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The do's and don'ts of customer service automation

Next-Gen Technology

When it comes to improving customer service delivery, automated technology is fast becoming an indispensable business tool. Among other attributes, it can scale your customer service output, reduce agent workload and increase performance by allowing your frontline to focus on the queries that require their attention the most.

Despite the long list of pros, not all customer service engagements benefit from the use of automation. While it can improve some aspects of the customer experience, there are others that aren't well-suited to such a tech-first solution. Here's a brief rundown of what to automate — and what not to.

Automate: FAQs

One area where automation absolutely makes sense is in answering frequently asked questions. When customers visit your website or mobile app in search of basic information, such as how to return merchandise or check the balance on their account, having a conversational bot programmed to provide answers makes sense.

In fact, according to Olive Huang, research vice-president with Gartner, 15 percent of customer service interactions will be "completely handled by AI" by the year 2021. Using artificial intelligence to automate FAQs allows consumers to get answers to their questions quickly, with the added benefit of reducing unnecessary strain on the customer care team.

Don't automate: Relationships

For years now, artificial intelligence (AI) experts have been working to integrate soft skills like compassion into their technology. But, as the Harvard Business Review explained last year, "Service can be emotional; technology cannot."

If customers are nervous, frustrated or upset about the issue that led them to contact the customer service department, or are looking for personalized advice rather than a one-size-fits-all response, automation can fail them.

"Chatbots are probably the fastest growing AI-powered automation technology being deployed by customer-focused brands, [but] there are certainly limitations to automated systems today," says Matt Shealy, president of small-business advocacy organization ChamberofCommerce.com.

For the moment, the technology lacks the delicate touch needed to make the personal connection that leads to customer loyalty.

"While the proportion of AI-enabled interactions will grow over time, until bots become as complex as consumers and as empathetic as human agents, I believe their future role in customer experience will remain focused on directly supporting, rather than replacing, customer service agents,” says Jeff Puritt, president and CEO of TELUS International.

If your current goal is to build lasting relationships with customers, ensure they have the option to escalate to a human agent when needed.

Automate: Follow-ups

Follow-up emails sent to customers after a customer service interaction are another ideal candidate for automation. Triggered when a ticket is closed, they can express gratitude on behalf of the agent for choosing your product or service, ask whether the issue was resolved to the customer's satisfaction and invite consumers to provide valuable feedback about their experience.

The customer service survey will help you gauge the impact that particular interaction had on your company's Net Promoter Score, and may even reveal other opportunities to improve the overall customer experience. Delivering a follow-up survey to customers via an automated process ensures that feedback, along with key customer satisfaction metrics, don't fall through the cracks.

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Automate: Back-office tasks

Like frequently asked questions, standard back-office tasks should be automated. Logging in to applications, filling out forms, merging data from multiple sources, formatting analytics for reports and more, can all be accomplished using Robotic Process Automation (RPA). And with bots addressing these everyday issues, customer service agents are free to focus on more sophisticated responsibilities.

"In customer service, automation is most useful when it handles routine tasks that don't require human interaction," says David M. Raab, founder of Pennsylvania-based marketing consultancy Raab Associates Inc. "Behind the scenes, it helps agents do their jobs better — for example, by automatically assembling information from multiple systems and by making recommendations for products, services or bundles that best meet a particular customer's needs."

Don't automate: Complex support issues

There are many situations in which customer service queries require a creative solution. Calls don't always go by the book, and if a customer needs an unconventional fix to an unorthodox situation, automation won't be able to manage it.

"Automation can only go so far," Shealy says. "There should never be an instance where businesses obfuscate the fact that someone is interacting with a bot or automated system of any kind."

Puritt shares a similar sentiment: “Fundamentally, there are things we can do that machines just can't. The limitations of machine learning is that it needs to learn from large volumes of past data. Humans don't. We have the ability to connect seemingly disparate threads to solve problems we've never seen before."

AI systems are getting better at understanding customers needs, says Raab. "An ideal system would accurately assess the customer's intent and route to an appropriate agent, human or non-human, without the customer making a choice, assuming it's a channel like chat or phone where either routing is possible," he adds.

In instances where it's not possible to accurately predict what level of service a customer needs, Raab says it's best to either give them a choice, or default to a human agent: "The key point is that customer satisfaction - not cost reduction - should come first."

As next-gen technologies continue to evolve and increasingly impact customer service delivery, brands will have an equally increasing responsibility to decide when and where it makes the most sense to incorporate automation into their customer journey.

Whether you use automation, human agents or both, your customers should always feel that you're dedicated to helping them with all the tools at your disposal — no matter how simple or complicated their issues may be.

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