up with it because you have no choice’ attitude of the pandemic has obliterated the need to offer good customer service because the average consumer has learned not to expect anything other than average service at best. Isn’t that sad?

Before the pandemic, as every sector became more and more saturated, it was perhaps difficult for a business to stand out from its competitors. Price wars were common, and it was often only the quality of a company’s customer service that differentiated them from their rivals. Fast forward to today, and again, concentrating on the level of service you give to your consumers could make all the difference in your business—because, as a nation, we’ve become far too accustomed to shoddy treatment.

When was the last time you had really good service? Can you remember? I bet AI wasn’t involved.

It would be almost effortless to make the customer journey an outstanding one in 2022—given that most companies have now shifted online.

For the savvier businesses out there, therein lies the opportunity. The opportunity to re-educate the customer as to what it feels like to be valued, to flood the customer journey with warmth and personality, and to show how you can easily go above and beyond (far beyond) their expectations.

All this starts with your staff—your people—not Rodney the Robot.

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