Technology Fails To Improve Customer Service

Human beings are wired for face-to-face and voice communication

Has Technology “Hit The Wall” In Improving Customer Experience and Customer Service?

In the last few months, conversation about chat bots (“intelligent machines that emulate human conversation) have entered the news.

It’s amazing that computers can even approach conversational intelligence, so they can be mistaken as real humans online, but of course, there have been lots of errors – a Google chat box hates children and the Microsoft bot, Tay, ended up being gamed to talk like a homicidal hate monger.

Situations like that are more a result of imperfect technology, rather than problems that are irresolvable, so it’s quite possible, bots will get to the point where they function like humans. At least in text.

Companies are already using rudimentary versions of such software to serve customers, but the whole thing begs the question:

Will this technology, or any technology, actually result in a better quality of customer service, and enhance the customer experience?

The Answer: Probably Not – The Limits of Technology For Customer Support

The use of computers to “assist” customers isn’t being pursued because it’s “cool”. It’s an attempt to cut the human payroll by eliminating as much human to human interaction in the pursuit of higher profits.

It’s easy to be deluded into thinking that the use of computers in customer service efforts is for the benefit of customers. In fact it’s not. It’s all, as they say, all about the benjamins. Whether it’s

  • self-service checkouts in retail
  • chat bots
  • directing customers to online databases instead of humans
  • eliminating the ability to contact companies via phones
  • reliance on voice mail

the goal is always the same:

Eliminate the people you have to pay to serve, and save money.


Evidence For The Failure Of Technology To Improve Customer Service?

The Useless Research In Support Of Technology

Customer service experts and researchers are constantly doing survey research on the preferences of customers, and inevitably, the results who that people would prefer to deal with companies via technology, whether it be on social media, text, chats, email and so on. The exception is that there is still a desire to talk to a real human on the phone for some.

The problem is that the survey research involves people comparing what they HOPE will be the results of using technology (faster response, better resolution of problems, access to better information faster) to the REALITY of trying to deal with a real human being on the phone or in person.

In a nutshell, people who complete surveys and indicate a preference for tech. interactions perceive technology as being better for them because they have less experience with its failure to deliver (that is changing as people realize the benefits they hope to get are in fact, not happening).

All of us KNOW that interacting via phone or in person involves incredible levels of frustrations. We base our perceptions of human customer service on a REALITY, while we base our perceptions of technology more on HOPE.

ANYTHING has to be better than waiting on a phone for two hours with a cable company.

The result is that all of the current research on preferred customer interaction channels is totally misleading.

The Evidence Against Technology In Customer Service

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that we’ve reached the effective limits of technology to improve customer service and the customer experience.

Since the extensive use of technology (from voice mail and phone trees to more complex computer systems), customer satisfaction with customer service has dropped, almost on a yearly basis.

While individual customers move about some, overall, across industries, there has been no perception that customer service has improved.

It may be that customer expectations have increased, but the more likely conclusion is that in fact, it’s harder to get problems resolved, harder to find what the customer wants, and just more frustrating to be a customer.

You would expect that if technology was improving service quality, somehow we, as customers would feel better about the customer experience. We don’t.

Customer Rejection Of Technology Like Self-Serve Checkouts

You’d think that customers would love the idea of not having to deal with humans when checking out in stores. That has not been the case. If you go to supermarkets or other stores where one can avoid the lines at human staffed checkouts, you will usually find that the least used checkouts are the self-service ones.

Some companies have actually removed the self-service checkouts from their stores, because they haven’t worked.

Customers just aren’t liking this technology, which at least in theory should be saving them significant time and aggravation.

The Move To Online Shopping – Paradox

These days, the overwhelming trend is to shop online, using our computers, tablets and phones. Doesn’t this reinforce the view that technology IS improving things for customers?

Well, actually, it’s not that simple.

There are distinct advantages to shopping online, that include better prices, and certainly a wider range of choices that push people to shop online. There are also some disadvantages, which involve delayed delivery and gratification, and the inability to touch, smell, taste or otherwise interact with a product before purchase.

The weird paradox is that shopping in person is such a dreadful experience that people have given up on it. It’s almost impossible to:

  • find what you need
  • get information about the product
  • get advise on which product is best

…in other words, the strengths that cause people to want to shop in person are now, by and large, gone. Where did they go? Companies do not provide adequate staff to deal with customers, and don’t train them adequately, let alone pay them enough to retain quality expert staff.

So what do people do? They give up on people based interactions and move to online shopping, and getting help from other shoppers.

Summary – Part 1

  • Since technology has taken over as a cost cutting measure in customer service, customer perceptions of quality have dropped overall, on a year to year to year slump.
  • Customers have given up on human based customer service because it’s so absolutely horrible in most companies, yielding a situation where the experience is actually better (but still poor) with online shopping.
  • The survey research that demonstrates a preference for interacting with customers online actually compares the HOPE of customers that online interactions will be better than the REALITY of trying to get help in person, or on the phone.

It’s possible that as technology like chat bots improves, that customer service will start being perceived as better.

Except that there’s a problem. The WHY machines can’t take the place of human beings in customer interactions. Read about it in Part 2 – Why Machines Can’t Do Customer Service

Author: Robert Bacal

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