There is a lot of hope on AI and automation to create intellectual wealth, efficiency, and support for some level of process stability. After all, can’t we just ask Siri or Alexa and get answers so we can make a decision and carry on?
Automation has been touted as the wonder formula for workplace process optimisation. In reality it’s not the quick fix that many business leaders desire. But we keep raising the bar on expectations from automation. Investments in voice technologies, intelligent assistants, augmented reality and touchscreens are changing customer experience (Figure 1). Chatbots are ubiquitous, and everything has the potential to be personalised. But will they solve our problems?
100 percent automation is not effective
Let’s first consider using automation to replace face-to-face interactions. There was a time when people were raving about the check-in experience at some of the hotels in Japan where robots and automated systems would take care of the check-in, in-stay and check-out processes. Sounds simple and good? Till 2019, if you checked into the Henn-na Hotel in Japan, you would be served and taken care of by 243 robots. It was viewed by many as a template for what a fully automated hotel could look like in the future.
The hotel had an in-room voice assistant called Churi. It could cope with basic commands, such as turning the lights on and off, but it was found to be deficient when guests started asking questions about places to visit or other more sophisticated queries. It was not surprising that the hotel decided to retire their robots. In the end it created more work for the hotel staff on-site.
People love the personal touch when they are in a hotel; and talking to someone at the front desk, requesting assistance from hotel staff, or even just a short chat over breakfast are some of the small nuances of why the emotional connection matters. Many quarantine hotels today use robots for food delivery, but the hotel staff is still widely available for questions. That automation is good, but you need the human intervention. So, getting the balance right is key.
Empathy plays a big role in delivering great Customer Experience
Similarly, there was a time when many industry observers and technology providers said that a contact centre will be fully automated, reducing the number of agents. While technologies such as Conversational AI have come along where you can now automate common or repetitive questions and with higher accuracy levels, the human agent still plays a critical role in answering the more complex queries. When the customer has a complicated question or request, then they will WANT to speak to an agent.
When it reaches a point where the conversation with the chatbot starts getting complicated and the customers need more help there should be the option – within the app, website or any other channel – to escalate the call seamlessly to a human agent. Sometimes, a chat is where the good experience happens – the emotional side of the conversation, the laughter, the detailed explanation. This human touch cannot be replaced by machines. Disgruntled customers are happier when an agent shows empathy. Front line staff and human agents act as the face of a company’s brand. Complete automation will not allow the individual to understand the culture of the company. These can be attained through conversations.
Humans as supervisors for AI – The New Workplace
Empathy, intuitiveness, and creativity are all human elements in the intelligence equation. Workers in the future will need to make their niche in a fluid and unpredictable environment; and translating data into action in a non-replicable way is one of the values of human input. The essence of engineering is the capacity to design around human limitations. This requires an understanding of how humans behave and what they want. We call that empathy. It is the difference between the engineer who designs a product, and the engineer who delivers a solution. We don’t teach our computer scientists and engineering students a formula for empathy. But we do try to teach them respect for both the people and the process.
For efficiency, we turn to automation of processes, such as RPA. This is designed to try to eradicate human error and assist us in doing our job better, faster and at a lower cost by automating routine processes. If we design it right, humans take the role of monitoring or supervisory controlling, rather than active participation.
At present, AI is not seen as a replacement for our ingenuity and knowledge, but as a support tool. The value in AI is in understanding and translating human preferences. Humans-in-the-loop AI system building puts humans in the decision loop. They also shift pressure away from building “perfect” algorithms. Having humans involved in the ethical norms of the decision allows the backstop of overly orchestrated algorithms.
That being said, the astute use of AI can deepen insights into what truly makes us human and can humanise experiences by setting a better tone and a more trusted engagement. Using things like sentiment analysis can de-escalate customer service encounters to regain customer loyalty.
The next transformational activity for renovating work is to advance interactions with customers by interpreting what they are asking for and humanising the experience of acquiring it which may include actually dealing with a human contact centre agent – decisions that are supported at the edge by automation, but at the core by a human being.
Ecosystm research shows that process automation will be a key priority for technology investments in 2021 (Figure 2).
With AI and automation, a priority in 2021, it will be important to keep these considerations in mind:
Making empathy and the human connection the core of customer experiences will bring success.
Rigorous, outcome-based testing will be required when process automation solutions are being evaluated. In areas where there are unsatisfactory results, human interactions cannot – and should not – be replaced.
It may be easy to achieve 90% automation for dealing with common, repetitive questions and processes. But there should always be room for human intervention in the event of an issue – and it should be immediate and not 24 hours later!
Employees can drive greater value by working alongside the chatbot, robot or machine.
Ecosystm Predicts: The Top 5 Customer Experience Trends for 2021
Download Ecosystm’s complimentary report detailing the top 5 customer experience trends for 2021 that your company should pay attention to along with tips on how to stay ahead of the curve.
First, let me share a couple of general observations. Currently, we are still in the eye of the storm. Many are unable to see any light at the end of the tunnel. There is quite a bit of negative sentiments, and some fail to see that the situation will ever improve. I am sure similar thoughts occurred during other crises: the 1918 Pandemic (Spanish Flu); the Great Depression of the 1930s; the Dot.com bust of 2001; SARS in 2003; and the Global Financial Crisis/Great US Recession of 2007. During each of these events, a sense of impending Armageddon came over much of the population. Certainly, in each instance, people did experience some personal and social permanent changes, with which they learned to adapt and cope. But, inevitably, the world did go on and Armageddon did not occur.
One of the basic truths I believe, is that humans require and crave interaction with other humans. Think about the videoconferencing applications. The use of these apps grew exponentially as the main communication channel. Instead of just audio, it was audio and video. These mediums greatly assisted society in coping and adapting. Mankind, and the Natural World, will always find a way.
Here are the predictions from the article:
Companies that traffic in digital services and e-commerce will make immediate and lasting gains
Remote work will become the default
Many jobs will be automated, and the rest will be made remote-capable
Telemedicine will become the new normal, signaling an explosion in med-tech innovation
The nationwide student debt crisis will finally abate as higher education begins to move online
Goods and people will move less often and less freely across national and regional borders
After an initial wave of isolationism, multilateral cooperation may flourish
I very much agree with the author’s first prediction. This one is fairly obvious, as it has proven true throughout the crisis with providers such as Amazon, Zoom and others. It is expected to continue into the post COVID world. This is also evident from the findings of the Ecosystm research on the impacts of COVID-19. Organisations intend to continue to use digital technologies, even after the immediate crisis is over (Figure 1).
A Natural State of Equilibrium will Emerge
I believe for each of the areas described in the predictions, there will be various levels of long-term modification. None of them will return to their pre COVID-19 state, as we have all experienced going down the rabbit hole. During the pandemic, due largely to the lockdowns, the pendulum swung significantly towards one side. Many times, when people predict a new view, the current state is considered the New Normal. For me, the relevant question is: Will things stay as they are now, or will there be a new natural state of equilibrium? If so, what will it look like, in each of these areas? I don’t believe there is one answer, or one New Normal for all the dimensions being discussed. I believe a new normal state will potentially be different for each individual, each company/entity and each condition. In a post COVID-19 world there could be 50 shades of grey in each of these areas.
One of the predictions states that remote work will become the default. It must be remembered that part of work is a collaborative effort. While video conferencing has enabled collaborative efforts, the importance of the accidental interaction at the break room, printer, etc. can’t be under-estimated. It is these unscheduled interactions that enable accidental collaboration which can lead to great solutions. Thus, there will be many shades to the Future of Work – there will not be one absolute.
A similar example is a prediction for higher education. Part of the learning process a university offers is interacting with people who are not similar to your background or beliefs. That is one of the benefits of a diverse university. Similar to the corporate environment, many different types of learning environments will enable a person to gain great experiences from the time at university.
The advantage of all these alternatives will be the additional options and benefits to people post COVID compared to the pre COVID-19 world. It will present many great opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators, as well as end-users and consumers. It will create new and iterative ‘middle spaces’. It will be possible for a David to emerge and challenge a Goliath(s).
The two Chinese characters for the word ‘crisis’ are “danger” and “opportunity”. Just as we are in a dangerous time now, it has also presented new and different opportunities. Those opportunities will continue to exist even when the danger has passed. I am also reminded of the old expression “May you live in interesting times”. It very much applies to all of us now and in the future. I wish the same for all of you.