Does talking to a human still matter?

Oct 27, 2016

[email protected] staff

Presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article published with permission from [email protected], the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Given the march of technology, it may be naïve to believe that artificial intelligence (AI) will never be able to do everything humans do to support customer service — including exercising emotional intelligence, judgment and wisdom, creativity, humor and warmth.

But no matter how sophisticated social media, chatbots and AI become, people will likely always know when they are being handled by a computer. Will they learn to value the efficient over the human — transactional over experiential? Will the very knowledge that they are being handled by a machine be a hurdle?

“I think that if the experience is good, people would prefer to have the automated systems,” said Donal Daly, CEO of Altify and author of “Tomorrow | Today: How AI Impacts How We Work, Live and Think (and It’s Not What You Expect).”

“There are many of us saying, ‘Let me talk to a machine.’ I can do it at a time that is convenient to me, when I want to deal with this, and I don’t have to talk to a person. And if that works well, I think that’s a better experience,” said Mr. Daly. “There are those who have a Millennial mindset, and not just of that age group, but tech-savvy and tech-dependent, who are quite happy to do that. I don’t think there is any concern about being handled by a machine.”

For others, however, this may not do. Says Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed: “Think of the development of e-readers, and then people say, ‘I like the tactile feel of the book.’ There is always going to be a culture there that is responsive to the human side of things. And customer service will be a lost art, quite honestly, the ability to delight a customer with human interaction. If chatbots take over, that will be something that will be lost.”

There are all kinds of societal questions at play. He adds, “We have a human side, and there is going to be a counter-punch by companies who choose to focus on connecting with customers in a more human way.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see AI interactions inevitably taking over most human interactions in supporting customer service? Can you name customer service functions that would be best saved for humans versus machine?

"First, AI will eventually replace 99 percent of online customer service interactions. Second, retailers will start using it before it is ready."
"No, I do not believe machines can replace knowledgeable humans. I sure hope not."
" will be a long time before truly artificial “bots” replace human understanding and empathy."

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25 Comments on "Does talking to a human still matter?"

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Paula Rosenblum

Well, I’m sure it will be as delightful an experience as getting customer support from people who don’t quite understand the situation halfway around the world (this is not meant to be a xenophobic comment … just a statement born of frustration).

No, I do not believe machines can replace knowledgeable humans. I sure hope not.

Doug Garnett

There’s a general rush to replace people with machines (yesterday’s automated truck discussion as another example). But what we will very, very quickly miss in all this is that retailing is an essentially human activity. And when we try to take the human out of it … we blow it.

I’m with you on customer support frustrations. And my experience, so far, with AI customer service is I’m far, far better to search Google than to interact with a CS bot. They are incredibly frustrating and dumb. Perhaps their only serious value is to ask consumers “did you turn the power on the device on?”

Sure seems a dead end. And all industries (especially in the US) are prone right now to being suckered in by tech folks. What we must remember is that almost all tech is purely tech desperately looking for a job to do. So the salesmen will weave a magical story of perfection … but the product will never deliver it. Must … avoid … digital … shiny … bauble … syndrome ….

Ken Lonyai

“…almost all tech is purely tech desperately looking for a job to do…” does that include a search engine over a trip to the library, digital ads over yellow pages, GPS over paper maps, etc.? Shoppers will decide what they want, not consultants.

Ken Lonyai

AI is quickly becoming a first line of response, no matter who is uncomfortable with it.

This definitely breaks along age lines, where “old school” customers who don’t necessarily think of text/chat as their first mechanism of communication might be put off. To Millennials and tech-oriented customers, it’s less offensive. The devil is in the details of how “intelligent” the system is and how the hand-off to humans is made.

I’ve been working on these two issues for a while and can state that when done well and when AI is not used as a panacea, AI can be a good starting point. However, there will be a role for humans for a long time, if not always, as co-support agent and when structured properly, as an always-available agent when customers request a real person.

By the way — I disagree with the statement, ” … people will likely always know when they are being handled by a computer,” many people currently don’t know that they are interacting with a bot or artificial agent and it’s still the very early days.

Shawn Harris

I do see AI-based customer service interactions playing more and more of a role in retail. With advancements in natural language processing (NLP) and speech synthesization making responses sound more human-like, shoppers will become comfortable and confident in the use of such systems. A solution like Pepper, which is robotics tech that integrates IBM Watson (AI), can not only deliver efficient and relevant customer service, but also brings a new engagement modality to the store floor.

Mark Ryski

I believe that AI will impact virtually all aspects of humanity. I agree that it’s inevitable that AI interactions will eventually become a bigger, more important part of the retail experience. In some future world, perhaps as portrayed in the 2002 film Minority Report, it’s conceivable that AI interactions could supplant humans in most if not all customer service interactions. However, in the foreseeable future, I think the personal interaction that can happen when a capable and thoughtful store associate engages with a shopper to uncover needs and facilitate a sale would be hard to replicate with AI. While technology will continue to transform retailing in ways we can barely imagine, I think that for many people, shopping is a social interaction between humans.

Peter Charness

If I think of a comparison to a machine interaction (of a relatively simple nature), the IVR experience for sorting out less complicated problems — at the end of a series of somewhat inexact questions, misunderstood answers and an experience that usually feels like the longest waste of time on earth (even if it doesn’t take that long), finally getting to a human being to deal with your question (even a hard-to-understand person) feels like the sun just came out. So I agree with Paula, put a real person at the other end of a conversation.

Max Goldberg

Nothing is more frustrating than trying to navigate one’s way through a company’s telephone customer service. People want human interaction. AI scientists are trying to develop machines that mimic human interaction, but they are not there yet. Maybe in 10 years, but not now.

Ralph Jacobson

If the call center AI agent can handle issues better than humans, please give me the robot! More and more robots will continue to take jobs away from humans, (e.g., fast food ordering kiosks, autonomous delivery vehicles, etc.), so the workforce will need to evolve to remain productive. Sure, the human element will continue to be the differentiator in specialty/luxury services environments, however, even that world may succumb to automation.

Ben Ball

I believe two things are true. First, AI will eventually replace 99 percent of online customer service interactions. Second, retailers will start using it before it is ready.

There are two continua that have to be considered here. The first is AI’s ability to interact like a human. That will increase over time. The second is the degree to which the population is willing to accept AI. That will be a function of generation, education and aptitude for machines. I don’t consider myself particularly tech-friendly, but I’ve been amazed at how quickly I became comfortable asking Alexa the weather or the Cubs’ score.

The integration of the two continua will be complete when AI is so good at replicating human interaction that those in the long tail of the anti-machine continuum can’t tell they are talking to one — or don’t care.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Robots can and will handle routine calls in the future. This will be appreciated as many people prefer the automated choice of ATM machines or phone call choices. However, there are two reasons why this will not become universal. One is that some consumers prefer live interactions and will continue that preference. The other is that some question or issues are not routine and consumers can not complete their interaction with routine choices. How many times have you gone through a telephone tree to find the “agent” or “representative” choice? Sometimes there is a glitch or an atypical question making it necessary to speak with a senior advisor. Again we have a situation in which people doing routine tasks are not needed and those jobs are lost. The jobs that are left are more complex requiring more knowledge and skill.

Ryan Mathews
It all depends on how long your lens is, but since the question asks if it is “inevitable” I guess the answer would have to be yes, given the rate of AI evolution. During the Rio Olympics many of us read press reports written by AI agents, not people. Who noticed? Professor Reed’s assertion that, “There is always going to be a culture there that is responsive to the human side of things” is noble in its celebration of the human spirit, but is also, perhaps hopelessly, mired in generational thinking. Some may remember, or remember having read about, the introduction of ATMs — widely expected to fail because, “People need to deal with other people when it comes to money.” How did that theory work out? What Millennials, Gen Zers, Alphas and “Perennials” — those with trans-generational attitudes, especially towards technology — want is real-time. seamless and accurate function and, in most cases, advanced AI will probably deliver that better and more consistently than human beings. So if the current dominant customer service model is the call center — and we all know how satisfying they are — and the long-term future is something close to pure AI-delivered customer… Read more »
Ben Ball

Roughly paraphrased: “…our goal at Amazon is to automate every task possible, reserving our human capital for only the most complex tasks…”

Some guy named Jeff Bezos

I guess great minds do think alike.

Steve Montgomery

Interestingly you asked the same question with two different time frames — inevitably and three to five years. My answer to first question is yes. In typical IT parlance, “given sufficient time and money it can be done.” The answer to the second is no. The time frame is too short. The best we can hope for is a question tree that results in shorter time to reach a human.

There are many frustrating things about telephonic customer service today. The first is the AI question tree one has to go through to finally get to a person. The second is when you reach a person with whom communication is difficult regardless of their knowledge level.

Adrian Weidmann

While the potential of AI is limitless based on very early experiments and proofs-of-concept, it will never replace the value of a tremendous one-to-one human experience between shopper and retail brand ambassador.

AI will definitely have a prevalent role in the online and mobile shopper experience but it will be the emotional human bond that can never be replaced. It isn’t a question of one versus the other. The true value will be the correct use and balance between human and machine. I agree with Ben’s prediction that retailers will attempt to use AI long before it has real value (e.g. the robot greeter at Lowe’s).

Shep Hyken

I don’t disagree that there should be some concern about AI taking over most human interactions. The smart brands understand there has to be a balance. And just yesterday I attended a conference where the CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty, said that we should think of taking Artificial Intelligence to mean Augmented Intelligence. In other words, AI supports and helps, but doesn’t take away the human interaction and relationship.

Ed Rosenbaum

Put me on the negative side of this when it comes to the customer experience. I disagree with the comment in the article about people preferring to speak to a machine. Talking to a person has always been the priority. Machines do not understand feelings. Call centers staffed by robots is the next step to increasing unemployment. Yes, many call centers are staffed by people having difficulty communicating with us. But AI is only a part of the answer to our problems.

I find this discussion to be interesting, coming the day after we reviewed driverless over-the-road trucks.

Naomi K. Shapiro

Hi Ed: I agree with most of your points, but I’d like to hear about the last time you talked to a “person” and they understood your feelings? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to convey my feelings of frustration/anger/disappointment/helpfulness, etc. to a “person” and they have no idea how I feel (or sometimes the PR-trained ones, (who disingenuously read their “pr menu” and say, “I know how you feel”) which also makes me angrier.

Tom Redd

You know my answer — NO! Stop this attempt at reading the future. The reality is that AI will progress and fail. Humans and humans work the best together. The non-human service will peak fast and fall flat on its face. The best businesses will not chase this dog to lift margins. They will serve people with people and in the end, they will be preferred by shoppers.

AI is a press/media focus area, but in the reality of humans, personalities matter. Watson types will lose in retail. Let the tech and AI stick to the numbers. Let the humans stick with humans — you will win more shoppers/users/lifted satisfaction ratings.

Tyler Cumella

While the development and growth of AI is inevitable, I believe that brick-and-mortar retailers remain one of the last true points of meaningful connection between brands and local audiences.

With the rise of e-commerce and decline of larger, big-box retailers, it is only becoming more challenging for brands to reach and engage consumers with real impact, and consumers still want an authentic shopping experience that brick-and-mortars are uniquely qualified to provide.

These retailers expose brands in a premium way while providing an exceptional consumer shopping experience. They work with a respect for the brands they sell, priding themselves on expert product knowledge, superior service, and their influence in local communities.

Instead of pooh-poohing this connection or completely shifting focus towards advances in technology, I think that brands would best be served by thinking about how they can leverage advancements in tech in order to better empower their local retailers and keep the relationships thriving.

Tony Orlando
Where do I start with this topic? I am a huge proponent of old fashioned REAL live customer service, and yet at the same time we pretty much have eliminated it in most large corporations today, and have replaced it with email contacts, and generic answers on just about any question they think you may have, in their “FAQ” section of their websites. Try calling and actually reaching a human being without spending 15 minutes trying to find the right button or number they want you to push. Airlines have pushed most of us to their online websites, and actually charge you more, if you book a flight with a real person, which is crazy. I understand online shopping, but there are times, more often than not, when you need a real live employee who can help you, and is it too hard to ask to actually provide this service? Unless you have your own concierge service from a high-end store, good luck getting someone to help you, unless you go thru the excruciating process of punching numbers by way of prompts to finally get to someone live. Sorry to get overly wordy here, but it is my passion to… Read more »
Larry Negrich

In the short-term, AI-enhanced systems will serve as a replacement for on-hold music. In the long-term, as a replacement for the helpline operators.

Anne Howe

I support the IBM definition of AI — “augmented intelligence” because it will be a long time before truly artificial “bots” replace human understanding and empathy. People really do like service, and if some versions of AI can satisfy many simple inquiries and interactions, I’m all for that. But there should always be a human option so the complex queries can be addressed in ways that build engagement and empathy, thus reinforcing what many brands still stand for.

Dan Frechtling

So much of what we call AI ranges from the general intelligence of AI to specific intelligence of neural networks to simple bionics. The latter is actually most common today — machines that allow humans to operate at greater speed and greater volume than they can organically.

Bionics applied to chat can route questions to the right entity: chatbots for software troubleshooting, humans for billing mistakes. Neural networks applied to customer service begin by solving common problems. They need a large training set to “learn” what to do (learning” means running the same process over and over and adjusting based on the feedback — such as, “was the problem solved for the customer?”).

The general intelligence of AI doesn’t exist yet, other than in sci-fi films. It is far from inevitable. Humans fear not.

Bill Hanifin

As much as I want to embrace the future of AI, I can’t say that I know anyone who says “Let me talk to a machine.” I do know many that say “I desperately want better customer service.”

When AI works well, the consumer will truly not care if they are talking with a machine or a person. Yes, they will cognitively know the difference, but as long as the decision-making process is efficient and serves the customer needs, the source of the voice on the other end of the line won’t be so important.

At the moment, there is a wide disparity in the efficacy of machine based customer service efforts. I am aware of technology in development that detects potential fraud based on voice analysis. When certain attributes of the customer’s voice are identified, the caller is referred to a specialist. The transfer takes place without letting the customer know they have been tagged as a potential fraudster.

This is an area where machine intelligence may be adopted even sooner than in direct communication with customers.

"First, AI will eventually replace 99 percent of online customer service interactions. Second, retailers will start using it before it is ready."
"No, I do not believe machines can replace knowledgeable humans. I sure hope not."
" will be a long time before truly artificial “bots” replace human understanding and empathy."

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