Approaching the Service Singularity



It's easy to forget sometimes but every new wrinkle in customer service systems brings us incrementally closer to a time when we won't need customer service agents and traditional call centers at all. Maybe. But I suspect this is all cyclical. There are several ways this could all play out.

We already have systems that reduce the cost of providing service to a tiny fraction of what service used to cost just a few years ago. Chat, bots, natural language processing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are all contributing toa reduction in the overhead on the service organization. So, while the costs of providing service are not zero, they are reaching a point where they won't matter much longer.

It's totally conceivable that at some point in our lives, we will interact exclusively with machines, and we'll be very happy about it too because we'll get what we want and need without waiting around. But before we go too far in that direction, let's remember a couple of things that might indicate we're giving ourselves too much credit for being smart. They include our growing familiarity with products, a business direction moving relentlessly towards better customer-facing processes, and better humans. I think I should explain them in reverse order.

Better humans

Better humans in this context just means people who grow up with technology are more adaptable and adapted to self-service. A 12-year old with a smartphone and some rudimentary understanding of social media will someday be a power-consumer of the digital glut on offer. This person won't bother with service sites but will have friends, networks, and a plethora of resources for figuring things out. Those people will think on-hold music is quaint the same way we not-so-fondly remember the UI before Windows.

Process

Better customer processes come from many places, but the one that's almost invisible is what's happening on the other side of your internet connection. Vendors are working overtime to ensure that their products are dead solid easy to use and that their customer-facing processes are too. A few years ago, I wrote a book that examined some terrible customer-facing processes that were mediated by little more than out-of-date employee-facing service systems with cool looking UIs. Those were the days that customers hated some of their vendors, in part because they had no choices about using their products. Those days have been over since the ink dried on that book.

Familiarity breeds…

Product familiarity is similar. There was an old joke in the mini-computer era that went, "Just hit any key to continue. But I can't find the any-key." It's not very funny any more is it? The fact is that over the last few decades our culture has been swamped by a tidal wave of technology products, all of which needed explanation to help customers find the any-key. That came to an end partly because of better humans but also because so much technology has been culturally assimilated. So, there's a high degree of familiarity with all kinds of things that people in the future will be able to cross-apply to new products.

We're rapidly approaching the service singularity when service will all be automated for those times when products aren't so drop-dead easy to figure out and we need to get help, right? Well, not exactly. As soon as products, processes, and services get that easy, they'll be fully commoditized, but the tide will turn, and we'll invent a whole new set of disruptive things and new product categories. We'll have almost no clue about how to use them, of course, and we'll look to our vendors for support. Then the process will start all over again, but we or our kids will be the ones stymied by new product categories and a strange new lexicon.

Perhaps that's when they'll all discover just how advanced we were when we invented chat bots, AI, ML, and natural language processing. It'll be a long way from teletype interfaces and long wait times, but that future generation will still find something to complain about


Denis Pombriant is founder and principal analyst of Beagle Research. Prior to that, he held multiple sales and marketing management positions in emerging companies. In 2000, Pombriant joined Aberdeen Group and held positions as research director and vice president of the CRM practice.