The Future of Customer Service

At the end of September I went down to London for a few days to attend the annual Customer Contact Expo at Olympia. This is the biggest event of its kind in the UK for people working in the customer service and call centre industry. It was a real 'eye opener' into how some big businesses view the future of customer service.

The impression I came away with was that we are just about to experience a massive transition towards automation and the use of robots and 'chatbots' to replace real people in the customer service industry.

According to some industry experts, chatbots, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will kill the customer service industry off altogether.

Let's face it, a robot is obviously cheaper than a human, and unlike humans, they can work any number of hours and at all times of the day. They can also be trained instantly at no cost, and you can replicate them without any extra added costs.

In November 2015, Bank of America Merrill Lynch predicted that eventually 45% of manufacturing jobs will be automated. This seems a fairly obvious development.

But you’d expect the customer service industry to want to keep the personal touch.

Unfortunately not. According to a study by Oxford University and Deloitte, 35% of all current jobs in the UK are at risk from automation. For customer services occupations, there is a 91% likelihood of automation, and for call and contact centre workers, the likelihood is 75%. Together, these industries employ roughly 376,000 people in the UK. That is a frightening number of job losses.

We’ve already started to see examples of robotic customer service agents pop up in our daily lives, as we become more comfortable with machines becoming our primary point of contact with businesses. When you log into your online bank account you now get a pop-up chat window where you can ask for help.

Some banks have announced that they are trialling chatbots to respond to these queries. For example RBS say they will deploy a virtual assistant called ‘Luvo’ to deal with day-to-day customer problems from lost or stolen bank cards to forgotten pin numbers. Although Luvo has been built to sound like a human, he’s far more helpful because he can instantly access the entire customer service database to pull up an answer, and learn from previous customer enquiries.

The American fast food chain Taco Bell (see article dated 12.08.16) has announced the 'TacoBot', which you can text using the 'Slack' messaging app. You can use this bot to order food or ask for recommendations and also pay for it through Slack. 

You can also order Domino’s pizza through Amazon’s AI assistant called ‘Echo’ (which isn’t yet available in the UK), and multinationals like BMW and Unilever already use a bot that can answer any question that would normally be answered by a customer service assistant.

There is no doubt that robots and artificial intelligence is going to completely devour the customer service function of most big companies within the next 10 years.

But should we be worried?

Any type of technological change offers both opportunities and threats. No doubt there will be resistance, just like in the industrial revolution when the luddites destroyed machinery in cotton and woollen mills during the early nineteenth century.

But let’s not forget the opportunities. In bigger businesses, job roles may change, and possibly even improve. The robots will still have to be supervised by humans. Bots will be used to handle the more simple queries, while humans will take on the more complex customer service issues.

There will also be a greater need for specialist salespeople, engineers and designers who build and repair the bots - plus of course the developers who actually create them.

History teaches us that in any period of rapid change, automation has replaced humans in certain job roles, but it hasn’t dented overall unemployment levels because newer and more interesting job roles have been created.

The personal computer revolution of the late twentieth century is a case in point. Within the space of less than 15 years, we went from an almost computerless society, to a world where every business was infested with computers. But despite the onslaught of this new technology, employment levels haven’t gone down. In fact overall employment levels have risen, and many new jobs have been created.

All the new technology, automation, robots, and artificial intelligence being deployed within the customer service industry will bring about massive changes to the way we work. But it will bring many benefits to business, and it is certainly not something to be feared.