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Why, Robot? Assessing the place of Artificial Intelligence in customer experience

‘They’re coming to take our jobs!‘

‘I don’t want to talk to a robot on the phone!’

‘If I hear “unexpected item in the bagging area” one more time!”

‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?!’

You know how it goes. Public discourse around the place of AI and robotics in our homes is rife with fear, uncertainty and doubt. All too often, people fret that humans are going to be replaced, and everything from their jobs to their experiences with businesses and brands will suffer.

Of course, that’s not the case. You just have to look at where AI, machine learning and robotics are already making a difference to understand that. Just consider how Netflix personalises the content its users see when they log on. Or in retail, where innovative stores have trialled robot service assistants to help customers with product information.

These brands and businesses are showing everyone else two things. Firstly: the debate about whether robotics and AI will arrive is over – they’re here, and they’re here to stay. Secondly: their purpose is not to replace people and remove that essential human touch from customer experience. It’s to help out and give their flesh and blood colleagues the space they need to succeed.

All that’s left to be decided is how that happens.

Robocoat and the appy café

A couple of years ago, outdoor clothing brand The North Face got to thinking about the fact that high value clothing purchases aren’t always the easiest to make. They responded to this issue by providing one of the best examples of AI based customer service going: using IBM’s Watson technology, they created a digital brand expert that sought to understand the reasons customers were jacket shopping with them – and then recommended products based on their findings.

The initiative brought online and offline retail experiences closer together. It also gave staff at The North Face a much better understanding of their customers, because people were able to easily explain what they were looking for, in their own terms.

While we’re on the topic of keeping warm, Starbucks offers another great example of AI and robotics making a difference to customers and employees. Now, busy customers can chat to a virtual, app-based barista to put in their orders.

Not only does this save time when they’re picking up their drink on the way to work, it also frees up in-store staff to focus on providing an excellent experience to customers in the café. Whether that’s perfecting pumpkin spiced lattes, or dealing with that difficult character asking for a venti-medium-wet-soy-caramel—double-shot – macchiato.

These are just two examples of where our automated friends are transforming customer experience for the better. And with the technology advancing all the time, we should all be thinking about what’s next.

Man plus machine

A good brand experience today rests on personalisation, informed interactions and customers feeling like they’re able to get across honest feedback in a way that suits them. There’s no doubt that’s a lot for frontline staff to manage, particularly in industries like retail, which are feeling the financial pinch.

This is why it makes sense to task improving AIs and robots with the more workaday elements of customer service, guided by the human hand rather than held by it. This could take the form of chatbots to answer easy queries, or sentiment engines that capture the voice of the customer on an online platform they’re comfortable communicating on.

Importantly, these tools are far more sophisticated than they once were. Remember too that the more a machine learning solution is used, the more data it collects and the smarter it gets. So, brands should have no qualms with putting their customers in the hands of our robot overlords friends.

This is where the benefit of AI and robotics in customer experience is fully realised. With simpler tasks taken off their plates, trained, expert, human agents will have the time and space to provide the customer experiences and service levels that really make the difference. From complex or emotional enquiries that demand the kind of nuance only humans possess, or proactive engagement to keep healthy customer relationships happy.

For those who are still unconvinced, it’s worth noting that we see robots and AI assisting us across sectors every day. It’s a testament to how good, and how helpful, they are that some of us don’t even notice it.

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