AI in Customer Service—Where Do You Jump In?

When it comes to using artificial intelligence, many organizations caught up in the froth of AI developments just jump in and automate what they can. But those with the best service start first and foremost with customer needs and expectations and use them to guide decisions. Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, famously put it this way: "You've got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology."

Some low-cost airlines, ignoring Jobs' advice, are eliminating phone support, assuming chatbots and other channels will suffice. There's been a predictable backlash from customers who feel forced into using these capabilities.

Other organizations are giving customers choice in how they are served. They are deploying powerful AI capabilities to bolster and complement services, and they are upgrading employee skills for higher-value services. They are seeing efficiency and customer loyalty move in a positive direction.

So, where do you jump in with AI? Let's start with a quick summary of the primary ways AI is assisting with customer service today. We can call them the nifty nine:

  1. First, AI can automate repetitive tasks, like retrieving and updating relevant information or prioritizing next steps in a customer service process. This frees up human agents to focus on more value-added activities.
  2. AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can interact with customers 24/7. They can answer questions, assist in processing orders, and direct customers to human representatives where needed.
  3. Similarly, AI can power sophisticated self-service portals where customers can resolve issues or find the information they need without a live agent.
  4. AI can use data about past interactions and preferences to provide much more personalized customer service.
  5. AI can instantly translate languages, enabling your organization to support customers from a wide and diverse range of backgrounds.
  6. AI can analyze large amounts of data to predict customer behavior. This enables your organization to anticipate needs, identify and resolve problems, and offer personalized recommendations.
  7. Optimization tools can help with workforce management (such as scheduling employees), knowledge management, and even assist agents with real-time prompts and information as they interact with customers.
  8. AI can analyze communication with customers to understand their emotions and sentiment. This helps you track customer satisfaction and know where to improve products and services.
  9. And, of course, generative AI can help you draft communication, produce reports, analyze data, and even create presentations. These capabilities, if used wisely, can free you up to spend more time with your team and on strategic decisions.

So, that's a quick tour of how AI can support and enable customer service today.

As you assess the potential of AI, begin with your customers and their needs. You'll then want to develop and use a service strategy framework. In customer service, this is often referred to as a customer access strategy or just a service strategy. An effective strategy addresses the following 10 issues:

  1. Who are your customers?
  2. Which kinds of interactions do they have with you, such as sales, customer service, or tech support?
  3. How do they reach service: phone, chat, text, self-service, in person, or others?
  4. What hours are services available?
  5. What is your organization's accessibility, meaning how quickly can customers get help?
  6. How do you get the right customer to the right resources?
  7. Which people and technology resources are required for each type of interaction?
  8. Which information will be required?
  9. Analysis and improvement refers to how you'll learn from interactions to improve products, services, and processes.
  10. And, guidelines for deploying new services.

Your strategy might be well-developed, but if it needs work or if you're just getting started, I encourage you to think about these components together.

An insurance company with which I've worked as a consultant and trainer deployed an AI-enabled chatbot to offer assistance to customers on its app and website. Before the rollout, it painstakingly thought through key questions—Which customers might need the chatbot's help? Which questions would they have? When would the involvement of a human service agent make sense? In other words, it considered the impact on all 10 components. The implementation has been smooth and effective and efficiency and customer loyalty have come back in multiples.

Using your strategic plan—considering all 10 components—helps you see the big picture and the specifics that help you unlock the power of AI.

Brad Cleveland, a consultant and speaker, is senior advisor and former CEO of the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI).