Customer Service Aided by Cognitive Technologies

Stephen DeAngelis

January 14, 2021

We’ve all heard the phrase, “The customer is always right.” We also know it’s not a truism. Blake Morgan (@BlakeMichelleM), a self-described customer experience futurist, explains that the axiom reflects a philosophy more than a truth. She explains, “The customer is always right is a phrase pioneered by Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker and Marshall Field. These men were successful retailers and learned early in their careers that the success of their stores depended on the happiness of their customers. … It’s unclear who was actually the first person to coin the phrase, but it’s definitely an idea they all followed and used to run their businesses. They didn’t actually intend the phrase to mean that the customer was in the right in every situation. Instead, it was a signal that customers were special. Staff were instructed to treat customers as if they were always right, even if it was obvious they weren’t.”[1] Thomas J. Peters (@tom_peters), an author and business management practice expert, has stated, “It never ceases to amaze me that companies spend millions to attract new customers (people they don’t know) and spend next to nothing to keep the ones they’ve got! Seems to me the budgets should be reversed!”

Investing in customer service

Journalist Manar Al Hinai (@manar_alhinai) agrees with Peters that more attention needs to be given to customer service. She writes, “For many businesses, especially e-commerce platforms, a lot of the focus and investment goes toward building technology infrastructure. Businesses want to make sure that their websites are smooth, their pages load fast, their payment gateways are bug-free and their social media channels are inviting. Though they may send newsletters, run blogs, and push out various content on social media platforms, what businesses need to account for most is that the heart of building and developing an enterprise requires an equal investment in customer service.”[2] What companies might not realize is that some of the technologies used in marketing, e-commerce, and supply chain operations can also help them with customer service. Carmen Carey, Chief Executive Officer at Brady PLC, calls this an “automation plus humans customer service model.”[3] She believes this model will “increase efficiencies, reduce costs and boost the bottom line while maintaining and improving customer loyalty.” Chief among the technologies she believes will enhance customer service are cognitive technologies. She cautions, however, “AI and automation in customer service also needs careful thought. Get it right and customer experiences will be ones of efficiency and positivity, but get it wrong, and customers will leave in droves — often quite noisily.”

How can cognitive technologies help? Morgan notes that Spanish and Italian phrases similar to “the customer is always right” translate more like “the customer always has a reason.” She goes on to note, “It’s up to employees and customer service agents to find that reason and make sure customers are treated well.” Cognitive technologies can help companies discover the reason customers are unhappy or need help as well as improve customer service. According to Carey, great customer service begins with understanding your customer. She explains, “This precedes all else. Where are customers located? How are their demographics? Has the importance of language and culture been considered? For instance, would customers in France — a country renowned for its staunch protection of the French language — be put off by a chatbot that attempts to communicate with them in English? More than likely, oui. Demographics such as age, location and nationality really do matter. According to a survey by LivePerson, for example, European customers tend to be receptive to chatbots, while more than half (59 percent) of Americans prefer talking to a human over a machine. So, do your customer research and ensure this drives your decision-making when it comes to offering ‘man’ or ‘machine’ — or in an ideal world, both.”

Customer service aided by cognitive technologies

Business and technology writer JT Ripton (@JTRipton) bluntly states, “Customer experience is everything.”[4] He explains, “Recent research has revealed that 90 percent of buyers are willing to pay a premium for better customer experience. The key is understanding what an improved experience actually means for a customer, however. The rise of analytics has positioned companies to achieve closer customer analysis — on a far greater scale than feedback surveys or social media comments. With access to a mix of complex data sets from an array of sources, companies now have better insight into customer behavior, leading to higher sales numbers and better customer service.” Of course, it’s not access to data that provides better insights; it’s using cognitive solutions, like the Enterra Shopper Marketing and Consumer Insights Intelligence System™. Cognitive solutions can leverage all types of consumer data to provide high-dimensional consumer, retailer, and marketing insights.

Ripton goes on to discuss five ways big data and cognitive technologies can help improve customer service. The first way, he notes, is that big data and advanced analytics can help you know your target audience much better. Second, data can help you see your customers entire path-to-purchase journey. Third, big data and cognitive technologies can help deliver a personalized customer experience. Fourth, big data and cognitive technologies can provide omnichannel support. Finally, cognitive technologies can save customers time. He notes, “Customers are always interested in saving time and often will turn away from a brand who doesn’t practice efficiency.”

Journalist Brett Grossfeld reports, “Gartner predicts that by 2021, 15 percent of customer service interactions will be handled completely by artificial intelligence.”[5] He goes on discuss some of the ways cognitive technologies are being used in the customer service arena. They are:

Chatbots. Grossfeld writes, “Chatbots are what come to mind for many when discussing AI technology in customer service. Their ability to simulate an interaction with a customer service representative and resolve simple inquiries is an effective self-service solution. Machine learning enables chatbots to learn when they should use specific responses, when they should gather necessary information from users, and when they should hand off a conversation to a human agent.”

Virtual assistants. “Virtual assistants,” Grossfeld writes, “are different from chatbots in how they don’t try to simulate an interaction with an agent. Instead, they focus on specific areas in the customer journey where they can provide assistance to the customer. When enabled with machine learning capabilities, they can learn what kind of information they can pass along to agents (or saved to be used in analytics programs) and enhance the kind of assistance they provide.”

Content creation. According to Grossfeld, “Nearly 40% of customers claim that searches within knowledge bases don’t generate the help articles they’re looking for. Machine learning can be used to analyze the data that comes in from support tickets and turn them into actionable insights for agents to apply to help articles. Those insights point out how users describe their issues and if those descriptions are similar to the content of the knowledge base. Agents can then take those recommendations and adjust the help articles, making them more relevant and easier for customers to find.”

Predictive analytics. “Customer service needs measurable analytics in order to continually optimize,” Grossfeld explains, “and machine learning can help add a predictive element to some support analytics. Predictive customer service analytics utilizes data from previous customer service interactions to determine what the quantitative results may be in the future.”

Concluding thoughts

Morgan concludes, “The view towards customers has evolved over time. But no matter where you are in the world, being customer-centric means thinking about the customer experience. The customer might not always be right, however being thoughtful in your approach to customer experience will always serve your company well. Companies need to embrace customer experience and trust every customer to build successful relationships.” João Graça, Co-Founder & CTO of Unbabel, adds, “I believe artificial intelligence will continue to expand its capacity to support customer service. Many teams are working on improving natural language processing, decreasing bias in AI and increasing the speed and quality of customer service interactions. That said, there’s no time like the present to start putting some of the amazing AI tools to work for your customer service program.”[6]

Footnotes
[1] Blake Morgan, “A Global View Of ‘The Customer Is Always Right’,” Forbes, 24 September 2018.
[2] Manar Al Hinai, “Customer service is key even in the digital age,” The National, 15 June 2019.
[3] Carmen Carey, “How the ‘human and machine’ model will transform customer service,” Information Management, 1 October 2018 (out of print).
[4] JT Ripton, “How To Use Big Data to Improve Your Customer Service,” Datafloq, 25 June 2019.
[5] Brett Grossfeld, “How is Machine Learning Being Used in Customer Service?” Zendesk, 27 June 2019.
[6] João Graça, “Five Real Ways Artificial Intelligence Is Upleveling Customer Service,” Forbes, 15 October 2020.