Chatbots are killing customer service. Here’s how.


It’s time for a reality check. Chatbots are killing customer service.

Obliterating it, maybe.

If you’re a customer, you probably already know that. The computer programs that conduct clumsy conversations with you when you have a customer question are maddening. But if you work for a company, maybe you won’t believe chatbots are killing customer service until you see the evidence.

Well, now you have it, thanks to a survey released this morning by CGS, a business applications, learning and outsourcing services company.

The CGS study, part of its annual Global Consumer Customer Service Report, examined consumer preferences for customer service engagements, specifically chatbot usage. It found that despite today’s technology-dependent environment, many consumers still prefer human agents to chatbots for their customer service engagements.

How they’re doing it

Among the conclusions:

✓ Only about half of all respondents said that they would turn to a chatbot for a quick customer service need. Another 25 percent say they would reach out to a company via email or social media.

✓ Beyond simple customer support, many consumers still prefer human agents to chatbots. Nearly 50 percent of U.K. respondents and around 40 percent of U.S. respondents said they’d prefer a person.

✓ CGS recommends using artificial intelligence-powered (AI) solutions to manage quick service requests and using human agents to take a more strategic role in the contact center, focusing on detailed, complex customer inquiries.

“When it comes to a more complex or technical question, consumers will often look to speak with a live support agent,” says Michael Mills, a senior vice president for CGS’ contact center division. “The rationale being that a live agent can react and adapt to the complexity of that individual’s problem and resolve the issue. Artificial intelligence programs and self-service applications are only as valuable as the information that resides inside their databases.”

But are chatbots killing customer service?

But are chatbots driving customers away? Maybe. After I reported on the rise of travel chatbots in my weekly Washington Post column, I heard from many readers who said the thought of talking to a bot was a turn-off. Perhaps they had the same experience I did when I tried to engage the program in a simple conversation.

The AI didn’t always get it, which was frustrating. Even more irritating — the company using the chatbot seemed to shrug the problem off. I detailed my own experience using Skyscanner’s chatbot, which often misunderstood my requests. Some of the companies I mentioned in the column appeared to shrug off my concerns.

Reader Alfred Sonnenstrahl was troubled by that dismissive, wait-for-the-upgrade attitude.

“Are chatbots accessible to people who couldn’t hear and speak well enough to be understood?” he wonders. “Is it in compliance with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that requires telecommunications equipment be usable and accessible for all, including people with disabilities?”

Based on my experience testing bots through live chat, I’d say the answer is usually “no.”

That skepticism tends to be generational, says Mills. “It should be of no surprise that the over-65 group would prefer not using the technology, unlike the younger generation, who grew up with the technology,” he notes. “It is human nature to go with what you are comfortable with. Older consumers may be challenged by the latest tech, while younger consumers live on their phones. They rely on texting and sharing information on social networks, but they will, similar to older generations, reach out via phone when their situation is too complex for other channels.”

Give chatbots a chance

Out of fairness, I decided to give Skyscanner’s chatbot another spin. Alas, it had been taken offline.

Maybe they got their hands on an early draft of the CGS study?

Should we exterminate all chatbots? Not yet. Mills recommends combining the chatbots and humans, which he calls a “blended” approach to customer service.

“It gives consumers the option of using the channel of their choice,” he says. “These channels should work seamlessly together allowing a human agent to pick up where a customer left off with the chatbot, for example, and access information from that previous interaction. Making it easy for a customer to transition without repeating information or starting from scratch lends to a successful customer experience.”

Overreliance on bots can be a turnoff for customers regardless of age or geographic location. Mills says if you want to find chatbots that work, check out the retail, telecommunications and hospitality industries, which use human agents with AI in a more seamless way. I’m still waiting for an example of a company that hits it out of the ballpark, with raving customers and lower costs.

Is anyone out there?

How to prevent chatbots from killing customer service

So what’s the takeaway? Companies shouldn’t move too fast to force chatbots on their customers, the survey suggests. Chatbots are killing customer service.

“Consumers will use a chatbot when they have a pretty straightforward question,” says Mills. “As our survey showed, half of the respondents ranked chat as their top channel for quick customer service. Yet, they still prefer a human because bots are less helpful, and their answers are less detailed. When they have a non-standard question or an issue that they don’t know how to explain, they will look to speak with a live specialist.”

In other words, develop and deploy chatbots, but keep the human agents. Relying completely on automation is certain to push customers away.

The CGS survey suggests that some companies are leaning on chatbots, which may save money in the short term but will eventually send customers running for the hills. Companies that serve an older demographic should pay close attention because older customers are the most resistant to using technology as their primary source of assistance. Older customers are among the most resistant to automation.

And then there’s this truth: Chatbots can’t replace human agents — ever. After all, bots are completely dependent on the data in their system, which is managed and controlled by people.

“A human can answer a question on the fly, empathize with a frustrated customer and get to the issue pretty quickly,” says Mills. “In some situations, such as a personal health matter, the individual may not feel comfortable discussing it with a bot. Delicately handling these types of situations can be key to the customer experience and satisfaction.”

“Can” being the operative word. Some human agents act like bots when they’re on the phone, reading from a script and refusing to deviate in any way. That can be even more irritating.

From this consumer advocate’s perspective, we’re at the beginning of a dangerous trend in customer service. Businesses around the world are looking at machine learning as a way to save money while still keeping their customers happy. This study seems to suggest that while they can save money through automation, they won’t keep all their customers happy. And that’s a problem — for everyone.

Posted in Smart Consumer Tagged ,

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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