How AI and Automation Will Change Customer Service Work

Today, customers have more choices: more products to buy, more information to influence their purchasing decisions, and more devices and channels over which to seek customer service. What they don't have is more time. In fact, Forrester Research last year found that 66 percent of U.S. online adults said that valuing their time is the most important thing companies can do to provide them with good online customer experiences.

It's no wonder that self-service interactions have overtaken all other channels for the third year running. Dimension Data in its 2017 CX Benchmarking Report also reported 13.6 percent growth for web self-service this year, compared with only 1.6 percent growth for the phone channel.

Yet, it's not all about self-service. We know that customers use an increasingly broad spectrum of communication channels to interact with companies, moving seamlessly between them depending on their context and preferences. They also use several channels simultaneously if it makes sense to do so.

What does this mean for customer service organizations? They are drowning in inquiries as their customers contact them at an increased rate and over an ever-increasing number of channels. And customer service organizations are reacting by adding staff despite the cost. But this approach is not economically sustainable. Companies of all sizes must reimagine their operations, with automation and artificial intelligence at the center of their strategies. In 2018, companies will need to use AI pervasively to automate routine tasks. AI enhances agents' skills by taking over routine tasks, like collecting and reporting information, letting agents handle complex interactions that require empathy and personalization. It also allows supervisors to better manage their workforces.

Today, AI is still in its infancy; applied AI applications span discrete capabilities, such as machine learning, natural language processing and understanding, image analysis, etc., all of which are specialized and rapidly evolving.

Still, even in these early days, AI delivers real value by increasing efficiency and allowing you to deliver better customer experiences. For example, AI helps monitor customer journeys and proactively engages customers at the right time to boost revenue and conversion. AI-fueled onboarding activities, such as customer activation, and customer health tracking deepen customer relationships. AI-fueled post-purchase support optimizes knowledge discovery and enhances chatbot conversations. AI also optimizes case routing, classification, and schedule management. Look for places where you can add AI, and get an action plan together to do just that.

Companies should also invest in robotic process automation (RPA) to standardize service delivery. RPA software "robots" perform routine business processes and make simple decisions by mimicking the way agents work. RPA is relatively cheap and fast. Organizations can automate entire end-to-end processes, such as account onboarding or insurance claims awards, with agents providing support for any escalations. Yet, in many cases, RPA plugs gaps in legacy systems and delays efforts to overhaul systems and processes. Even if this is the case, look at processes where RPA can shave off seconds to agent processes and start using RPA in 2018.

Better automation and AI will ultimately replace tier 1 agents. Customer service organizations in the future will look much different than they do now. They will become high-touch centers that handle critical customer interactions. They will focus on the quality of interactions as measured by customer retention and lifetime value. Agents will ultimately be more highly skilled and better compensated. And old management principles that focused on efficiency will be relaxed. Ultimately, technologies, such as quality monitoring, will likely be replaced by customer feedback.

In 2018, if you work in a customer service organization, you should should start to reimagine your workforce, looking at which jobs will be replaced by automation and AI and which new jobs you will need to add to support these efforts.

You might even want to research new labor models to meet the real-time demands for "superagents" in the future. There are companies like Airbnb, Pinterest, and TUI that use gig-economy workers who are routed work based on skill, reputation, and availability and are compensated by the customer inquiry that they resolve.

Kate Leggett is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.