Chatbots, avatars, virtual assistants -- whatever you call them, they're set to change the world of customer experience indefinitely.

Ready for your own virtual assistant? Why AI needs a human touch

Avatars, chatbots and virtual assistants are getting smarter by the day, and the AI that powers them is helping customers get more of the right content at the right time. But humans will remain as important as ever. Nigel Piper looks at how (wo)man and machine can work successfully in tandem.

The artificial intelligence (AI) learning process is continuing at such a fast rate that it can feel as if the last customer-to-real-life helpdesk support phonecall is only a few years away. But the reality is there’ll always be the need for humans to engage with customers

The use of AI in customer experience (CX) is now widespread in companies ranging from utilities to banking to business-to-business (B2B) services. Chief executives, chief marketing officers and CX managers have their eye on the holy grail of customer loyalty: providing fast, always-on service without compromising accuracy and connection.

But is this coming at a cost to loyalty, brand experience and reputation? And are virtual reality, machine learning, and artificially intelligent avatars the best way to build enduring and meaningful relationships with customers?

This is one of the biggest conundrums in today’s CX world: how to maintain and build customer loyalty at a time when the drive to meet their expectations of convenient self-service means more investment into automated solutions.

Customers are changing. In our hyper-connected world, they’re firmly in control and demanding higher levels of service. They’re digitally empowered, shop across international borders, demand instant service, and expect a unique experience in exchange for their business and loyalty.

Automation and AI aren’t necessarily driven by a need to reduce costs and boost revenue. Today’s customers expect all brands, retail or B2B, to provide support in a way that’s easy and convenient. What they get from Apple and Amazon they expect from Xero or BNZ.

Customers are happy to find the answers to questions themselves online. Numerous studies show that when they go to a company’s website, it isn’t usually to find a phone number to call but to find an answer to their problem or question.

But, they want that experience to be personalised and contextual, an experience that says ‘you know who I am, so use that knowledge to give me a better, faster and more accurate experience’. Failure to deliver is rewarded with frustration and the risk of losing a customer, fast.

The future of AI-enhanced customer service doesn’t just mean data-driven chat-bots popping up in the corner of your screen, but also human helpers – known in the trade by the slightly edgy title of CX agents – assisted by AI.

AI and machine learning allow us to know more about a customer, including what they’re trying to do and what they’ve done in the past, and use that in a positive way. The artificially intelligent CX assistant can follow an interaction and help with personalised and accurate information. This is possible today and customers can get real-time, contextual responses to questions they have. The service experience doesn’t have to be impacted and can be just as positive as if a person answered it.

AI and data-driven technology have got us to a certain point: the next stage is to add a human touch and empathy for customers’ needs.

A critically-thinking real-life agent will be asking: is this the first time the customer has asked this? Is this a follow-up question? Is the question complex? Does it require a detailed explanation? We could offer a call to explain further. We could answer using less jargon. We could follow up with the customer shortly afterwards to see if it was explained properly. This is where AI can do some of the heavy lifting and automatically either flag these attributes to an agent or take it into account when searching and delivering an instant answer to customers.

Xero has teams of specialists in the UK, US and Australasia to reinforce the human touch and reassure there are no droids hiding there. Each specialist has their photo and a short bio about themselves at the bottom of their responses. Customers have reacted by sharing back their interests and engaging in friendly banter.

Technology allows us to create a digital experience using our knowledge combined with our understanding of previous customers’ experiences. We believe this combination of technology, AI and human experience is providing what today’s customers want, as well as building an enduring relationship.

Where is CX going with AI?

In our view, human CX agents are still essential, particularly when a customer needs a bit of empathy for their situation or it’s a complex question. A customer-focused business should never aspire to be a 100% virtual service.

The assistance of an actual person is critical to retaining customer loyalty and is the back-up when the automated self-service system doesn’t meet the customer’s needs. The use of AI will also, ultimately, free up employees to concentrate on specialised tasks that need critical and abstract thinking.

This is the cool synchronicity between AI and humans. Even before the customer asks a question, we can use machines to anticipate what the customer might need to do or an action we know they need to take. Now we can flip the normal service experience from a reactive to proactive experience. That’s a game changer. Technology allows options but only smart companies can use those options to deliver a personal, contextual, and quick answer to the customer.

As always in the data-driven world, the companies that succeed will be those with complete and accurate data.

Customers want relevant content at the right time: that’s the promise of AI, which in turn, is powered by data. Whether it’s an AI chatbot or a person, the customer data that’s being drawn on to inform their interactions must be complete and accurate. With information on a customer’s previous purchases, recent service issues and preferred channels for interaction, a brand is better prepared to serve them.

Will AI anticipate every need and fix all customer requests and problems? We believe people will remain key, but we’ll continue to see technology allowing the interaction to be better. That might mean a contextual and relevant instant answer to the customer from a focused and friendly chatbot, or it might be a person answering a complex, urgent question.

We’ll certainly see the ongoing decline of phone calls, chat sessions and, to some extent, email. We’ll continue to see new companies that only serve their customers digitally and who will be relaxed with that approach.  We’ll increasingly become comfortable with companies using information to tailor their approach, their response and their service offering to us as customers.

We’ll see banks look to offer short-term loans before someone goes into overdraft because they know there’s an important payment coming up.  We’ll see telecommunication companies fix a service even before you realised there was a problem.

We’ll probably see droids writing articles like this. But we’ll always need a real voice to go with it all, because our customers are human after all.

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