I rarely use and never want to pick up my phone anymore.
That is, the phone part of the phone. I happily use my mobile phone all of the time – to communicate, read, and for entertainment. But using the call functionality and dialling a human? No, thank you.
It’s partly because I get dozens of unwanted robocalls every week, and partlybecause I’ve wasted a lot of time on hold. It’s also because one of the few things that I can control in life is my time – and when I’m on the phone, the person on the other line has effectively hijacked my time.
This is especially true when it comes to getting customer support via the phone. If I need help, I’m probably not feeling particularly sociable. The last thing I want to do is pick up the phone, talk to an agent and hope they can solve my problem – or worse, risk bouncing around a poorly implemented interactive voice-response system (IVR). I’d much rather search for and find an answer online. Better yet, I’d like to type a question and let a well-trained chatbot instantly find the answer for me.
I’m not alone
It’s human nature that we don’t want to rely on other people – and the phone – to accomplish certain tasks or gather information. That’s part of what’s driven the internet explosion.
Take Ticketmaster. The event ticketing company launched a self-service website in the early 90s, where event-goers could, for the first time, purchase tickets online rather than going to in-person kiosks – or making phone calls to human ticketing agents. This is illustrated perfectly by the following excerpt from Paul Allen’s memoir, The Idea Man, about Ticketmaster’s very first online sale:
“When customer number one had completed the first transaction, our Web people called him and said, ‘Congratulations, you just bought the first concert ticket in the history of the Internet! Can you tell us why you decided to buy online?’ The man said, ‘Because I don’t like talking to people, and I don’t like talking to you.’ And he hung up.”
More than 25 years after Ticketmaster’s first online sale, there’s proof that people are relying less on phone calls than ever before – and it’s having repercussions across various industries.
A few stats to consider:
The number of landlines in use is down dramatically. A report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (via Statista) showed that, in 2004, 92 percent of U.S. households had a working landline. By 2018, that number dropped to 42 percent because of the growth of mobile phones.
British telecom service provider Ofcom released a study in 2018 revealing that the number of monthly mobile voice call minutes was on the decline among its customers, from an average of 159 minutes per month in 2016 to 157 minutes in 2017. But while phone calls were down, data consumption skyrocketed, from an average of 1.3 GB in 2016 to 1.9 GB in 2017.
Pew Research reported that response rates for phone surveys plummeted to six percent in 2018. The steady and sharp decline has continued since 1997, when response rates were as high as 36 percent.
Nearly 60 percent of contact centre leaders believe inbound call volumes will decrease over the next five years, according to a 2018 McKinsey survey, while 40 percent said the number of calls will fall dramatically, perhaps to zero, in the next decade.
Automation takes over self-service
In this era of internet-enabled instant gratification, we as consumers expect to get fast answers to virtually any question – without making any calls.
This includes the realm of customer support. The phone call is no longer the primary medium for support – instead, phone calls are the last resort, and this isn’t just because consumers (like me) prefer it. Businesses do too, as companies are implementing AI-powered support automation technology to both improve the customer experience and better manage operational costs. Here’s some data behind that shift:
A recent report by call centre industry analyst firm ContactBabel found that only 25 percent of customer support agents believe that customers prefer human support.
41 percent of consumers would choose live chat as their preferred support channel, according to a study from Kayako, while 32 percent prefer phone calls, followed by email and social media (note: the survey did not include chatbots or virtual assistants as an option).
This doesn’t mean that businesses can totally dismiss phone support. However, it does point to the fact that most consumers would prefer not to dial company support unless they absolutely have to.
As Forrester analyst Kate Leggett wrote: “Today, customers have more choice: more products to buy, more information to influence purchasing decisions, and more devices and channels over which to seek customer service. What they don’t have is more time. It’s no wonder that self-service interactions have overtaken all other channels.”
It’s worth restating Leggett’s words: “What they don’t have is more time.”
That’s why we often turn to Google or a company’s online forums for answers. But a traditional search online or in managed forums can leave you with an endless list of links to sift through. This is where AI comes in. It might take us several minutes or hours to find an answer amidst a library of online information, but applied machine learning (ML) technology can surface the information we need in an instant.
AI also allows companies to provide a uniform quality of service, 24 hours a day, with little to no downtime. Effectively trained chatbots (a.k.a. virtual agents), with brains powered by AI, are becoming the new face of customer support.
The ContactBabel report found that 16 percent of all companies plan to implement artificial intelligence solutions for customer support within the next year, more than doubling the current installed base. Additionally, 27 percent of large contact centres (with 200-plus agents) expect to implement AI/ML within one-year, which means more than 50 percent will have AI/ML in place by 2020.
I know I speak on behalf of consumers everywhere when I say that the era of AI-led support can’t come soon enough. To paraphrase the great R.E.M., it’s the end of phone support as we know it…and I feel fine.
The Barbican’s newest exhibition, AI: More than Human, is an artistic exploration of the possibilities thatmodern 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.
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.
This isn’t to suggest AI can ever replicate the value ofexisting 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.
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.
Giovanni Toschi is the Founder of AI firms Jatana and BotSupply. The Copenhagen-based entrepreneur took time out to talk to CXM about how we are firmly in the middle of the Golden Age of Customer Experience, and where the industry can go from here…
Your role must give you a great perspective on what businesses need and what customers expect from them. How do you see the overall role of Customer Experience today?
Customer Experience is probably going through its Golden Age right now. The awareness of businesses all around the world has grown a lot and they really do care about CX and overall customer satisfaction. No business is unique, everyone has competitors; it’s the relationship with your customers that makes the difference between successful companies and the rest of the businesses that fall behind.
What do companies often do wrong when it comes to CX?
There is more than one thing. First of all, many are faking it. They try to seem like they really care for the customer while they actually care for the cash. Yes, everyone is in the business for the money, but that does not mean you should treat your customers as a number or data. They’re not, and they know when you do that.
Second, they do not devote themselves too much. Low effort to satisfy a customer in most cases end up with bad results for the company.
Customer support plays a big role in Customer Experience. How do you see it?
Interaction between the company and the customer is half of it, honestly. The ways you connect with your customers, including providing customer support, is a key differentiator today.
Automation is a hot topic. Do you think it improves the efficiency of a company and Customer Experience in general?
Absolutely yes, if used correctly. Customers today want everything almost instantly. Twenty-four hours to reply is no longer enough – you have to act fast. But they also want you to show effort and focus on them as an individual. That’s where automation kicks in. It provides instant replies to frequently asked questions, and agents can focus on the more complex topics and connect to the customer on a personal level.
When it comes to automation, it is often associated with the fear of AI replacing humans and taking over their jobs. Do you think this is true and how do you see the future with ‘robots’ as our coworkers?
The same fear was present with the industrial revolution, yet we did not lose jobs, we just created new ones. Machines can replace humans in many positions, but that only means new positions will open. Humans will always have their advantages over robots.
What exactly is Jatana?
We are on a mission to bring Artificial Intelligence to customer support teams of any size. Using Jatana, any company can set up AI automation in their contact centre in a matter of hours. Our solution allows support agents to focus on the issues that matter while leaving repetitive tasks to the AI.
What inspired you and your team to create this tool?
Since 2016, at BotSupply, we have been helping companies like Carlsberg and Mercedes leverage conversational AI to provide better Customer Experience. In the process, we kept on getting requests to develop a solution that could do the same for email support. We put together an initial MVP and after closing the first customer we decided to spin-off the product into a stand-alone company and that’s how Jatana was born.
Could you give us an example of a company that successfully included your tool (or any other automated service) into their business?
We have been operational for a few months only but our customer base includes companies from Scandinavia, as well as other parts of Europe and Asia. A good example is Stocard, a fast-growing German company that developed an app to keep all your loyalty cards in one place.
What is your message to the readers of Customer Experience Magazine?
If you’re reading this magazine that already means that you do care about Customer Experience. That’s great – stay on the right track, follow what’s trending, and don’t let competitors leave you behind. Try to be one step ahead, as that’s how you win the race.