Before we go any further, it is probably a good idea to point out that the Terminator from the title is not the nasty, melty, out-to-get-you T-1000, but the friendlier T-800 who discovered love for squishy humans and who is actually looking for ways to help them. All the while sporting that awkward smile.
In case this pop culture-heavy introductory paragraph means nothing to you, no worries. In essence, the topic of the article before you is the introduction of machines, automation, and A.I. to the world of Customer Service and Customer Success.
To truly understand the phenomenon of customer service and Customer Success automation, we need to go way back, to the age when diesel-powered machines finally started replacing steam-powered ones. More precisely, we need to go back to the year 1917.
In 1917, a man called Clarence Saunders went to the US Patent Office and patented something called the "self-serving store". Before his patent, the stores in the United States were of the general store type, where you told the vendor what you needed and they brought it to you from the storeroom. Saunders' self-serving store enabled customers to browse the items themselves, present them to a cashier and pay for them.
He actually licensed this business method and sold it to independent grocery stores which became part of the Piggly Wiggly franchise.
The reason we are mentioning Mr. Saunders and his patent is that this was the first time someone had an idea that people might actually be happy to help themselves, so to say.
More Recent Milestones
As years rolled by, the American model spread and the technology advanced, the automation of customer service became more prominent.
For example, in Great Britain, a self-serving Sainsbury's opened in 1950. In the 1960s, gas stations around the United States started experimenting with self-service and in the 1970s, thanks to the gasoline shortage, self-serving gas stations became widespread.
In the 1980s, we saw the emergence of database marketing collection and customer information analysis. By the end of the Miami Vice decade, PCs became widespread and more and more software developers started seeing customer service as a market to be conquered.
The 1990s saw the battle of acronyms and the inception of CRM heavy-hitters. The 2000s hit the CRM industry as hard as any other software-based industry due to the dot-com bubble bursting so epically. During this decade, we also saw CRM starting to find its way to the cloud.
These days, we see spectacularly integrated solutions popping up and making the lives of CS managers so much easier. We are also seeing the influx of big data and the switch to mobile. As a logical extension of customer service automation reaching a certain level of maturity, we are also witnessing discussions and debates being waged. Debates on the wider implications of these automated self-service systems becoming commonplace.
The Official Reasoning
The reasons for automation of customer service are easy to understand. By handling unnecessary steps automatically, these solutions save enormous amounts of time and, subsequently, money. As a result of this, Customer Success professionals have far more time to work on more advanced strategies that will further improve their companies.
From the customer's point of view, automation also speeds up the process, saving them time and money. It also reduces the chances of human error which is one of the main issues with the more traditional and "human" customer service.
All in all, there is plenty going for the automation of Customer Success. To resurrect the pop culture reference from earlier – the Terminator is looking all kinds of shiny and helpful.
Bugs Appear in the System
Unfortunately for the proponents of pure automation of everything customer service, the bugs are appearing and there are signs that the general public is simply not ready to forego human interaction as part of the customer service experience.
For example, the latest research from Accenture showed that 83% of US consumers prefer dealing with humans. The same research showed that almost half of the interviewees were ready to pay more for their service in order to get better customer service, i.e. a more human customer service. Even millennials who are usually seen as more likely to adopt novel trends prefer the human touch.
People still like the feel of interacting with another person, someone who can understand what it feels like to have human problems. We are empathetic beings, and any interaction with an entity that does not understand this concept will feel limited and lacking.
The A.I. Problem
There is an even more practical reason as to why even the most advanced customer service automation will not be complete. These are the innate functional limitations of every non-human "system". Namely, no matter how advanced a piece of customer service software is, there are always situations in which its script is not able to make certain leaps that biology is capable of. Human biology.
There are companies that are working on analytic methods which can work with copious amounts of data. IBM's Watson comes to mind first. Panorama, a BI software company whose solutions make the basis of Microsoft's online analytical processing also recently announced that they have started working with "dark data", data that was previously not utilized in business-related analytics due to its chaotic nature and relative obscurity.
While these are significant moves in a very futuristic direction, true A.I. is still light years away; an A.I. capable of leaps in logic and intuition. Until actual thinking machines become reality, customer service software will always be limited to mathematics and it will, therefore, require human input.
Our poor Terminator from the introductory paragraph is simply not advanced enough to handle the customer experience on its own and it will be a long time before it is.
Sure, that smile looks almost human, but there is still a certain awkwardness to it.
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