Marks & Spencer has announced it will be replacing its switchboard staff with artificial intelligence. Is this a hasty move or a sign of the times?
As of September, anyone calling M&S for customer service queries such as the availability of stock or complaints will do so via AI-based tech, rather than connecting with members of the switchboard team.
Around 100 staff will be “reassigned to shop floor roles” according to an M&S spokesperson, who added that the system change was vital for the retailer’s ongoing shift to digital services.
“The transition of our store switchboards to a new technology system is part of our five-year transformation programme to create an agile, digital-first M&S that offers the best value and service for our customers.
“Investing in a technology that helps our customers get what they want faster and easier is that ambition in action.”
The new technology will be used across all of the M&S shops and is expected to handle over 1 million customer calls a month.
M&S also recently announced they would be closing a number of stores as it looks to streamline its operations by 2022 through 100 store closures.
Back in 2011, Gartner predicted that by 2020, 85% of customer relationships would be managed without human intervention.
Retailers – especially high street incumbents – have increasingly struggled to meet the demands being placed on them by the success of online players such as Amazon, and many are in the process of digital transformation projects as a result.
But is the rush to digital at the detriment of customer requirements?
A 2016 study by market research firm Vanson Bourne demonstrates how heavily 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.
One corresponding study from Accenture found that 83% of US consumers, and 76% of UK consumers, preferred 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 service, 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.
“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.”
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
Certain factions of retail have seen an element of push-back as a result of the rush to automation.
In 2015, for instance, supermarket chain Morrisons reintroduced staffed express checkouts in stores after a survey found two-thirds of shoppers steered clear of self-service checkouts.
And whilst Marks & Spencer’s announcement is by no means eradicating the human element from its customer service processes, it does raise the question about whether it is removing a vital part of the human interaction that customers still hold dear.
“The decision to retain call centre employees and move them to the shop floor is far-removed from the concept of ‘robotic’ shop assistants of Amazon Go and other modern takes on retail,” says Manu Tyagi, Associate Partner for Retail at Infosys Consulting.
“But it’s not yet clear if Marks and Spencer has acknowledged that while the way we shop is becoming amplified by technology, it’s important not to underestimate the power of human interaction. With the future of retail nearly here, the real question is how to ensure it remains appealing and convenient for future consumers.”
Monica Mackintosh, customer services director at Echo Managed Services believes the move represents the start of an ongoing shift that may yet affect what is still a strong M&S brand.
“It is crucial that businesses remember that while technology is now a massive driver in customer service, it’s still only an enabler.
“Customers appreciate it when technology enables their queries to be answered promptly, when organisations recognise them and their needs and know about their previous interactions and account history, or present a timely offer that is appropriate to them. But this appreciation diminishes quickly when they are faced with a generic automated message, or customer service advisors who don’t understand their query or follow an impersonal script.
“In all our enthusiasm about the latest technologies, it’s important that we don’t forget that ultimately it’s not technology, but people that make the difference - particularly in certain situations such as handling difficult, complex or sensitive queries.”
It’s not yet clear if Marks and Spencer has acknowledged that while the way we shop is becoming amplified by technology, it’s important not to underestimate the power of human interaction.
M&S would argue that it has faced a spate of criticism in recent years for its lack of digital capabilities - chairman Archie Norman said in May that the brand had become perceived as “expensive, out of touch, too bureaucratic and having a clunky website”.
Yet the concern during the next four years of transformation continues to be how the company is able to meet the expectations of its traditional customer base whilst meeting the demands of a younger demographic, and this often leads a brand down the route of technology reliance.
“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,” Barton adds.
“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.”
In recent times, M&S has watched as seemingly establish high street brands like Debenhams and House of Fraser have collapsed under the strain of current retail stresses. As a result, Jack Barmby, CEO and founder of Gnatta, believes the M&S digital transformation programme has been developed as something of a façade, to cover up the fact that the brand should have changed its practices many years before.
“M&S is playing catch up here. The question is why it was using 100 people to reroute calls when machines have been able to do that more efficiently for some time?
“This doesn’t sound like AI to me. It’s automation, using Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology to reroute calls. True AI would be M&S using self-learning natural language processing to understand and respond to queries, not just rerouting them.
“There’s a trend here that really irritates me. Some organisations are trying to make themselves sound progressive by using buzzwords like AI, when actually what they’re doing is using basic automation that’s been around for years. This isn’t M&S making a market-leading change. It’s adopting a technology that was first developed in the 1960s.”