Customer service is traditionally considered a cost center, so many organizations have focused their customer improvement efforts on reducing costs. This proves to be a critical mistake, as everyone is left unhappy. Even as customers are sick of pressing two for reservations and three for service, service reps are sick of answering the same questions over and over.
The latest technology for service is virtual agents: Automated systems, trained on service transcripts, that can use AI to recognize and respond to customer requests whether by phone or chat. Given the history of customer service, you might think the focus here is once again on cutting jobs and saving money. But it’s not.
Our combined experience in customer strategy and running a company that helps build virtual agent systems has demonstrated two fundamental — and counterintuitive — facts about customer service and automation.
First, the most significant gains from virtual customer service agents are from improvements in customer experience, not cost savings.
And second, successful virtual agent systems depend on bots working with humans, not replacing them.
Can automation actually improve service? When customers think of automation in customer service, they remember what happened with interactive voice response — a telephony system that made them navigate phone menus for gathering information but often did not provide shorter wait times or better service. Online chat with agents can be similarly frustrating, because the typical agent is juggling two to six sessions at a time, causing slow responses.
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But virtual agents signal a shift for customer experience. If a virtual agent can interpret the intent behind your chat or phone request, it can get you an answer more quickly and efficiently than a human agent. For most common queries, this delivers a better experience than interacting with an actual human.
For example, at SiriusXM Satellite Radio, a virtual agent with infinite patience will walk you through the process of initializing your new car radio. It will look up your account based on your phone number, wait while you make sure the car has a clear view to the sky, and connect to the system that sends codes down to your radio to allow it to start working.