Can Generative AI Make Customer Service Like Tuscan Dining?

For this article, I'm going to take off my cynic hat and strap on my Pollyanna bonnet. I promise I'll be snarky and negative next month (just in time for Christmas).

After about a decade of dreaming and planning and hoping, my wife and I managed to make it to Tuscany in Italy earlier this fall. Among the many splendors of that part of the world is the dining experience. Fabulous food, made with loving care, wait staff that doesn't hover over you but shows up at just the right moment, and a limoncello surprise after your meal. It was all the things you expect from a swanky restaurant here in the states, but it wasn't any more expensive than an Applebee's.

When I look back and try to identify what made our experience so lovely, I found a common theme: The people working in that restaurant were connected to each other and always aim to provide their customers with the best possible experience. Some examples of this include the following:

  • As we left one restaurant, the owner pulled us aside, grabbed his cousin who spoke good English, and gave us a tour of the caverns beneath the building, which used to be a hospital for orphans. We received a more historic tour than many of the famous churches and museums we saw.
  • At another spot, the main three people working the room were so in sync and looked so alike, we had to ask them if they were brothers or cousins! They laughed and shook their heads at the idea.
  • One restaurant had a painted portrait of the family who owned it. It was about 10 years old, and we had fun matching the people working in the restaurant with the folks on the wall, plus all of them were there.

I don't know much about restaurant economics, but I know that in the United States many restaurants don't make it through their first year. It's hard to support your staff emotionally when you are under that type of economic pressure. Somehow, in Italy, the restaurants can show a level of customer care that rarely happens in the U.S. unless you are dropping more than $100 per person.

From Restaurants to Customer Service

Instead of musing dining establishments, let's talk customer service. Today's economy is as tough on contact centers as it is on restaurants. I talk to many contact center leaders who are trying to provide great customer service while cutting expenses by 20 percent or 30 percent. This drives companies to do two things: apply pressure on agents to be more efficient, and push customers to self-serve.

We are on the cusp of a new era. Generative artificial intelligence is going to make it easier and faster to build chatbots plus intelligent virtual assistants that are friendlier, more natural, and far more useful than has been possible to date. Self-service apps will get the customer through your virtual door, get them to a comfy virtual seat, and have them ready for their time with the agent who will be doing the serving.

The job of agents is going to change; they will be taking more important calls through handling more moments that matter. They need to be more like a Tuscan waiter, able to read the room, anticipate needs, and bring the goods when it's time. The job will often be harder than it was before. Questions will be more difficult, the stakes will be higher, and there will be fewer opportunities for that bit of downtime than a quick "what's my balance" call can provide.

Dare I say it? This time I think we will need fewer agents going forward. I've thought about this for years as the various technologies continue to drive more efficiency into the contact center. To date, we've not seen a reduction in the number of agents needed; worldwide it has stayed steady at 15 million or so. I really believe generative AI is different. It can do so much more with much less effort. We'll see, we pesky humans always seem to find a way to bring value above and beyond the tools we put in front of us.

What if we treat our agents like they work in a Tuscan restaurant? What if we build an environment that supports them and helps them focus on the customer. Pollyana says maybe we can leverage the efficiency gains from generative AI to invest more in the people who make our companies great. That is my dream for today, and a free limoncello after dinner.

Max Ball is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.