Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a contemporary buzzword among industries, but in fact, the term has been around for many years, most commonly rising during the mid-fifties from within the sphere of science fiction—think robots! So, what exactly is AI and how are organizations applying it, and most importantly, how does it either enrich or diminish the Customer Experience? A recent study from BCG Gamma got my attention. It found that only 10% of businesses see significant financial returns on their AI investments. For some strange reason that 10% statistic is popping up more lately—like the recent Bain & Company survey that indicated only 10% of business leaders believe that the primary purpose of their firms is to maximize value for customers. As a CX professional, one might have hoped that was science fiction, but it’s unfortunately not. But I digress, that’s another topic for another blog.

Let’s start with a brief definition of AI to get us on the same page. A recent article from TechTarget states; “Artificial intelligence is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems. Specific applications of AI include expert systems, natural language processing, speech recognition, and machine vision.”  The best example, and one that we may be most familiar with, is our Amazon Alexa—we ask a question, and we expect to receive a reasonable response and hopefully, the twain shall coincide. Artificial intelligence is also impacting every aspect of business life. As consumers, we encounter AI in many forms and most notably whenever we need to call a customer support line for information or to resolve an issue. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon organizations to get the AI technology right first and unfortunately what is often overlooked in the application of the technology is the cultural aspect—the people side of the equation—and how it integrates within the technology. Small wonder then that the ROI of AI is only being reported by 10% of businesses.

So, let me share some insights into some recent customer service journey experiences I’ve had with organizations where AI and the cultural/people integration are being (or not) applied. This is where the fun begins or, to put it more crisply, where the customer journey can take a critical and not so smooth turn.

For example, when issues arise that cannot be managed online or through a chatbot, contact by phone may be the only viable option. Enter the dreaded phone tree; “Please listen carefully to the following 17 options as many of them have changed” followed by some other recorded messages that have no relevance to you or your reason for calling. By the time you’ve heard the last option, you’ve long forgotten what the first one was. Should all be taking fast notes? When you finally figure out and select the option that applies to you, you may then be asked; “Please tell us how we can help. I understand complete sentences.” Be careful not to utter a word until the recorded voice stops talking and waits for your response to speak to the reason you’re calling. This part of the journey can be frustrating and lengthy. If you speak too soon, you’ll hear; “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that response, please try again.”

If you get this far, enter the dreaded wait time; “Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line and your call will be answered in the order in which it was received. Your approximate wait time is 16 minutes.”  Smarter and more humanistic processes would allow you to leave a call-back number and not lose your place in the queue.

Considerable patience here is a required behavior and when you finally connect with a human being, enter the dreaded ID and verification phase of the journey where you’re asked for some personal identifier that proves that you are YOU. This is usually a code or a PIN or something that you’ve long forgotten. Could they ask for something we all know like the back of our hands such as a home address, a phone number, or the last four digits of your SSN? Keep in mind that, in many instances, you’ve already provided this information back at the initial phone-tree stage of the journey.

If you are lucky enough to get to a human being and have proven to them that you are indeed who you say you are, then congratulations if you can hear the person and distinguish what they are saying. This is where technology enters the process once again and where voice quality really matters. I’ve had more instances where the person sounds like they are speaking to me from the far end of a long tunnel and where I must repeatedly ask; “I’m sorry, could you please say that again.”  I’ll be kind here but there are also those agents that simply talk too fast. Granted we live in a fast-paced age where average handling time is typically imposed upon an agent as one of their performance metrics and I get that, but some people tend to have this communication problem. While speaking quickly is not necessarily an issue in and of itself, some people do so at the expense of clarity, diction, and coherency, which may seriously inhibit effective communication and lead toward a less than ideal customer experience.

The live agents most often do their job correctly and help answer questions and solve customers’ issues and often do so in a friendly and quality manner. However, by the time a customer has reached the live agent, they have been so frustrated and angered by the technology leading up to that conversation, the agent now must deal with an irate customer that has no issue at all with the agent. And often the underlying issue and the reason for the call is with the organization itself—their processes, products, services, technologies, etc. Agents can only be as good as the organization and the support behind them.

And finally, after all this hassle, enter the offer to complete an IVR survey. I’m a survey junkie—I take them all whenever I’m given the opportunity. As a CX professional, I’m curious. I want to see how they are being managed, what questions I am asked, and how long this takes. What I experience exclusively is that the questions asked pertain only to the performance of the agent that spoke with me. And that’s usually the highlight of the journey—my questions are answered, my problem is solved, and I’m a happy camper at that point. But what about those initial journey steps that took 15 minutes plus of my time and that upset me so? Where’s the opportunity for me to provide that aspect of customer service feedback? Non-existent, I am afraid.

One recent unpleasant experience I had with a Dell Technologies purchase and order fulfillment clearly was caused by a process breakdown within the organization. I gave all the agents that managed my issue high ratings on their performance during both my IVR and email surveys that were offered to me. There was no opportunity for me to voice my concerns about the operational deficiencies that were the real cause of the breakdown. Where and how can a customer provide feedback to Dell Technologies, you may ask? By calling their Customer Careline. Oh no, I thought—not another round of call-center madness or chatbot mania—I need another channel—enter social media. Yes, they recommend that you Tweet your issue on their Customer Care Twitter page. I tried that to no avail. Then I reached out to them on LinkedIn and that got their attention. I was pleasantly surprised to not only get a quick response but also a chance to speak with a sales operations analyst where I was able to provide them with detailed customer feedback. People should never have to work that hard to voice their experiences that will result in a process change for the better of all customers.

Score: Humans 10 – Technology 5.

The real question that businesses need to be asking themselves here is when they use both AI and human interactions in an integrated manner to serve customers is whether they are enriching or diminishing the customer experience at those touchpoints—and especially those critical touchpoints as they can be the most impactful and critical among all touchpoints along the customer journey. During a recent online seminar, Fred Reichheld, Bain Fellow, and creator of the Net Promoter System® (NPS) made this astute observation and comment regarding his experience with AI when reaching out to a businesses’ contact center; “When I want to speak to an agent and I repeatedly pound the zero key on my phone, why do I need to wait for a survey to express my dissatisfaction.”  The technology to improve that situation already exists. It just takes an organization that is customer-focused and that believes its reason for existence is to bring value to customers and enrich their lives.

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Karl Sharicz – Founder, CEO – HorizonCX, LLC. | December 2021

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