Are More Companies Moving Away from Human Customer Service?

John Scott
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The rise of automated customer service systems has been one of the most remarked-upon trends of the last several decades. From company managers pitching automation to shareholder meetings, to late-night stand-up comedians theatrically complaining about pressing 1 for English, automated customer service has infiltrated the public consciousness to the point that it's come to be taken for granted in nearly every contact between customers and corporations. Given their present ubiquity, you wouldn't expect there'd be much room left for automated customer service interfaces to expand into, but certain advances in the technology have made these systems feasible in more and more settings and for ever-more sophisticated customer contacts. Where these customer service trends are headed over the next few years matters a great deal to anyone in the customer service field.

Companies didn't start using automated customer service systems randomly. With a relatively simple and easy-to-maintain system, the vast majority of incoming customer calls can be screened, most of which involve fairly routine matters such as making payment arrangements or reporting outages. By screening out these calls prior to the human-contact phase, automated customer service systems dramatically ease the workload that would otherwise be carried by paid customer service specialists.

Unfortunately, the disadvantages of automated customer service are almost as dramatic as their upside. For one thing, these interfaces generally address the most common customer inquiries, and they are therefore ill equipped to respond to customers with unique needs. Such customers will invariably find their way to a human operator, and they will almost as invariably request escalation to management, raising the cost of handling their issues.

Another problem that gives pause to companies considering the installation of such a system is the perceived dehumanization of telling a machine what you want. Humans are psychologically predisposed to prefer contact with other humans to machines, even if the machines are faster and cheaper. By switching over to automated systems, your company risks alienating a certain number of existing customers.

Steps are being taken to improve the experience for customers. Different strategies are being tried—from simplified interfaces to more friendly sounding recorded voices—to improve the customer experience and allow the expansion of automated customer service without the drawbacks presently associated with it. Some of these strategies seem to be working, as orders for automated systems have generally been rising. One company, GM Voices Inc., even reported a single-year increase in orders of 17 percent, which is in keeping with industry trends. Even noncommercial entities such as the Internal Revenue Service, which doesn't face the same pressure to manage its customer service budget as a private-sector company does, have undertaken the project of diverting callers with tax questions to an automated system.

When the first robotic interfaces appeared, decades ago, the technology was weak and seemed designed primarily to create annoyance. With more sophisticated data handling technology and interactive voice protocols—especially voice-recognition software—new customer service trends began to develop with an emphasis on limiting expensive and inefficient human contact. With the recognition that these early automated customer service systems were lacking, steps have been taken to improve the experience, and now the technology seems poised for further uptake.


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