Can IBM Watson Bring Customer Service Back to the Future?

On Wednesday, Oct. 21, Marty McFly and Emmett "Doc" Brown arrived in their time-traveling DeLorean from 1985.

At least, that's what happens in Back to the Future: Part II, which hit movie theaters 26 years ago. In the movie, Michael J. Fox's iconic character, Marty, steps out of the time machine and into a futuristic 2015 filled with flying cars, hoverboards, self-drying jackets, and power-lacing Nikes.

From the perspective of the real 2015, most of the things depicted in the movie's fanciful future still seem delightfully implausible. But one thing the film did get right is the use of artificial intelligence as a customer service tool.

Customer Service, Digitized

In the film, when Marty enters a diner called "Cafe 80s," he is greeted by two computerized waiters appearing on a TV monitor in the form of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ronald Reagan. They're clearly artificial and not very intelligent, but they understand Marty's increasingly frustrated vocal commands well enough to stop talking and serve him a Pepsi.

It's a 2015 customer experience facilitated by AI technology, approximating the actual level of customer service one expects these days, here in the real world, from the likes of Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, and Google Now. These tools are increasingly clever and can answer basic queries, but it's hard to forget you're dealing with a piece of software.

Then there's the advanced cognitive computing software known as IBM Watson. With its natural-learning algorithms, Watson has been widely touted for its potential to deliver a ground-breaking customer experience that puts smartphone personal assistants to shame. In fact, some fear that it could be capable of replacing human customer service agents entirely, though maybe not just yet. There are still some big differences between human customer service agents and even the most impressive forms of software. These differences suggest that, for the time being at least, the most effective customer service solution will be one that manages to combine the best of both worlds. Here&'s why:

1. Software Lacks E.Q.

Watson is best known as the supercomputer that beat reigning Jeopardy!emotional intelligence, or E.Q.

In many customer service situations, the ability to empathize with a customer and genuinely appreciate his frustration or desire is the key to providing world-class service. Watson might be the best thing since Google when it comes to efficiently resolving customers' questions, but it's likely to be at a loss when it finds itself in the deep end of a rapidly escalating or sensitive situation that demands calm and quick-thinking human intervention.

2. Humans Lack Processing Power

Providing a great customer experience typically requires collaboration across an enterprise, with employees reaching across organizational silos to find the data they need to resolve an issue or guide a customer on the next step of her journey. This can prove challenging, however, in a world where gigabytes of data are being generated daily from recorded phone calls to live chat transcripts to emails and beyond. Human beings are great at generating data, but sifting through it is another matter. Depending on the situation, resolving a customer's question can sometimes involve numerous agents working across separate departments to piece together an answer, if they can mine the right data to begin with.

Of course, that's one area where computers have a distinct advantage. IBM Watson is especially adept at making sense of vast amounts of unstructured data that would otherwise be difficult to query at all to find key information, fast. Some of its best implementations in customer service have bridged the gap between FAQs and live agent chats, resolving customers' queries almost instantly by drawing on vast troves of information to deliver quick and meaningful answers. And providing the right response to a customer at the right time, with the right context, is a big component of a great customer experience.

3. Software and Human Agents Together Can Make 1+1=3

Software operates on conventional either/or binary logic: input, output; if this, then that. In the mathematical thinking of even the brightest AI, 1+1=2, and it takes a great deal of additional programming to convince a piece of software otherwise. But in the world of customer experience, sometimes a service agent has to bend the rules to satisfy a customer, effectively making 1+1=3. This is where the strengths and weaknesses of human agents and software can complement each other well, ensuring that 1+1=3 for customers more often than not.

IBM Watson excels at speedily processing information and producing helpful solutions, doing things that human agents simply cannot. But in any customer journey there are moments of truth when it's important to get proactive, empathetic, and quick-thinking human agents involved. It could be a pivotal decision point, a delicate moment where a customer's loyalty or a sale could be gained or lost, in which a human agent's careful intervention might make all the difference.

However, the opposite situation is equally true. How many times have you called customer service only to be put on hold while an agent searches for an answer to your question or transfers you to another department entirely? If customer service agents have tools like IBM Watson at their disposal, they'll be far better equipped to efficiently resolve customer queries themselves, reducing call times while keeping customers happy, too.

A Win/Win Customer Service Solution

To some technologists, the idea of AI software putting customer service agents out of work is very attractive. But for now, having living, breathing agents working together with advanced cognitive computing software provides a far more versatile customer experience solution. Just as futurist Ray Kurzweil envisions the future of AI, I think that in the world of customer experience, it isn't going to be us versus them but rather usand them, with AI augmenting our own capacities to usher in new heights of human possibility.

That, at least, is the vision of the future I'd like to get back to, even as we rightly marvel at the ways in which advanced software leaves some of our own capacities in the dust. I bet your customers will prefer that future, too.

Scott Kolman is vice president of portfolio marketing at Genesys.