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Podcast trends: Insights from customer experience tech leaders

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In the 2023 instalment of our podcast trends series, we take a look back at the insights and assertions of some of the foremost technology leaders within the customer experience sphere.

30th Nov 2023

Since launching MYC’D UP with Tech Leaders at the beginning of the year, we have been fortunate enough to pick the brains of professionals from some of the most prominent CX technology providers in the industry.

These discussions have provided listeners with a new level of understanding and appreciation of precisely how these companies envisage the use of their products, details on common user pitfalls, and candid revelations about the challenges and shortcomings of CX technology.

Despite the diversity of the guests’ backgrounds and experiences, several topics were prevalent across the podcasts – highlighting just how important they are to the modern CX professional. 

So what exactly are the trends that have defined the customer experience technology space in 2023?

Customers still crave the human touch

As Bruce Springsteen put it, "I just want someone to talk to. And a little of that human touch." And if it’s good enough for ‘The Boss’, it’s certainly good enough for your CX offerings.

Interestingly, although the leaders that we spoke to were all undoubtedly proponents of technology’s ability to improve the customer experience, almost every one of them was also quick to point out the importance of customer service agents and the need to provide customers with a human touch. 

This was certainly the case for Yusdi Santoso, who was Head of Customer, Brand and Research at Qualtrics at the time. Yusdi spoke to us shortly after the release of Qualtrics’ consumer trends report for 2023, with one of the key takeaways from the research being that customers are increasingly seeking a human connection in their interactions with brands.

In discussing the findings of the report, Yusdi revealed that "for the majority of the activities, actually the consumer still prefers having the human interaction.

"I think we as a business community might have sort of, in the last couple of years, as we've digitised and pushed a lot into self-service, we've probably overestimated the people's desire for digital and self-service. 

I think we as a business community have underestimated the level of desire for human interactions.

"And in some ways, underestimated the level of desire for human interactions, especially looking for the more complex and highly emotional moment of truth, right? So it's not really either or, I think the inherent desire of being human is always there. I think it's just us as a business, probably needing to find the right balance."

Identifying the right balance of when and when not to use technology or human agents was also discussed by Colin Crowley – Senior Customer Experience and Customer Support Leader at Freshworks.

With a focus on chatbots specifically, Colin outlined that one of the major challenges with using AI technology is the tendency for businesses to overuse and become overreliant on chatbots:

"So when there's a case where something clearly needs to go to a human being because it's far too complex and requires human empathy and a chatbot really can't solve the problem.

"That's another example where I think we've all had cases in our own lives where chatbots fall flat. So that's really the importance of understanding and defining human value in conversations. So really understanding where human beings bring in an important component like an X factor if you will, that makes a difference."

When asked whether he could see a time in the future when chatbots could reach a level that was ‘more human than human’, Colin was quick to shut down the suggestion:

"Every time there's a new technology that comes around, people wonder if human beings are being deprecated in some way. So no, I don't think that's ever going to take place because there are just too many unique characteristics that human beings bring to every conversation, especially when it comes to emotional intelligence, empathy and so forth.

Chatbots are never going to be able to be more human than human beings.

"We're in a world where more and more customers have higher expectations when it comes to quality. So the need for that is increasing, not decreasing. So no, there's always going to be that need for human engagement and chatbots are never going to be able to be more human than human beings because of that."

For Yusdi, whilst he admonishes the need for human agents, he believes that it shouldn’t be viewed as humans or machines, but that CX technology providers should be looking to humanise their AI programs:

"Now, I'm not saying it's just a matter of reverting back and undoing the digitisation, and putting lots and lots of people back in. It's more about how can you humanise the experience, whether that's online or offline. How can you digitise experience and also deliver a personalised experience?

"So, you as a consumer or customer do not want to be treated like a robot, you want to be treated like a human being, that means, even in your digital channel. So how can you build in that process to help understand you as a person, to empathise with you and also adjust how you engage based on the signal you give as a consumer?"

In order to achieve this humanisation, Yusdi sees the use of technology to collect and collate customer feedback as integral:

"That doesn't mean reducing your use of technology, because listening at scale is actually going to get to the heart of the problem, right? And you need technology to make it efficient and scalable, but use it in a way that you put your consumer customers as well as employees, at the centre, and treat them as human beings."

Cristina Fonseca – Vice President of Product at Zendesk – also highlights the need for humans and technology to work in tandem:

"There are complex queries or more sensitive questions that should absolutely be handled by an agent, there are for sure cases where empathy and just the human touch will make a big difference. 

There are for sure cases where empathy and the human touch will make a big difference.

"And then there are lots of cases where the AI has a suggestion of what to do. But the AI is not super sure, or not very confident about a particular reply or resolution. And the agent should be the one making that decision. So in the CX world, having an assistant that can help agents be more productive, and automate some of these manual tasks, I think is a winning strategy."

AI’s role in assisting agents and improving CX was unsurprisingly a topic that also received a lot of attention across our podcast discussions, and will be unpacked in more detail in the next section.

Why isn’t AI living up to the hype?

Is 2023 the year of AI?

Be it the start of Beatlemania in 1963; the explosion of punk rock in 1976; the Pokemon phenomenon of 1999; or perhaps the biggest of the lot, the Rickrolling craze of 2008 – these years have become synonymous with the cultural events of the time.

Whilst AI technology has existed for decades, it has become ubiquitous in recent times; from the popularity of ChatGPT to the controversy surrounding AI creating digital likenesses of actors, which has played a large part in the SAG-AFTRA strikes.

And the customer experience sector is no different.

Yet, despite the growing popularity and societal acceptance of AI, customer experience and customer service teams are still routinely struggling to fully reap its benefits.

One of the key reasons for this is the yearning for human connection that has been discussed in the above section; however, according to Cristina Fonseca, another common stumbling block for companies is knowing when and when not to use AI tools such as chatbots:

"There are certain types of queries for which the answer is always the same. Most of the time it's done by a human, but it could be done by a machine.

"So for example, the first task of AI to me is understanding what should be automated and what should not be automated. Because at the end of the day, we all believe in the potential, but at the same time, most of us don't really like bots. And why is that? Because the implementation of bots today is not very well thought out. And to change that we need to understand bots are not the solution for everything.

The first task of AI to me is understanding what should and should not be automated.

"If bots understand customers really well, bots should handle the repetitive tasks; the situations where you can just get the reply and send the reply to the customer."

The correct deployment of chatbots and not trying to overuse them was also discussed by Colin Crowley:

"More and more people appreciate the fact that chatbots have a place. It's just a matter of defining that place more intelligently and making sure you have the appropriate resources to define what that place is for your organisation.

"Chatbots really, at the end of the day, only go so far, and many companies actually use chatbots very effectively to solve very basic issues.

"So you think of people doing things like automating their scheduling process, let's say you’re a primary care provider, the amount of efficiencies you can get just from tying a chatbot into your scheduling system to enable people to make appointments and change appointments and cancel appointments is huge. Just in that alone, that's a relatively basic use of chatbots. So a lot of the big wins with chatbots are in that basic area."

But it’s not just about the best application of AI, it’s also about identifying the type of bot you need, and understanding the differences between an answer bot and a chatbot – as Colin explains:

"With a chatbot, you have more built-in conversational flows with yes/no questions and things of that nature, that allows you to get more targeted answers to customers that are more relevant to them.

"Another thing is just bad training and chatbot programming. So a lot of the success of chatbots can depend on very basic things – it can even depend on the phrasing you use.

"I'll use an example from my experience because I spent about 15 years heading customer experience organisations and customer support teams prior to joining Freshworks in the software space. And I remember in one prior example, very, very common that a lot of companies that ship products have a lot of customers asking about the delivery of the product. So ‘when am I going to get my order or my delivery?’ or what have you.

Small things like the phrasing you use can prevent chatbots from really understanding the customer intent.

"So I worked in a food service, where we shipped boxes of meals to people. And we had these great FAQ articles that answered people's questions about the delivery of their orders. And we noticed that the chatbot wasn't returning the appropriate articles, even though we had all these great articles. And it ended up just being a phrasing issue because customers were referring to these deliveries as boxes. So they were asking: “Well, where's my box?’, “Where's my order?”, “Where's my delivery?”. So we were using internal lingo and that small thing prevented the chatbot from really understanding the customer intent."

Yusdi Santoso also provides an example of where poor application of technology is failing the customer and the organisation, rather than the technology itself:

"I think a lot of businesses, unfortunately, fall into the trap of where if you've got a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right?

"Now, let me share an example here: we work with a fashion retailer, a global company based in Europe. And this was two years ago, at the beginning of COVID, when they saw a lot of increase in call volume, right? And with any businesses at that time, they're looking for ways to manage this. And digital again, comes to the forefront.

"So we say, okay, let's put in a virtual assistant. So, this is going to be essentially a chatbot to help answer queries. Now, when they put it in, again, kind of trying to illustrate the examples, the initial results are good, so they were able to cover a significant chunk of the call volume. So it sounds like a win-win.

"But then they dig deeper into the data, and the result becomes a little bit more mixed because they identify there is a significant gap in satisfaction for people who were served by the human compared to people who were served by the virtual assistant."

There was a significant gap in satisfaction for people who were served by humans compared to people who were served by virtual assistants.

Another issue that Yusdi believes is negating the impact of technology advancements within the CX sector is the oversaturation of the market, with many organisations frequently chopping and changing suppliers and systems:

"There are all sorts of vendors with overlapping and competitive technology and different claims. And everybody says, 'Yes, yes, absolutely, we are the best thing since sliced bread'. This of course is challenging in several ways, right?

"I think number one, is often things are not connected, there's a lot of silos. Now, if we go back to our team again, and we're focussing on the customer as an individual human, the customer expects businesses to know and understand them. If you're dealing with humans, you have the context of, 'Okay, when's the last time I spoke to them?' You can see how often you've engaged with a customer, and then tailor the engagement based on that.

"Now, it's hard to do when you don't even have connected data, you don't know for example, whether this customer has gone to the website and then gone to your shop. And even what specifically he or she was searching for. So if we can understand this and understand their preference, next time we pick up the conversation, we should bring that context in line, right?"

Jim Davies, former CEO of Calabrio, also commented on the difficulties that organisations are encountering when faced with so many tech options. Like sitting in front of the TV with your significant other flicking through all 748 streaming services, before – after a good hour of debating what to watch, filled with plenty of ‘I don’t mind's and ‘maybe another time’s – you settle on the same comfort show you always watch (usually Peep Show).

For Jim, when it comes down to selecting the best technology solution for your business, it is all about balance and choice:

"I think it's too easy to get caught up in all the hype around digital transformation. And there's so much content on it from research organisations, media outlets, software vendors themselves, that you can get sort of swept along with that.

"To me, it's more about balance and choice. And yeah, companies do need to do a much better job digitally. And who can't recite a chatbot experience that drove them mad due to its baffling level of incompetence? And obviously, there are all the new messaging apps that millions of consumers are using every day that we don't support yet in contact centres. So we do need to do a better job here. And that's what's driving this over-emphasis.

"But as I say, it's really about choice and balance, I think the reality is customers are going to pick the channel that makes the most sense for the interaction they need to have. Now, sometimes this will be digital and maybe self-service. But sometimes calling and speaking to an agent will make the most sense.

"So being there to provide customers with a choice of channels, without an emphasis on any one channel makes the most sense to me. And I think the most important aspect we need to really grasp over the next few years, is how we seamlessly deal with the growing percentage of interactions that will start in one channel, and then move to another channel partway through.

The challenge I see most centres facing at the moment is they usually lose the context of the interaction during the handover.

"The challenge I see most centres facing at the moment is they usually lose the context of the interaction during this handover. And this causes significant frustration for that customer who's got to re-enter the information or repeat verbally, their situation to the next agent.

"So I think that to me, what is of more importance is getting that balance right and being able to transfer that context of interaction from channel to channel. I think that's more important than necessarily supporting the latest and greatest in terms of consumer channels over the next few years."

The trendy tip of the iceberg

Whilst these were the major themes that were prevalent across our MYC’D UP with Tech Leaders discussions, we would implore you to listen to the full podcasts or read the transcripts, as this really is a small taste of the smorgasbord of insights and advice on offer.

As well as discussing the digital transformation hype, Jim Davies also unpacks the reasons for the experience gap between customers and companies – attempting to explain why contact centres rate their performance a lot higher than consumers do, and what businesses can do to breach this divide.

Our most recent instalment covered a hugely under-discussed issue in the CX sphere, with Leonie Watson of Tetralogical talking about digital accessibility.

In a truly fascinating chat, Leonie explains how her loss of sight led to her pursuing a career in creating inclusive digital experiences, culminating in her co-founding a company dedicated to enhancing accessibility and promoting inclusivity in the digital landscape.

These podcasts are a phenomenal resource for customer experience professionals in any sector and at any level. They provide in-depth discussions about the real issues affecting CX, and what leaders are doing to bring about change. 

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