Are customer service robots a good thing?

In September of last year I attended the Customer Contact Expo event in London (see article dated 21.10.16). The overwhelming impression I got from this event is that the world of customer service is poised for a revolution in the way that bigger companies interact with their customers.

We have already seen many big companies tentatively dip their feet into the world of robotics, chat-bots and artificial intelligence. But the next few years will see a massive increase in the use of this type of technology, as companies attempt to cut their (labour) costs in order to become more competitive.

One such company is the mobile phone provider O2, who are seeking to cut costs in its customer service operation by encouraging people to talk to a new artificially intelligent robot rather than contact its call centres.

O2’s parent company (the Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica) unveiled the new voice recognition technology, called ‘Aura’, at the Mobile World Congress trade show a few days ago in Barcelona.

The system is scheduled to be introduced in the UK in the next 12 months and is designed to answer customers’ questions about their account, such as how much of their monthly data allowance is left or what their next bill will be. Customers will also be able ask to add new services, such as a roaming package, or cancel services, without speaking to a human.

O2’s chief executive Mark Evans said that Aura represented the next stage of the company’s efforts to encourage customers to serve themselves if they have just a basic inquiry.

Calls to the operator have already been cut in half as people increasingly turn to a smartphone app to manage their accounts. The introduction of artificial intelligence and voice recognition will reduce their costs further.

O2’s call centres are outsourced to Capita, and a reduction in workload of their customer service staff would inevitably lead to job cuts. These would be among the first job cuts in the UK that are directly attributable to the use of artificial intelligence within customer service.

Mark Evans has been cutting costs recently to get O2 ready for a potential £10bn stock market flotation later this year, in which Telefonica would sell a minority stake.

What affect will this have on Customer Loyalty?

In addition to cutting costs, O2 say they hope that Aura will also increase customer loyalty by making it easier for customers to interact with the company. Whether this will happen in the longer term is, in my personal opinion, very questionable.

It also throws up the possibility of smaller niche companies gaining a competitive advantage by providing a more ‘human’ customer service experience.

The subject of customer loyalty is a complex one, which I deal with in more detail in my new book ‘The Loyalty Gap - the 7 Secrets of Customer Loyalty’ which will be published later this year.


The photo at the top of this page shows Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete, the President of Telefonica, presenting 'Aura' at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona earlier this week.