United scandal and robot agents: Did customer service lose the human touch in 2017?by
Cast your mind back to April, and the image of a United passenger being ejected from an overbooked plane, wrestled to the ground by security guards and then forcibly dragged, kicking and screaming, from the flight he was about to take home.
Such an unsavoury incident was deeply damaging for the United brand, but it also cast a shadow over the customer service profession as a whole. How could an established business like United misread a situation so badly? Had the humanity of customer service become so far-removed that rigid procedure replaced common sense?
In many ways, 2017 has been a year defined by the customer service profession questioning its own humanity. The proliferation of chatbots, artificial intelligence and voice assistants has increasingly raised the question of where humans fit into the service function in their business.
“We have started to see the impact of automation this year, for sure,” says Jo Causon, the CEO of the Institute of Customer Service.
“Alongside these developments we are also beginning to witness a truer integration of artificial intelligence and human integration, with AI being used to prompt conversations with customers and, as a result, new experiences for them.
“There’s no doubt that over the past 12 months technology has changed the delivery of customer service. This is especially true with the transactional aspects of service. When it’s deployed well, technology can improve the overall experience; it is at its best when it drives ease and reduces customer effort.”
Yet, as customer service leader and founder of Brainfood, Martin Hill-Wilson explains, the United scandal highlights that a growing number of incumbents have failed to adapt to the shift in emphasis, using technology to dehumanise the wrong parts of their business without establishing how to address the balance.
“Different generations of brands now exist and something I’ve noticed this year is an evolutionary tract that’s happening and that’s not all that joined up – legacy brands are slowly trying to catch up with ideas being presented by new ‘millennial’ brands, but often getting it wrong.
“It’s interesting how we’re beginning to see these two worlds move in entirely different directions. There’s a bunch of businesses starting out that don’t do voice as a customer service option at all, for instance. It’s not an API they want or need to serve their customers. But certain incumbent brands are taking this mode of thinking and assuming they can apply it to their own brand, even against the wishes of their more established and loyal customers.”
There’s no doubt that over the past 12 months technology has changed the delivery of customer service
The upshot of new, generational brands changing the face of customer service is that expectations have shifted considerably in the past 12 months.
According to Enghouse research, 79% of consumers said it was most important to be able to engage with a business using an online communication, first and foremost. This was compared with 29% in 2014.
Research by Amdocs also 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.
Despite this - somewhat paradoxically - a study by market research firm Vanson Bourne demonstrates how much 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.
“More and more people want digital engagement with the businesses they buy from,” says Jeremy Payne, group VP of marketing at Enghouse. “The corollary is that those organisations that fail to deliver on this consumer need or fail to do so properly or professionally are unlikely to get away with it today.
“Despite some blips this year, I believe businesses are actually getting the message. We have witnessed the increasing usage of self-service channels, yes. But we have also seen that also in the growing popularity of unified communications (UC) and the phenomenal growth of Microsoft Skype for Business and other UC platforms from providers like Avaya and Cisco. In turn, this has led to growing interest in the concept of the connected enterprise, where staff in the middle and back office are brought in to play their part in an extended customer service team.”
Carolyn Blunt, managing director of Ember Real Results, believes that brands have too often been corralled by an infamous Gartner report from 2011, which proclaimed that by 2020, 85% of all customer interactions with brands will not involve a human.
“The key point here is, if that prediction comes to bear fruit, it means the 15% that do require a human had better be on point –in particular for personalisation, empathy and rapport.
“It is likely that when transactions are dealt with via machines or digital self-service these will be commonplace queries. It is the more unusual, emotive or complicated that will require human intervention. So whilst we build our digital and machine-led solutions next year it’s important not to neglect the humans either - they will continue to have a significant impact on customer loyalty, spend and brand trust.
“They will also come into play if there is any failure in the digital journey. We certainly need to continue to make time and budgets for coaching, feedback and training our humans next year. Ideally we will be able to spend less time training out the ‘knowledge’ that machines can now easily serve up at the touch of a button. Instead we shall spend more time training the ‘soft’ skills of compassion and creativity that the machines cannot yet deliver.”
It is the more unusual, emotive or complicated that will require human intervention.
The key question to ask in the human vs machine service debate is – what do your customers want? Accenture research 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.
“For every business, the trade-off between man and machine is likely to be a little different,” adds Payne. “An airline [like United], whose business model is based largely on cost, will naturally want to push as much as possible through self-service channels.
“A high-end retailer whose reputation is built on quality may want to provide a personal one-to-one service offering. Many successful businesses in 2017 are achieving a good balance between manned and automated service with human and machine working in close harmony. Take the roll-out of speech analytics, for example, where the human is delivering highly complex spoken interactions and working with empathy while, in parallel, the tool is supporting this by listening in real-time to ensure there is compliance around certain phrases and that the interaction meets quality standards.”
However, the brands that have pushed automation too far in the wrong direction have paid the price. AT&T, for instance, was lambasted for its response to September’s Hurricane Irma devastation in the US, which left millions of people with no internet, phone and cellphone service.
AT&T’s response to many customers was to tell them they’d have to access the internet if they wanted to reach their carrier successfully. Unsurprisingly, in a similar vein to United’s overbooking scandal, customers were outraged by the lack of empathy and common sense shown by the brand in a crisis.
In United’s case, the lack of humanity shown by the brand directly hit its bottom line – in the week following the scandal, close to $1bn was wiped off the company's total market value, according to Thomson Reuters data.
And as Jo Causon states, brands are increasingly paying the price of getting the human vs machine balance wrong.
“As much as we’ve actually seen customer service standards increase in our studies across the year, there remains a lot more to do. It’s a never-ending commitment that has to be continually focused on. Some of our recent research, for example, found that £28bn of productivity is lost a year as individuals take time out their days whilst at work to sort out personal service issues.
“Increasingly, customers don’t just benchmark one organisation against others in the same industry – they compare the service from one organisation against that of their favourite and most trusted brands and this creates a rising bar for all and means they’re increasingly more likely to walk away from brands.
“In such an environment, it becomes more important than ever for organisations to co-create – to collaborate with third parties, and organisations outside of their own sectors to deliver an end to end customer experience - partnering with others to provide solutions across the complete customer experience.
“So, it’s essential to find partners who share the same values and service commitment as your organisation and who are absolutely clear about the service standards you expect and require.”
Chris was an Editor at MyCustomer from 2014 to 2022. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News.