Reading the latest technology news or skimming through this year’s topics for customer service conferences, it’s not difficult to picture a not-so-distant future where customer service jobs will be taken over by robots.

According to research, six percent of all US jobs will be eliminated as a consequence of automation in only four year’s time. While in the UK, 35% of current jobs will likely be computerized by 2030.

As exciting or alarming as it might seem, automation is nothing we haven’t witnessed before, in some form or other. Over the past few decades, factory workers have been replaced by machines, and front-line staff across a number of industries – from hospitality to retail and travel – by self-service kiosks.

More recently, the first hotel staffed by robots opened in Japan in 2015. Two years afterwards, Robocop joined the Dubai Police. Since the beginning of 2018, NatWest hired – on probation – life-like virtual teller Cora to answer up to 200 basic questions, while Amazon went a step further, launching its first supermarket without humans, self-service, or checkouts in Seattle.

What’s more, hybrid video kiosks have begun combining humans and machines, offering the convenience of self-service with the expertise of a human ‘on demand’.

“Hello, my name is I, Robot. How can I help?”

The advent of automation is – as CXM readers will be acutely aware – predicted to have major repercussions on the customer service sector.

This prospect seems to be largely embraced with optimism, on multiple fronts. In today’s demanding and competitive world, cutting costs and minimising mistakes are imperatives for all companies. While in customers’ utopia, service needs to be increasingly fast, efficient, personal, and unbiased.

But because of the gradual technological developments the customer service industry has already witnessed, this time there seems to be a greater sense of anticipation for what lies ahead.

Call centres have largely been replaced by omnichannel contact centres, which now feature IVR, live chats, and social customer service. In the near future, technology is expected to have an even greater impact, especially at the expenses of human capital.

After all, who needs a human when we can have a robot, just like in our favourite sci-fi movies?

This time though, reality is overcoming fiction, and to find out what the current attitude about the future’s impending changes in the customer service industry are, we decided to do some research.

The study

Over the course of three months, over 200 people between 16 and 87 years old, of all genders and backgrounds, and coming from both the private and public sectors, have replied to a few easy questions.

The aim of the research was, on the one hand, to find out if people are happy talking to a robot or if they’d rather talk to a person, and on the other, to establish if humans or machines are more trustworthy.

In standard customer service scenarios (such as general enquiries), 81.3 percent of participants said they prefer to interact with humans rather than robots. The percentage increased to 86.1 percent for complex situations, such as complaints.

Similarly, the great majority of people (82.4 percent) said they trust humans more than machines. This is possibly due to the fact that machines are programmed by humans, and as such it’d be contradictory to trust a machine, but not the person behind it.

In contrast with the increasing weaving of tech and AI in the customer service sector, it appears that people still prefer to deal with people, and also trust them significantly more than robots.

Are we being nostalgic already? Or perhaps a little sceptical?

AI is happening, whether we’re ready for it or not. But while machines have already taken over several customer service functions previously controlled by humans, and robots will carry out increasingly more basic customer service tasks, I believe humans will continue to be indispensable for escalated complaints, complex questions, or sensitive issues.

Bots might be cheaper and faster, but they can’t yet display the same level of reliability, trust, empathy, and creativity that characterises humans – especially well-trained, engaged, and committed front-line staff. Nor can we yet foresee a future when they will embody all these quintessentially human hallmarks.

Until then, it seems we’re set to live a customer service paradox: human preference versus machine predominance.

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