The future of customer service has become a recurring topic in the training sessions I facilitate. Specifically, participants wonder about the impact of technology, chatbots and AI on the retail industry, customer service and related jobs.
It’s not easy to tell an audience that is eager to learn and grow that their job is at risk. The statistics vary depending on the source, but I will safely state that a great portion of customer service jobs will be taken over by some kind of automation within the next ten years. One does not need to be prescient to foresee AIs answering queries on the phone or having a virtual butler that is perpetually at your beck and call. These are already with us and they are only the beginning. Think a bit further into the future and you can imagine robots routinely registering guests in a hotel and serving people at restaurants.
Where did my favorite shop go?
Technology is definitely revolutionizing the retail and service industries. Shopping habits have already changed and brick and mortar shops are closing. Shopping centers, which are being deserted by an increasing number of retail shops, are scrambling to transform themselves into entertainment destinations. Where once there was a shoe store, now is a lady with scary eye lenses, dressed as a witch, who invites you to visit the dark haunted castle behind her, or a clown hailing you to enter a noisy and flashy world of adventures which was, only a couple of months ago, a sober men’s fashion store.
I was visiting my millennial son the other day, and he was surprised that I still go to the mall to buy clothes, books or electronics. He does it all and more from the comfort of his favorite armchair, earplugs in place, on his latest smartphone. He researches, compares, orders and pays in less time than it would take me to find a parking space at the mall. Online shopping makes perfect sense: who would subject themselves to the tyranny of the real world with all its inconveniences, when they can solve all their problems faster and cheaper online at the push of a button. Well, I still do. But, I am probably part of the last generational wave that prefers human to machine interaction. While I appreciate technology, I only use it when necessary. My son’s generation is exactly the opposite: they have nothing against their fellow humans but they will use technology whenever possible. I am a dying breed, and he is the present and the future.
Even millennials need service
However, time and again, even the most tech-friendly millennial needs to fall back, with a sigh, on human interactions. This probably happens more often then they wish, whenever they face a non-routine situation. AI is making great strides, but it is still a long way from becoming an ‘intelligent’, empathetic adviser, problem solver or morale booster.
When my son decided to join the analog bandwagon and invest in a vinyl record HiFi music system, it was impossible for him to trust, or even understand, what social media and the chatbots were telling him. Just like a baby boomer, he drove to the mall and entered the most renowned music shop in the vicinity. A smart looking, very professional sales person approached him and they engaged in what can only be described as a classic 20th century customer/sales person interaction. The actual sale was formalized after three such visits, and was preceded by lifestyle questions, technical information, product testing, a lot of patience, empathy, intuition, passion and a plethora of person-to-person skills such as listening, reading body language, negotiating, drinking coffee and more. Amusingly, my son still raves about how ‘interesting’ it was to deal with another human being.
Organizations need technology to survive
I think we can agree that technology is here and it is here to stay. Technology was created to help people and organizations become more efficient and it will become increasingly omnipresent. People and organizations who are not embracing the digital age will be left behind. For people, it is a personal choice; they can pick and choose when, how and what they use from the plethora of technological gadgets available to them. Some may even choose to live off-grid and can have very fulfilling lives doing so. Organizations however, have no choice. For them it is a matter of survival. If they don’t adopt technology and adapt to the new way of the world, competition will eat their lunch, their dinner and their breakfast too. Organizations are becoming increasingly efficient with the use of smart programs, data analytics, artificial intelligence, search bots, social media, and the full arsenal provided by the modern digital age, and productivity records are being shattered year after year.
But, the real question is, will technology replace human beings? Since the dawn of the industrial age, there have been employment doomsday predictions which have all turned out wrong in the medium and longer terms. While there will be new jobs created, most obviously for people who can build, operate and maintain these new technologies, there will no doubt be job migrations changes and most definitely job losses which will cause pain for certain job classes. Customer service jobs will not be spared. However, more than ever, customer service will become the great differentiator. As technology becomes pervasive, and operational efficiency becomes increasingly dependent on computer algorithms, it will become more difficult to differentiate between tangible products and services. Even customer service will become automated, but only when dealing with routine situations. However, when anything out of the ordinary looms, high quality human service still cannot be replaced. Look at my son, happily conducting all his business from the warmth of his home, not interacting with anything that breathes, until faced with an uncommon situation.
But they need “new age” customer service to thrive
We have two forces at play here. Firstly, there is technology with all its promises of efficiency and smart algorithms, which will reduce costs, bring in more sales and create redundancies in the ranks of sales people and customer service agents. Secondly, there is the force of differentiation that superior - ‘human’ - customer service can uniquely provide. Enlightened companies are quickly catching up with this phenomenon, and they are leveraging both of these forces to their maximum potential. The store where my son bought his music system is one example, but probably the most famous example of these companies, which one can argue is a pioneer in bringing the future to our lives, is Apple.
Apple, which brought us the personal computer, the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and many other innovative products and services is a company that squeezes all that is possible out of technology. What is less well known is the fact that Apple is also a leader in the ‘new’ human customer service arena. Enter an Apple store, stroll to the “Genius Bar”, and you will see what new age customer service is. There are no customer service agents here, there are “geniuses” that went through a rigorous training to serve customers, answer their queries, solve their problems and make them feel proud to own an Apple product. The training these “geniuses” go through includes technical aspects, but as importantly it includes psychological information and tips that, for all practical purposes, transforms them into master customer service agents. The following quote about a manual used for the training of the Apple geniuses was taken straight from Wikipedia: The manual was a well-kept secret, until a copy leaked in August 2012 and ended in the hands of Gizmodo's senior staff writer Sam Biddle, who commented: "It’s a penetrating look inside Apple: psychological mastery, banned words, roleplaying—you’ve never seen anything like it."
The way of the dodo
Obviously, nothing that impactful remains a secret for long. What only a few organizations master currently, will become mainstream in the near future. I can see a time when there will probably be fewer customer service staff, but those who will remain will be those who can offer five star service to the customer. They will be the heroes of the organization, just like the Apple “geniuses” are the heroes of the Apple store. Said differently, if customer service agents do not differentiate themselves from robots, chatbots and whatnots - by being more human and empathic, and by being problem solvers and smart advice givers - their jobs will go the way of the dodo, and they will be replaced by robots, chatbots and whatnots. Do not let this happen to you.
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