Future of Customer Service: Could AI Replace Humans?

Business people and humanoid AI robot sitting and waiting for a job interview
From chatbots to ChatGPT, artificial intelligence (AI) has gone from a futuristic idea to a very real part of everyday life. That’s certainly true for customer service, where AI is used to streamline the customer journey, personalise their experience and reduce the workload of customer service operatives. The question – as with any advancing technology – is what’s next? In this post, we’ll discuss whether AI could replace humans in customer service.

 

Why is everyone so worried about AI?

Humans are wired to care more about bad news. In fact, a recent study revealed nearly 90% of articles from major US news organisations were negative.

This is due to a number of factors, including:

  • Evolutionary factors: Humans evolved in a world where threats were everywhere. In order to survive, it was important to be aware of potential dangers. This led to the development of a negativity bias, which is a tendency to pay more attention to negative information than positive information.
  • Attentional bias: Our brains are wired to pay attention to things that are novel, unexpected or threatening. This is because these things are more likely to be important for our survival. Bad news generally covers all three of those things – it’s novel, unexpected and threatening – which makes it more likely to capture our attention.
  • Social factors: We are also influenced by the people around us. If the people we interact with are constantly talking about bad news, it can be difficult to focus on anything else. This is because our brains are wired to pay attention to things that are important to the people we care about.

The negativity bias can have both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, it can help us to stay safe by making us more aware of potential threats. On the other hand, we can only see threats when there are opportunities.

When cars were first invented, for example, they were seen as a threat to public safety. They were much faster than horses, and people were worried about the potential for accidents. There were also concerns about the noise and pollution that cars would create.

Today, cars are an essential part of our lives. They allow us to travel long distances quickly and easily. They also give us a sense of freedom and independence. And while there are still some risks associated with driving, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

 

We’ve already had these concerns about automation

Artificial intelligence is older than many people think. The field of AI research is generally considered to have begun in 1956, when John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, and Claude Shannon organised a conference at Dartmouth College to discuss the possibility of creating intelligent machines. This conference is often called the “Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence” or simply the “Dartmouth workshop.”

Back in 1964, a news article explained how robots were going to steal everyone’s jobs within five years. It didn’t happen then, and it isn’t happening now. Instead of backing away, countries like Germany and Korea embraced automation and robotics within manufacturing. Rather than employment dropping as a result, it’s actually increased.

The same sort of fearful rhetoric is being spread today – and it’s important to be like Germany and Korea. Instead of fearing AI and the ‘threat’ to customer service jobs, it’s better to consider how we can utilise AI to make organisations more productive and profitable.

 

AI in customer service: the story so far

All that said, the notion that AI could take over customer service hasn’t come about by chance. Already, the technology is being used in a number of ways to reduce the customer service workflow and improve outcomes:

  • Chatbots can get quick answers from customers for routine questions to save support staff time.
  • They can also respond to customers’ messages much quicker than a real person, so they aren’t left waiting.
  • Sentiment analysis can detect customers’ emotions and respond accordingly.
  • Augmented messaging can detect when humans are required to help customers with more tailored support.
  • Similarly, AI can detect the urgency or type of customer problem and alert the right staff by identifying keywords.
  • Much like chatbots, voice AI technology can be used for routine queries to keep skilled agents available.
  • AI content assistants can develop personalised emails and articles for customers.
  • AI tools can also process real-time data, which can predict customer behaviour and help businesses optimise the customer experience proactively.
  • Multilingual capabilities also mean that AI can help businesses by translating messages or detecting a customer’s language and routing them accordingly.
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So, can AI take over?

With all of the capabilities above arising within the past decade or so, it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of hype about AI taking over customer service. In reality, however, there are no signs of that happening.

The AI tools being developed by big names in customer service all focus on supporting humans, rather than replacing them:

  • Microsoft is developing Copilot, which will enhance productivity for workers using Office 365 and Teams.
  • Cisco and Zoom are both aiming to improve the video conference experience, giving AI a ‘director’ role to choose the best shot from multiple cameras.
  • Amazon is focusing on call analytics for existing contact centres.

One potential anomaly is Google Cloud, which is developing AI speech capabilities like translation and more natural-sounding emotion. However, it’s unlikely that this is an effort to replace humans altogether. Instead, it’s about improving the existing functions of AI like answering routine queries.

 

What is AI missing?

There’s a simple reason AI won’t replace humans in customer service – and that reason is emotion. As discussed in our post on empathy in the workplace, emotion is critical to making people feel understood, at ease and giving them a great experience.

Research has shown that seeing the world from a customer’s perspective can improve service quality and increase the volume of sales. This is known as cognitive empathy, and it’s something that AI simply isn’t capable of. With Google Cloud, for example, the aim is to create the impression of emotion, as it’s not possible to replicate the emotion itself.

No matter how advanced, customers can always tell the difference between a human interaction and one with AI. That’s why the technology will always be limited to a helper role for humans.

Understanding that AI is an accompaniment to humans, rather than a replacement, is key to finding the right solution for your organisation.

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