Back in 2011, Gartner boldly predicted that by 2020 85% of customer relationships would be managed without human intervention. While that number may have seemed ambitious at the time, there is little doubt that the service landscape has subsequently changed enormously, and customers have embraced automated service.
Indeed, as early as 2014, there was a notable shift towards self-service. Forrester reported the share of customers self-serving via web had reached 74% by 2014, with the percent using virtual agents leaping rapidly from to 55%, from 28% the year previous.
This trend has only been compounded in the intervening years.
Recent research by Amdocs, for instance, found that 75% of surveyed consumers said they would prefer to use online self-service over a call centre. Elsewhere, The Real Self-Service Economy report indicated that 70% of customers now expect a company website to include a self-service application.
The appeal is clear. Why cool your heels in a call centre queue when you can quickly resolve your query via chatbot? Why sit through a lengthy technical explanation to a problem from an agent when you can pore over an online FAQ or view a short, informative video?
And customers have become so comfortable with automated engagements that a survey of 2,000 UK consumers by Mindtree has even demonstrated that shoppers are welcoming the idea of robot-driven High Street stores. Against a backdrop of a rise in the number of fast food restaurants replacing workers with self-service kiosks, The ‘Sixth Sense of Retail’ study found that over half (51%) of shoppers aged 16-24 would visit robot-driven stores – though older demographics admitted they were more apprehensive about this idea.
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Of course, automated service is also extremely attractive to businesses. The likes of chatbots reduce costs to serve; increase service availability to 24/7, 365 days a year; cut call waiting times due to reduced call loads; and standardise quality.
Little surprise, then, that businesses have leapt at the chance to ramp up automation.
2016 was a breakout year for chatbots, with companies including Bank of America, Domino’s and Mastercard all announcing chatbots to improve customer experience. But other automated service channels have also proliferated.
While 35% of current jobs are at risk from automation, that number rises to 91% in the customer service profession.
Messaging apps have become an increasingly popular platform, for instance. American fast food chain Taco Bell has introduced the TacoBot, which allows customers to order food and pay via the Slack messaging app, as well as ask for recommendations.
And with AI assistants such as Amazon’s Echo gaining traction, these too have been baked into service plans. For example, Domino’s allows Echo users to have pizza delivered straight to their door once they have established a preset order within the Dominos app, after which they merely need to say the magic words: "Alexa, open Domino’s and place my Easy Order."
With automated platforms handling a rising proportion of service enquiries, the outlook for human agents is looking increasingly bleak. Indeed, a study by Oxford University and Deloitte has estimated that while 35% of current jobs are at risk from automation, that number rises to 91% in the customer service profession, with contact centre workers facing a 75% likelihood of automation in the future.
The human touch
Nonetheless, research consistently demonstrates that the human aspect remains important to most service propositions.
A recent study by market research firm Vanson Bourne demonstrates how heavily the majority of consumers still rely on human interactions to have their needs met. Nine in ten (91%) respondents told Vanson Bourne that there should always be a way to contact a real person, and the same number (91%) agreed that complicated issues are more likely to require a real person to resolve it.
Elsewhere, eight in ten (81%) also agreed that contacting a real person is the fastest way to get a question answered.
In other research, Accenture found that 83% of US consumers, and 76% of UK consumers, prefer dealing with human beings rather than digital channels to solve customer services issues, while a further 71% said that they preferred receiving advice from humans.
“While technology is now an integral part of customer services, with brands and organisations experimenting with everything from chatbots to artificial intelligence to engage consumers in new ways, human interaction remains critical to customer satisfaction, even in the digital age,” emphasises Rachel Barton, managing director, advanced customer strategy, at Accenture Strategy.
So are businesses in danger of over-automating their service? Emboldened by encouragement from customers, and keen to reap the benefits of digital, many brands have gone full bore into automated service.
Barton notes: “In recent years, companies have lost sight of the importance of human interaction and often make it too difficult for customers to get the right level of help and service they need. Instead, they have invested heavily in digital technologies to serve customer needs, which has given rise to ‘human-less’ customer services.”
But Barton suggests that completely automating service will be counterintuitive.
She continues: “Many companies wrongly assume that their digital-only customers are their most profitable, and that customer service is a cost. Consequently, they have over-invested in digital technologies and channels, which has made them lose their most profitable customers – multichannel customers – who want experiences that cover both digital and traditional channels.”
A satisfactory experience
And with many customers still having a preference for human service, a growing volume of research is demonstrating the impact that over-automation could have.
For instance, a study commissioned by Yonder Digital Group, canvassing the opinions of 1,000 UK customers, reveals the importance of striking the right balance of live agents and automation in the service proposition. The report found that 84% of respondents reported they would be more loyal and increase business with companies who offer a choice of ways of getting in touch with them, while 87% reported they were more likely to be loyal and buy again from a company that is able to provide live agent interaction when they need it. Meanwhile, 69% reported they would actually defect if a company is unable to put them through to a real person when they have a query.
87% reported they were more likely to be loyal and buy again from a company that is able to provide live agent interaction when they need it.
“Customers are complex and have varying preferences for contacting a company, depending on the issue at hand,” says Graham Ede of Yonder Digital Group. “Offering a choice of channels goes some way in ensuring the customer doesn’t give up half-way through their query, and the knowledge that a live agent is available if necessary is a crucial factor in this journey.
“At key points during a customer’s experience, it is vital to be able to reach a live agent – it could be that an unusual situation arises, the website or automated chat service isn’t providing the right answer, or there is a complaint which needs to be expressed verbally. A satisfactory experience with a live agent can be reassuring and make consumers feel that their custom is valued, which is why businesses should not underestimate the significance of human interaction.”
Barton believes that the onus is now on organisations to ensure that they are striking the right balance of automated and human service for their customers – and if there has been over-automation, to dial it back to an appropriate level.
“UK companies have reached a tipping point in their customer’s digital intensity and need to rebalance their digital and traditional customer services investments if they want to improve loyalty, differentiate themselves and drive growth,” she explains. “Companies abandon the human connection at their own risk and are facing the need to rebuild it to deliver the varied and tailored outcomes that customers demand.”
Anil Gandharve, associate vice president at Mindtree, adds: “The difference between success and failure will be marked by striking the right balance between humans and technology. Only when retailers discover this ‘sixth sense’ can they develop stronger and more impactful customer relationships.”
So how do you find the right balance of human and digital service? Must you rely on a ‘sixth sense’ or is there another way of finding the right proportion of manual and automated service?
And what are the points in the customer journey that are most appropriate for digital/human service? When is most appropriate for a chatbot, for instance, and when is human service more appropriate?
Over the coming weeks, MyCustomer will be examining how to strike the right balance of human and digital service, and establishing the right time and places for each.
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.