Jamie ThorpeJamie ThorpeJune 5, 2019
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7min885

The Barbican’s newest exhibition, AI: More than Human, is an artistic exploration of the possibilities that modern technology presents, examining the diverse potential of artificial intelligence (AI). 

A particularly striking installation is MakrShakr, a robotic bartender which can mix cocktails for customers via an online pre-order system.  While undoubtedly a fun gimmick, the introduction of AI into a traditional service role raises important questions about the future of our restaurants, cafés, and bars.

What’ll it beep?: The Makr Shakr robotic bartender on display at the Barbican. Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

The food and drink industry is no stranger to new technologies, and the latest developments are an evolution of sector staples like the sushi belt and fast food self-service machines. However, the gradual move towards AI presents unique new challenges. Principally, to what extent can automation really reflect Customer Experience value generated by humans in what is an intrinsically personal sector? While few would argue that real employees can ever fully be replaced, increased automation should come with a few health warnings.

Choosing the right persona

Finding the right persona for an AI system is the first step to ensuring customers actually enjoy using it. It’s important to have a welcoming interface, but this can be quickly undermined if the technology doesn’t work as it should. Successful AI personalities like Alexa and Siri are approachable and lighthearted when the situation dictates, but they’re primarily programmed to be as helpful as possible so people can find what they want quickly. 

In the service sector, making the interface fun and playful is especially important, but there also needs to be a level of emotional intelligence present for when things go wrong. Investment in self and situational awareness so that customers feel their needs (and frustrations) are understood goes a long way. For voice services this means ensuring bots recognise emotion and intonation when customers speak. And where the technology isn’t voice based, a simple on screen message – for example an apology in the case of slow service – makes technology feel as attentive as humans would be in that situation.

Armed revolution: A visitor interacts with Alter, one of the robots featuring in a new exhibition at the Barbican Centre. Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

This isn’t to suggest AI can ever replicate the value of existing employees, who will always be the major drivers of high quality CX. Instead, AI should complement staff, freeing them up from administrative or procedural tasks and allowing them more time to engage qualitatively with customers and build brand loyalty and retention.

Supersized potential

Upselling is a major part of successful service businesses – everything from ‘do you want fries with that?’ to making sure diners have dessert and coffee at the end of a meal. For AI, this represents both a challenge and an opportunity. Making these transactions appear conversational and informed is key; just think of the persuasiveness of a genuine recommendation from a well-read employee at Waterstones compared with the ‘frequently bought with…’ pop-ups seen online.

Like finding the right persona, successful upselling relies on engaging customers, showing awareness, and demonstrating genuine knowledge. Recommendations should be presented as being bespoke to specific customers, not just based on the habits of other people.

Keep it fresh

Multiple conversations with the same person do not feel like the same experience over and over again – and interactions with automated services should be just as refreshing. Where an AI uses voice, this might mean mixing up the repertoire and programming varied responses to common questions. For others, different aspects can be kept fresh. In the case of our robot barman, making sure the menu is regularly updated to encourage people to come back for more will engender regular customers.

At the time of writing, the Barbican’s robot barman has already temporarily closed because of technical issues – proving that the museum exhibition is a long way from the reality of frontline customer service. It is inevitable that automation will become more widespread, we just need to make sure that the consumer, not the technology, remains king.


Jamie ThorpeJamie ThorpeFebruary 15, 2019
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10min1069

There’s no doubt about it – we’re seeing an epidemic of survey fatigue, and consumers and businesses are both suffering.    

A third of people will walk away from a brand they love after one bad experience – and that includes any follow up research.  There’s so much we want to know from our customers, but with requests for feedback constantly increasing, we risk turning off consumers with research that feels onerous and ‘old school’.

Brands need to stay focused. It’s not good enough to simply migrate old questionnaires onto newer platforms like mobile and hope for the best. Instead, brands should be thinking leaner and lighter. Here’s how:

Put yourself in the right shoes

Not yours – your customers’. Surveys shouldn’t overstretch your audience, bore them, or make them wonder what the point was.  A survey is part of their overall Customer Experience. With that in mind, make it feel right for the moment. Don’t ask everything at once – make the questions relevant and sensible. 

Get on with it

Don’t spread yourself too thin. Focus on a single aspect of their experience – one that is still fresh in their minds. By respecting the customer’s time and keeping things short and easy you’ll reduce drop-out rates, meaning you’ve got more insight to work with.

Look for the nuance

Shorter doesn’t mean multiple choice. Think about text analysis, and where written responses (and increasingly, feedback relayed via voice, video, photos, and even emoji) could help you identify key themes, pinch points, or barriers for your customers. If you’re worried about this making your survey more difficult to complete, especially if users are on mobile devices, even asking for descriptive words will help – you’re not looking for chapter and verse. 

Some companies are even moving back to interactive voice response (IVR) technology, because they understand that it’s easier for the customer to talk than to type – and that this often generates a more honest response. 

Technique matters

A series of questions measured against the same scale makes it easy for respondents to lose focus. That’s when they start simply answering ‘agree’ to everything or scoring all questions the same, because it saves thinking effort and gets them to the end of the survey faster. It’s a sure-fire way to get poor quality results. Shake things up to avoid it happening.

Make it personal

If someone’s a regular customer they don’t want to see the same old survey over and over again – survey fatigue is bad enough already. If you can, use transactional information to make your questions relevant to your customers’ experiences: dates, locations, money spent – anything that shows that you know them, and that you want to learn something specific from their feedback. Don’t show you know them too much though. Privacy is important, so don’t go against GDPR and the MRS Code of Conduct.

Give it energy

Ask a dull question and get a dull response. Instead, be creative and challenge consumers to be different. Try asking questions like: “What would you change if you were our CEO for the day?”, “If we were in a customer service competition, what medal would you give us?”, or “Would you employ one of our staff in your business?”.  

Don’t do it for the sake of differentiation or frivolity though – remember your resulting responses still need to be valuable and actionable. 

Stay on brand

Every survey is a golden opportunity to get people to engage with your brand. It’s a chance to strengthen relationships with customers and show you value them. Work closely with your marketing team to make sure that your surveys reflect your brand values and are true to its tone of voice. It might feel like you’re relinquishing control but these experts know what works, and when it comes to Customer Experience no organisation should be operating in silos.

Remember, the last impression you leave is often the most enduring, so the way you deliver your survey is going to be the way people will recall your brand.

Test it till it hurts

Test everything: your ideas, your subject lines, and your questions. Will they give you varied, insightful responses? Make every element of your survey work as hard as possible. Repeat to yourself: there’s huge benefit in marginal gains. 

Appreciate the limitations

There’s no doubt that surveys can deliver value, but they’re not the only way to gather feedback. Even when designed well, you’ll only ever receive responses from a small proportion of the survey field, and those customers who do complete them may naturally share common characteristics and preferences – something frustrated CX teams would be quick to confirm.

Think about what surveys are not giving you – are you trying to validate existing data, or fill in gaps in information? Or are you trying to gauge the opinion of a hard-to-reach group, or tap into unsolicited feedback?

Consider harvesting social data, using text or voice analysis or predictive analytics. Remember: the average NPS score of a company which integrates feedback from four or more different channels is 14 points higher than the baseline. Not convinced?  One airline we worked with saw a one percent increase in NPS translate to more than 100,000 extra bookings a year, so there’s a lot to gain from getting it right. 

And if you’re still thinking “But…!”

Relax. As a first step, concentrate on in-the-moment feedback – there’s never a better moment than now. Capturing live responses means better quality answers, higher response rates, and the chance to fix any immediate problems your customers are flagging. Once you’ve got that down, you can start joining the dots and creating a bigger picture later.




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