Technology / The Expert view: Artificial Intelligence and the future of customer experience

The Expert view: Artificial Intelligence and the future of customer experience

“We are in a narrow AI world,” said Mark Minevich, Chief Advisor to the CEO of IPsoft, introducing a Business Reporter Breakfast Briefing at The Ritz Hotel in London. He contrasted that with ‘general artificial intelligence’, which he said is around 50 years away.

Narrow artificial intelligence is being applied to complex business problems through a variety of AI technologies, such as cognitive, analytics, NLP, machine learning and more, Mr. Minevich said. He added that businesses are “excited, but scared” about AI.

Attendees at the briefing, who were senior executives from a range of sectors, agreed that customer experience has become a key competitive area. As the pace of change increases, new competitors can use digital technology to challenge incumbents more quickly. Gone are the days when an established firm could take customer experience for granted.

AI offers a solution here because it can take some of the strain of customer interaction and resolve their problems more quickly or with less effort. For many customers, carrying out a simple transaction using their favourite chat app is more convenient than dialing a call centre or logging-on to a website.

However, attendees said their efforts were mostly in early stages. Some said they were still trying to understand AI and had begun test projects to help. Others said they were using it in targeted ways to accelerate an existing change programme.

One attendee, from the oil and gas sector, said his company was using AI to improve drilling operations. The AI can drill consistently at a higher quality than a human drill team and contacts human experts whenever it runs into problems. Another attendee, from a bank, said his company was testing AI to identify trading patterns. Knowing that a customer tends to trade at specific times or when certain stocks reach a particular level allows traders to proactively call that customer and suggest a trade to them, which made customers feel valued.

A delegate from the travel industry said that there was an advantage in using AI for tasks that computers do very well but which humans do poorly. For example, price comparison calculations take a long time for humans but can be done almost instantly by machines, which is much better for customers.

Attendees also identified obstacles to AI adoption. First, lack of senior leadership can make AI projects hard to initiate. Martin Linstrom, UK Managing Director of IPsoft, said that for most companies AI is still a ‘first-generation’ purchase. The board understands the need to spend on cloud services or big data because those are a few generations old, but they still don’t understand the returns from AI.

The solution, if visionary leadership is not available internally, is to bring it in from outside. That could be from a vendor, a think tank, an analyst firm, or similar specialist. This takes time and can require a shift in company culture but it’s a vital part of the process.

There are concerns lower down the organisation too, from existing customer service staff who fear that robots will take their jobs. While it’s possible that AI will lead to some reduction in the number of call centre staff, attendees were keen to point out that a key role for AI in customer experience is to free-up call centre staff to deal with high value transactions, whether that’s handling unusual customer problems or dealing with the needs of important customers.

Attendees suggested that dealing with this involves education and involvement. The former means explaining to customer service staff how AI will help them in their work, by removing the most mundane tasks or supporting them with relevant information on each caller. The latter, involvement, could mean seeking their input into designing AI processes or, as Aviva did in a well-publicised story some time ago, asking them to suggest tasks for automation in return for retraining for new roles.

Finally, some of those present pointed to simple awareness as a challenge for AI. “I know it’s going to change the world… I just don’t know how,” said one attendee from a bank. He said he knows what customer problems he is trying to solve but AI is seldom an option because he doesn’t have anyone in his business who understands the capabilities of the technology or who can suggest them.

Increasingly, attendees agreed, companies will need people within the business who can identify new technologies and suggest where they might be applied. Some of the larger companies present said they have this already.

What is clear is that customer experience is on the brink of an AI revolution but it will take time and experimentation. AI adoption is a journey that a lot of companies are now starting out on.


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