Do we still need people for customer service?

6th Feb 2015

We are living in a time when many experts are predicting one out of every two jobs in Europe is under threat from automation. One of the questions I am asked most frequently after my presentations is: “Who is going to be left working when the world is run by super-digitalised companies?” and this is a reasonable question in the face of ever smarter and ever more powerful computers.

Many people predict customer service representatives and contact centre workers will be amongst the first roles that are taken by completely automated services, offering a much more cost-effective solution for companies. However, studies show that two out of three consumers still attach great important to a personal touch, so have we really reached a point where companies no longer need people for customer service?

Are we ready to pass The Turing Test?

There is a famous test of a machine’s ability to act like a human being called The Turing Test, named after Alan Turing who in 1950, asked the question “can computers think?” in his paper 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence.’ Of course thinking is a difficult concept to demonstrate so the question was adapted to become “can computers imitate people?” which is clearly something we are getting closer to every day.

The Turing Test involves a conversation between man and machine. Quite simply, if the person is convinced that he is talking to another human, the computer has passed the test. However, it is important to note that rather than having to give concrete answers to specific questions, the test is all about coming across as human.

Big news came in 2014 when a computer passed the Turing test for the first time ever. A Russian computer known as Eugene Goostman managed to convince 33% of people that it was human. Importantly, however, we should note that 66% of the jury members were not convinced, and secondly, they were led to believe the “person” they were talking to was a Ukrainian boy of 13 with English as his second language which allowed the computer to make mistake that would have otherwise been unacceptable.

Of course, this made the test lose all credibility for many observers, many computer scientists continue to dream of being the first to get their 'machine' successfully through the Turing Test, and no doubt, one day soon it will happen.

How close are we to 'human-like' customer service?

People like building computers with human qualities. As time passes, experts and companies develop almost all of our modern technology to take on more and more human characteristics, and sooner or later our technology will come to have a human feel.

The point at which digital becomes human is a huge opportunity for businesses as they can then begin to offer a human service via their digital channels. In August 2014, a new chip called TrueNorth was launched by IBM, claiming to be more like the human brain than ever before, boasting multiple cores and more than 1 million neurons. Admittedly, the brain power of the chip is only comparable to that of a bee, but it is already a remarkable development, and imagine what will happen within the next ten years.

While it may not be long before we cannot tell the difference between a computer voice and a real person, the important questions for businesses are how they can not only maintain the humanness in customer relationships, but also find ways to steer that seemingly human relationship by digital means.

JetStar’s virtual helpdesk, Ask Jess, is an initiative in this direction, allowing travellers to ask a 'lady' for all kinds of practical information. Initial results from Jetstar passengers have been very positive, with Jess offering a very accessible point of contact that understands them well and gives them the answers they need. Of course, the intention isn’t to make people believe they are talking to a real person but the general feeling has been good, and an unlimited number of passengers can be serviced by Jess, 24 hours a day.

The big decision: true empathy vs programmed empathy

At some point in the very near future, most companies are going to have to make a calculated choice between true empathy (involving REAL people) and programmed empathy (with human-like services). Like most things in business, cost is going to be a major factor, and virtual teams will always be a lot cheaper than the human teams. However, on the other hand there is an important emotional question: do people really want to replace all human interactions with computer interactions.

I think what will happen is that there will end up being companies at both extremes of this spectrum, and make a business decision to go all the way with human-like services, or commit completely to real human interface. However, I believe that the majority of the companies will choose a hybrid system.

For many companies I work with, around 80% of inbound questions are fairly routine, and could easily be covered by human-like services by simply retrieving and providing basic information. The questions that are difficult or personal in some way will still be addressed by a real human. After all, while computers may be able to imitate people to an extent, what sets the human touch apart is emotion, and good quality customer service representatives will be able to call upon creativity, empathy and passion in a way that computers cannot.

The hybrid of human and human-like customer service will actually improve service levels on a few different levels. Firstly, the speed, knowledge and availability of service will increase dramatically for the 80% of customers who have standard questions, which will of course make these customers happy. Customers with more difficult questions, however, will be able to find an engaged human that is willing to really listen and then use their empathy, creativity and passion to help.

While cost-effectiveness is usually one the primary measures of a contact centre’s success, smart companies may not actually apply these measures in the same way for the group of customers needing real human help. The goal is to create a great customer experience and companies can use the human touch to set apart the service they offer clients from competitors. In my opinion, this may also make the day-to-day job role of employees in contact centres much more appealing, giving meaningful help to people that actually need a person.Bottom of Form

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is author of The Conversation Company and The Conversation Manager, and his new book, When Digital Becomes Human, will be published by Kogan Page in April 2015. Follow him on twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos at  or visit


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By LinkedIn Group Member
09th Feb 2015 11:24

This comment was posted on the MyCustomer LinkedIn group

Nice piece. Couple of observations: 

1) So far we haven't mastered making basic automation work very well - witness 99% of IVRs and most websites & FAQs 
2) That's due to lack of attention to the detail, to the testing, to constant & ongoing optimisation 
3) When contact centres have similar numbers of optimisation analysts to agents, then the Turing Test may be approached.... but the economics may be less different than we think. 
4) Agents make great optimisation analysts if it's their purpose to improve every contact, not just the one they're on.

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