Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Parts of Customer Service That Should Never Be Automated

The Parts of Customer Service That Should Never Be Automated

In Pixar’s WALL-E, oversized humans recline on levitating barcaloungers
and are dressed, primped, polished, and served, entirely by robots.
Fiction? Maybe not, at least according to a wave of media coverage
pointing to a dizzying array of service innovations on the horizon.

Look no further than the public debut of Amazon Go, the company’s first cashierless store.
Digital imaging technology monitors which items shoppers select from
shelves, and when a customer leaves the store, the person’s online
account is automatically charged. Down the road in Santa Clara,
California, room service robots
are being designed that can navigate a hotel’s floor plan and interact
digitally with its elevator and phone systems to deliver towels and
beverages to guests. Various Silicon Valley startups have deployed
robots that make pizzas, craft salads, and assemble artistic bistro sandwiches. In Boston, a robot works with labor nurses to schedule baby deliveries. Waiterless restaurants in China permit customers to order and pay through the WeChat
app and feature robot servers that dispatch trays of food to the
appropriate tables. In Japan, a robot named “Pepper,” that was conceived in part as a companion for the elderly, has honed its skills in a variety of service roles, ranging from retail assistant, to waiter, to Buddhist priest.
Managers using these forms of automation and others cite customer satisfaction benefits from increased convenience and customization, and from giving customers more control over their own experiences. They also tout cost savings — a tempting proposition against a backdrop of rising labor costs.
So is the levitating Barcalounger inevitable? Hardly.

For starters, the economics of service automation aren’t universally
rosy. When a nationwide retail bank introduced online banking, customers
who adopted it increased their total transaction volume and began
visiting and calling the bank more, increasing costs and decreasing overall profitability. Similar dynamics can be observed in health care. Patients who adopted e-visits, for example, actually began showing up at the doctor’s office twice as often.
One explanation for this pattern is that current technology is
functionally limited, requiring people to seek out in-person help in
addition to using automated services. But as innovation progresses,
functional limitations are bound to fall by the wayside.

Another explanation is that humans are inherently social creatures
who get emotional value from seeing and interacting with one another.
Research shows that taking away the opportunity for this kind of
connection can undermine service performance. In one study, my
colleagues and I found that when banking customers used the ATM more and
the teller less, their overall level of satisfaction with the bank went down.

We think this is because the deck is stacked against automation in several important ways:

1. Service can be emotional; technology cannot. When we’re anxious about whether a check will clear or why our migraine won’t go away, we become advice-seeking. Even if it has the answers and can read the tone of our voice, or the expression on our face, people find the idea that technology “feels” and “senses” to be unnerving,
and when a technology is deployed for such a purpose, the results can
be unsettling. For example, customers who call MetLife to settle a
death-related insurance claim are treated to digital condolences,
delivered through an IVR system:

ROBOT VOICE: “We at Met Life want to express our sincere condolences for your loss.”

Automating sympathy is certainly cheaper than having a human employee
comfort the bereaved, but the tradeoff can come across as disingenuous
and is unlikely to be sustainable. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the
public reception to Pepper’s funeral offerings — which cost $350, relative to $2,200 for a human priest — has been tepid to date.

2. We still prefer having people help solve our problems.
In many ways, the capacity and computational power of technology far
outstrips our own. Google has become our go-to for answers to a broad
range of queries; machine learning determines which ads are shown to us
online, which fulfillment centers our Amazon orders are shipped from,
and which movies are recommended to us by Netflix. And research shows
that we’re perfectly happy engaging through digital channels to look up information. Nevertheless, when we’re looking for creative solutions to service problems, we still seek out other humans. If we get stuck, if there’s ambiguity in the information, or if we need help making a purchase decision, we still opt for a person.

3. Less work for employees often means more work for customers. Scanning and bagging our own groceries, while circumventing cumbersome (though not wholly unwarranted) fraud-prevention measures, is actually harder for us
than having an employee help us who is trained to do the work. Advances
in technology like Amazon Go make the customer’s role objectively
easier, but automated solutions may also give us the impression that the company is expending less effort on our behalf, which can make us wonder what, exactly, we’re paying for.
But if you think smart companies will use less service automation in
the future, you’re wrong. Businesses will continue to seek new ways to
use technology to improve the quality and efficiency of service. Some
will do better than others. Based on what we know so far, successful
innovations are likely to:

1. Automate transactional interactions, while facilitating human connections. Grab-and-go shopping, or giving customers the option of hailing an Uber or Lyft, reporting a pothole, or ordering a pizza
from a mobile device, improves service quality by making transactions
easier and faster to accomplish. However, companies shouldn’t strand
customers in a digital transaction. When they need help, an
instantaneous connection to a gracious and well-informed human should be
a short stroll, click, or tap away. Although the Amazon Go store does
not have cashiers, it has plenty of helpful humans ready to lend support
or expertise. Making the pivot to a person simple allows customers and
companies alike to achieve the convenience and efficiency benefits of
automated service, while ensuring the customer feels supported. If
designed correctly, automated interactions should improve satisfaction and loyalty, not erode them.

2. Support employees without getting in their way.
There are many opportunities to create technologies that support
employees’ efforts to create value for customers. The trick is how to
design these solutions so that they don’t undermine the human connection
that people are uniquely equipped to make. Existing solutions don’t yet
meet the mark, prompting leaders of one rapidly growing coffee chain to
delay the introduction of an automated point of sale system, finding it undermined the connection they wanted to make with their customers. Breaking
eye contact with a customer to review an order on a screen, or to hunt
frantically for the right combination of order-entry keys, can be as
distracting to an interaction as pulling out your iPhone at the dinner
table. If properly designed, technology should help craft an environment
that enables employees to excel comfortably, without stress or angst,
while not hindering the interaction.

3. Enhance customer and employee engagement. Service can be more efficient and satisfying when customers and employees are visible to one another. Rather than increasing the gap between customers and employees, technology can be used to enhance the connection. For example, customers who order pizza from Domino’s can use Domino’s Pizza Tracker
to “see” the work employees are doing for them as they’re doing it.
Customers can also send pre-specified messages back to the employees who
are doing the work to express their appreciation. It’s a win for both

4. Engage customers in ways that won’t make human service providers cringe.
If an action would be seen as annoying when performed by a person,
chances are it will be annoying when performed by technology. Applying
this simple heuristic will help managers avoid a broad array of
common-sense technological transgressions. A customer’s time is
valuable, so don’t crush them with unsolicited texts and emails. Don’t unleash auto-dialers to solicit responses for unappealing offers and digital surveys. Don’t lead customers on with an endless phone tree if there’s a very low probability they’ll actually reach a person.

Remember: the devil’s in the details of service design, but the best uses of technology are likely to make customers and employees
feel more, rather than less, valuable to your organization. They’re
also likely to make the service feel more, rather than less human.

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