AI and the online customer: the pain and the gain

Artificial intelligence is risky – it can make or break the customer experience. So, when it comes to implementing AI into your online customer service, what are the pains and gains for your customers? Is AI worth it?

Niamh Reed
28th Mar 2018
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Slowly but surely, the ‘human’ element of customer service is receding. As artificial intelligence becomes ever more accessible and affordable, businesses are rapidly incorporating AI into their customer experience strategies.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re doing so intelligently. AI is still a risky element to adopt, and it can make or break the customer experience. Today’s customers are coming to expect the best of both worlds: automated efficiency coupled with authentic human engagement.

Unfortunately, it’s proving shockingly difficult for brands to get this balance right. 

Customer non-service

Customer service is no longer synonymous with a smiling human employee. Online, for example, your ‘customer service’ can now come in the form of AI-infused FAQs, context-sensitive knowledge bases, and slick self-service areas. That’s not to mention the smart chatbots ready to lend a helping hand every hour of the day.

This next-gen service typically comes with a side of personalisation. As online customers, we can now visit a website, be greeted either by name or by demographic, and get instant, relevant help – all without actual human interaction. A spoonful of AI is sometimes the only web service you’ll get a taste of.

From a business perspective, this AI assistance is brilliant. Not only does it reduce resources, it also helps improve the speed and efficiency of completing routine, repetitive and mundane tasks. But what, if any, is the cost to the customer?

Robo-care ramifications

Unfortunately, customer experience and AI don’t always mix. Experiences with AI can be ruined by poor customer journey integration, limited human interaction, or off beam technology. Yes, technology can streamline experiences, but replacing humans is an AI no-go that won’t make your service better.

Bots can give answers and information, not empathy and warm exchanges. So, an overreliance on AI in customer care often comes at the cost of a cheery human touch that only people can provide. A customer in search of service is looking for three things: speed, efficiency, and friendliness. While AI can help with the first two areas, it falls short of the latter.

Plus, those high-tech AI assistants aren’t failproof. They lack human understanding and can miss the mark when it comes to dialogue and support. When your chatbot or AI-powered knowledge base can’t help, customers feel let down and frustrated. With 67% of consumers citing bad experiences as a reason to leave a business, this is a damaging combination of feelings.

All in the balance

A little bit of AI can go a long way. Rather than relying on AI technology, businesses should aim to infuse it within the broader customer service picture to support (rather than supersede) their humans.

For example, offer customers that slick self-service option, but include a live chat channel so that they can still get help if needed. Send automated messages and offers based on customer insights, but make sure there’s a real human there to pick up and respond. Use chatbots, but use them to tag-team with your operators to speed up resolutions without sacrificing warmth. It’s all about creating a balance that blends humans and technology seamlessly.

That said, a good balance between AI and human team members doesn’t automatically guarantee success. It’s important to remember that no amount of technology will salvage a bad customer service experience. AI won’t placate a disgruntled customer: only a conversation with a skilled service agent can do that.

A place for AI

Yes, there are some (teething) pains when it comes to using AI in online customer service. But there are also some major gains, for company and customer alike. AI can help elevate a good customer experience into a great one if used as a tool rather than a take-over.

We’ve already touched on the more common examples like self-service areas and 24/7 chatbots, but there is a whole world of AI-driven efficiency waiting to be unlocked on your website. Through AI, for example, brands can scan through petabytes of customer data to predict behaviour and preferences. From there, they can offer welcome, hyper-specific recommendations suited to each web shopper.

AI can also be a boon for fraud prevention and online security. By incorporating artificially intelligent algorithms on a website, brands can inspect user behaviour and flag any suspicious activity on the spot. If you get a call from your bank alerting you to unusual activity, there’s a strong chance that an AI application detected it first.

Gain, not pain

For online customers, AI is here to stay. The only real question is how deeply it will encroach into our experience. Used as a contributing team player in the customer service mix, AI is a successful and highly useful assistance.

However, it’s not ready to take over the playing field completely. Customers may be getting used to having AI and bots in their online experience, but they still like good old human interaction. Brands need to align artificial and human intelligence for an experience that is more gain than pain. 

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Niamh Reed

Niamh Reed is a copywriter for Parker Software – a UK software house specialising in business process automation and live chat software. When she isn't writing articles on technology, ecommerce and customer service, she can be found playing the violin and drinking too much tea.

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