The wave of chatbots darkening the horizon has been frightening for those who are in customer service and support jobs. Many news articles have been written saying that chatbots will be the end of live customer service, and agents should start looking for new jobs now. But that’s not the whole truth; not at all.
Enterprise cloud contact center Aspect Software wanted to get to the bottom of whether customer service was really on the outs, so they put together some comprehensive surveys, and the results may surprise you.
I spoke to Joe Gagnon, SVP, GM, and Chief Customer Officer of Aspect Software’s Cloud Solutions. For over 20 years, Joe has had his eyes and ears on the company-consumer relationships, and I was lucky enough to get his take on Aspect’s recent consumer and agent experience surveys, which brought some striking results to light.
Give me a sense of what you do and what has brought you to this industry.
I fancy myself a “Consumerist.” I’ve spent most of my career looking at the evolving relationships between companies and consumers, and how content and customer engagement affects that relationship. On a daily basis, the agents that we support with our software touch over 100 million consumers globally, so it seemed a likely place to work at scale to improve the overall relationship between consumers and companies.
In my role as Chief Customer Officer I get the opportunity to work globally with our customers to move beyond just fixing their customer service problems. I help them engage more deeply with the consumers that they serve and set the foundation for a durable and long standing relationship with them.
Core to the work right now is how to evolve the way that the consumer interacts with a company, from using the phone primarily to make calls to using text or messaging as the primary way that they interact with a company. In partnership with our customers, we design strategies and approaches that help them better embrace consumers, enable them to serve their needs, and set them up with new capabilities that allow them to operate in a contemporary and captivating way.
What is the main problem today that keeps you up at night?
I have a simple mantra that I believe in deeply: human potential is infinite. In both my personal and professional life, I think about this every day, write about it, and use it as a call to action for me and everyone, everywhere. It is founded on the principle that we can all do more than we think we can, and I have made it my life’s mission to find out how true this is. In addition to my work roles I have focused on becoming an ultra-endurance athlete, and I started down this path to give myself an opportunity to continue to push myself to the physical and mental max and to see what happens when I do this.
I’d say the big problem that keeps me up at night is the fact that all too often, we stop short of creating a truly compelling experience for the consumer. There is just a tremendous amount of untapped potential that is there for the taking. Knowing that we can do more keeps me pushing our customers to think differently.
I have a unique opportunity as the CCO to collaborate with our customers to deliver a “wow” experience and to systematize a mindset that an enabled consumer is one that lives the spirit of “surprise and delight.” There are many, studies that show the positive ROI on customer service investment: improved loyalty, a greater share of wallet, and more. Chatbots are a perfect example of this. They operate at a significantly lower expense than a live person, provide a 24/7 solution for the consumer with conversational support, they don’t have any of the constraints that humans have like calling in sick or time constraints, and they can provide such a consistently high level of service that many consumers prefer to use them.
Aspect has been in the customer service space for some time. What do you see as the biggest problem facing customer service today?
I think at a macro level, the biggest challenge is the alarmingly slow reaction time brands show to the changing shifts in consumer preferences. More than half of consumers have stopped doing business with a company because of a poor customer service experience. Are those experiences really poor? Or are they really just the same experiences that those companies have been providing for the last 10 years, and they’re not adequately meeting today’s consumer expectations? Consumers were probably okay with them back in 2007, but because consumer expectations have risen so rapidly over the past several years, they are not okay with that same experience today.
Many of the companies I talk to know that they are not fully meeting the needs of their customers, and fail to act anyway. We did a consumer survey late last year which found that two-thirds of consumers feel good when they can handle a customer service issue without having to talk to an actual person -- and yet, few companies are doing this well. This could be in the form of a text or a chatbot, or even through an intelligent IVR. Companies do become satisfied in the “good enough” out of fear, and can’t rationalize or embrace the change.
How did Aspect end up getting into AI?
In 2013, we purchased Voxeo, a leading self-service IVR company based in Orlando. Then in 2015 we purchased the technology assets of LinguaSys, a provider of Interactive Text Response (ITR) and Natural Language Understanding (NLU) solutions. We’ve combined Voxeo’s self-service CXP platform and the capabilities of LinguaSys, creating the ability to transform one-way notifications such as outbound text into automated, conversational self-service dialogues, which is really the essence of a chatbot -- actual chat, not just providing yes-or-no response options.
In your opinion, do you think consumers are ready and willing to have the majority of their brand interactions with a chatbot?
Oh, very much so. In our consumer survey, we asked that exact question. Fortyfour percent of consumers said that they’d prefer to interact with a chatbot for customer service versus talking to a live person. The key, though, is that they don’t want the experience to be in isolation. Too many bad experiences with poorly-designed bots have left many consumers wary of an automated interaction that they find frustrating and unproductive. This is why 86 percent of those consumers said that they should always have an option to transfer to a live person (agent). What we believe is that chatbots will become the new entry point to the entire customer service experience, much like how we use Google first before we buy, make dinner reservations, or take action on a medical issue. We like the idea of interacting first with bots, or “digital employees” as I like to call them, before we dive into deeper engagement where advice, experience, or judgment are required.
We’ll be asking that same question in our Fall consumer survey and I’m fairly confident that that number is going to be at least 50 percent or higher.
Related: Make Chats With Chatbots Work
You just completed a customer service agent survey that revealed some pretty interesting findings, one of which is that the proliferation of chatbots will actually make customer service agents happier. Why?
Well, imagine if you had to answer the same 20 questions every day, with an occasional curveball or challenging question. How engaged or happy would you be in your work? Probably not much. Chatbots are designed to take on the easy, often-asked questions and leave the more complex and less frequently asked question for the agents.
In the survey, nearly 80 percent of the agents we talked to felt that handling more complex customer issues would improve their skills. And 72 percent said doing so makes them feel that they are having a bigger impact in the company. By creating a more challenging environment for the human employee, made possible by the digital employee, you create a happier, more engaged workforce, which has a direct impact on the customer experience.
Who do you think is going to be more impacted, the agent or the consumer?
In the long run, the agent will be more impacted. The better and smarter chatbots become, the less consumers will care who they are talking to, as long as they can get their question answered or their app working again. By taking on the complex issues, the agent now becomes a greater asset to the organization. They’ll know more about your product or service, they will have developed more defined problem-solving skills, and happier agents will have a more positive impact on the work environment.
So what is next? What do you see as the next emerging trend or technology?
I definitely think conversational user interfaces are going to explode. Just this week, Amazon announced that it is opening access for developers to add Alexa to commercial products. This could provide a profound acceleration of machine learning adoption. The printed manual will become a nostalgic novelty as we will be able to ask the flat screen directly why it’s acting off. We won’t be far from evolving from chatbots to chatovens or chattoasters. The device becomes the new channel, eliminating even the need for a smartphone. I don’t have to call or have an AI chat with Acme Products to find out why the refrigerator is making funky sounds, I’ll just ask the refrigerator. Just start with the question and everything else flows from there!