There are too many misleading, poor or self-serving forecasts about the rise of A.I. and the death of people-based customer service. Myths seems to be layered on weak data and dodgy opinion to form what are positioned as concrete trends and predictions. Be careful what you read and how you act as a result. Why? I’ll explain…
Believe it or not, but…
Separating news from fake news, myth from reality, fact from opinion and anecdote, and hype from genuine opportunity is now a daily challenge for us all. This is a general problem for the way we live our lives and make big choices, like voting, as much as for making smaller decisions like… should I drink organic milk? And in the world of customer management we are no less vulnerable to misinformation and misleading ideas presented as fact. One such area is that of what exactly AI and robotics (as well as digital service channels, devices and platforms, the Internet of Things and the change in consumer behaviours) means for the future of work in customer servicing. The answer is that no one knows precisely. The market analysts have been consistently wrong and over-enthusiastic in predicting the decline and death of human-assisted service. The big consultancies and system integrators have been consistently wrong in predicting the impact of innovations like AI and robotics in service. And not only wrong, but potentially damaging. Such tools and capabilities have been around for decades – just under different names and badges – be it workflow automation, process optimisation or whatever other fashionable term serves the purpose of selling more product and services. Admittedly there are more recent innovations, such as machine learning, that means they could have more relevance and impact today and in the near term, but they are not the panacea (or threat, if that is your perspective) that they are often prescribed to be.
Responding to, and anticipating, change.
So, what do we know? We know that there is undeniably change happening and we can treat this as either a threat or an opportunity. We know that change is speeding up. And therefore, so should we in our response or anticipation of this change to our businesses. And we know that these changes could have big impacts on the way that we interact and deliver service to our customers. It is not just the challenge per se that requires our attention, but how we organise ourselves to respond to it.
Embrace the new but don’t discard foundations of good service
It was Paul Saffo, Professor of Engineering at Stanford who recently said that there are two kinds of fool – those that believe that ‘old is good’, and those that believe that ‘new is better’. We must continue to explore the opportunities for new tech and innovations to our service delivery but not so quickly let go of the good foundations that we know can deliver effectively today, and have served us well for years, when well executed. The role of frontline service staff is clearly changing and this needs proportionate investment and understanding to that being spent on the new tech.
In conjunction with a leading UK BPO, Kura, Ember set out to explore these issues and drafted a summary white paper examining what we know and can do about the changing nature of service work, and the skills needed to take advantage of the market changes we see. We also looked at what this means for managing the people on the frontline and the role of other technologies and developments as part of the evolving operating model and solution mix.
Service as a differentiator? Yes, really, this time.
But most importantly we considered value – and what this means to the customer, to the organisation and to the stakeholders. This is at the heart of understanding and managing the changes – what they mean in real terms to the stakeholders that are investing and expecting a return for their money and time. The indication is that the sustainable building of value for organisations still resides in good people being supported in doing a good job. This is not rocket science. But a universally important and relevant conclusion none the less. And all the time that processes, technologies, products and organisations become more complex, more at risk of failing, then more that the human will have an increasingly value-adding role to play at the centre of this complex universe. And as brands become more emasculated due to the removal of emotion in purchase decisions (e.g. with aggregator sites, IoT on-line self-ordering, universal price comparisons, etc.) then service really does become the only differentiator. And in these contexts we might just want the service we seek to be human, to be good, to be engaging and to resolve stuff.
Careful what you wish for…
It might be that the quantum of the prediction turns out to be wrong, but when MIT in the US recently stated that China was 3x more likely to take US jobs than AI and robots, then there is a general theme being alluded to here – that the world is looking to cut cost. We are obsessed by productivity, unit costs and efficiency. But when I’m stressed, confused, emotional, tight for time, at my wit’s end, angry or bereaved then being managed for efficiency just won’t cut it with me. So, the future nature of work cannot be about machines. Or humans. But is about both. Working appropriately together to help achieve the right outcome and doing the right things. And the right thing can only be judged by the value that is created or protected.
If ‘value’ is therefore the measure, then we need the metrics that help us steer the course. And the metrics should help drive the behaviours of all of our staff: our designers, our engineers, our delivery people, our retail colleagues, our frontline service staff right across the organisation – and how they are managed, incentivised, rewarded and directed.
So what can’t a robot or a person in China do effectively that still needs to be done? Organisations will need conscience. Compassion. Creativity. Innovative ideas well applied. Designers will be important. We will need to negotiate; to listen attentively and to detect nuance, emotion, unsaid clues to the issue or the solution or the feeling. Machines can’t do these things. Not yet. Not for a long time, and well beyond the horizon that you are likely planning for. So, plan for what you can manage. Manage how your staff can deliver the value that will distinguish you as a business and to create the competitive opportunities your Board will thank you for. That’s not myth. That is reality.
Mike Havard is a founding director at Ember Group, a professional service and consulting business specialising in customer management strategies, innovation and supporting major brands to become or stay service champions. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and the Ember white paper, ‘The People Factor – understanding the Future Nature of Work in customer service’, sponsored by Kura, can be downloaded here.