Can Software Replace Customer Service Agents?
December 5, 2016 by Bill Rosenthal

Whenever a new technology comes along, it sparks a discussion of whether the technology will replace something we already have. And I suppose there are cases in which replacement occurs. In the age of desktop publishing, for example, it is very difficult to find dedicated typesetting systems or light tables where graphic artists meticulously assemble negatives to create printing plates, a process which is called, for some unknown reason, “stripping.”

But for the most part, new technologies tend to supplement rather than supplant old technologies. Automobiles have replaced horses on the road, for example, but there are still over 9 million horses in the U.S., which is more than one-third of our country’s peak horse population (which occurred in 1915). And it appears the e-book is settling into a peaceful coexistence with paper books.

I was once helped by a fully automated phone-based customer service system that helped me restore my Internet connection by walking me through a simple troubleshooting process. That system found just the right prompts and remarks to sustain my confidence so I didn’t hang up the phone. Several times, for example, the software said to me, “Just a moment while I check things from my end,” and “If at any time, you want to speak to an agent, just say, ‘agent.’” But I never felt it necessary to speak to an agent. While that system was impressive, and the experience of using it was not unpleasant, don’t believe anyone who says human customer service agents are now obsolete. 

A report originally published in the Harvard Business Review in 2010, “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers,” was based on a survey of more than 75,000 people who’d had customer service experiences. The findings, as you might expect from the title, were surprising. Most customer service organizations make it their goal to delight customers. But, according to the study, customer loyalty has very little relation to customer delight. What builds customer loyalty is reducing the effort customers must apply to solve their problem. It seems obvious when you put it that way, but emphasis on customer delight tends to obscure that fundamental truth. 

Software can be effective in customer service interactions for specific types of predictable problems. But when customers’ problems are unpredictable, software will likely be helpless.

That’s why we focus on problem solving in Communispond’s customer service training program, Call Centers: Solving Customers’ Problems™. It teaches learners to manage customers by managing their dialogue with them: defining the core customer issue, putting the customer at ease, and working through to a successful outcome. We base the training on the most challenging customer issues from the learners’ own workplaces. Using these issues, individuals repeatedly practice new skills, receive In-the-Moment Coaching™ and analyze their own audio-recorded interactions.

As sophisticated as automated systems become, they will only take up the easy part of the customer service burden: the part the software’s author can anticipate. Successful customer service (i.e., service that builds customer loyalty) is all about reducing customer effort. Successful customer service training is all about imparting the skills to reduce customer effort.