Home / Thinking about the parts of customer service that should never be automated

Thinking about the parts of customer service that should never be automated



Whenever self service or customer service automation solves real problems for customers on their journeys to get their jobs done, its adoption soares. Just think cash machines, and you see how this mechanism is one of all times, not just since Amazon started selling books online.

The discussion about what (parts of) customer service should (never) be automated has been around ever since. Last week Ryan W. Buell, the UPS Foundation Associate Professor of Service Management in the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School, published a very good article on the topic.

There are several arguments he makes to highlight issues with the implementation of self service I fully agree with. And there are some I think where we see evidence to the contrary emerge. Most of all I believe Buell, and many others are taking this from the wrong angle. How? Let’s dig in.

Transformation is not without pain

First, Buell rightfully points out that self service and customer service automation do not always result in the benefits companies are looking for. To the contrary, with the implementation of online banking many banks have seen an increase of customer service calls. He also mentions an example where patients who where adopting e-vists to the doctor actually paid more visits to the doctor.

Technology maturity, information ambiguity as well as consumer maturity in using automated and self service are to blame, mostly. Most of these problems will therefor be overcome with time.

But, we should not forget that where barriers to access disappear, customer service will actually be used more. Just think how the mobile phone and smartphone have lowered access barriers to service. The call center is now always available at arms-length and can be accessed with one touch (or voice-command!).

Therefor, one should take all these factors into account when planning to implement self service and customer service automation. Because if you would only look at gross numbers coming into the call center, they could well be telling you that your efforts to reduce live contacts are not working.

The best service is no service

This is why you should always make an effort in understanding why customers are contacting you and the volumes that are associated with those types of contacts. Furthermore you should map these contacts in the value-irritant matrix you see below. This matrix is far from new. Bill Price, former VP of service at Amazon when their company growth just exploded, explained how they developed their contact strategy based on the insights from this 2 by 2 matrix.

The best service is no service
Source: The best service is no service. Value-Irritant Matrix


When you do this, you can devise a strategy for each contact type, depending on where it sits in the quadrant. And, as you implement those strategies, you can easily track what is happening and explain any differences in contact volumes and the reasons behind them.

Of course, one can debate whether automation is only a fit strategy for contacts in the right bottom quadrant. I believe automation (at least in part) should be part of the strategy in each of the quadrants. Nevertheless this is a useful framework to help you design a contact strategy and track progress.

“Customer Service can be emotional, technology cannot”

Secondly, Buell claims technology can’t be emotional. Must be a clickbait subtitle imho, because obviously service and technology are not opposites. Technology is one of the competences required to deliver a service. So yes, a service evokes emotions and technology is partly responsible.

The valid point he’s making though is that “even if [technology] has the answers and can read the tone of our voice, or the expression on our face,

people find the idea that technology “feels” and “senses” to be unnerving,

and when a technology is deployed for such a purpose, the results can be unsettling.” This is known as the uncanny valley:

The uncanny valley — the unnerving nature of humanlike robots — is an intriguing idea, but both its existence and its underlying cause are debated. We propose that humanlike robots are not only unnerving, but are so because their appearance prompts attributions of mind. In particular, we suggest that machines become unnerving when people ascribe to them experience (the capacity to feel and sense), rather than agency (the capacity to act and do).

When it comes to mimicking human behaviour, from my experience at CX Company, the uncanny valley effect holds true when it comes to using avatars with human-like faces and “moving” expressions. They not only make us feel uncomfortable, they also distract from the conversation itself. We humans expect technology to be functional and help us, not to be like us. This is also why we advice to communicate clearly to users that they are interacting with a (chat)bot.

But, it’s also good to know that when bots express they are flawed, or do something unexpected, yet planned, in a funny way, people love it. It makes them giggle or laugh even. Maybe, over time, we will be completely at ease when it comes to mind-reading robots. Or could it be we will just accept it like we accept much of the internet to be free in return for our privacy!?

“We still prefer having people help solve our problems”

This statement Buell makes I do not agree with. Buell’s main arguments to support this claim comes from a 2012 research paper (pdf here). As much as I believe the facts in the paper, I believe one cannot draw the conclusion from it that people prefer humans. The main conclusion one can draw from it is that people try to find other more effective ways to solve their problems if self service didn’t help them sufficiently.

There is also quite some research that asks consumers whether they would like to interact with humans over machines or the other way around. Most of them come to the conclusion that a many people prefer to deal with humans. But they seem to forget that people say one thing and very often do another. One of our clients even says it explicitly:

The special thing is that in research people say they prefer human contact over chatbots. We see them do the opposite.

And that’s the thing. Year on year we see interactions volumes with intelligent digital assistants, chatbots etcetera, increase by over 50% on average. The below graph, from a presentation from one of our clients, clearly shows that self service adoption significantly increases (almost triples within one year) with the implementation of an AI-powered digital assistant (aka smart chatbot, known as Tinka Answers).

Click to view full case study
From our case study: How a chatbot named Tinka increases self-service adoption and improved NPS

Consumers actually prefer self service

We see the same trend with many of our clients. What I take from this is that consumers really love self service, done right. I even believe that they prefer self service over live, human powered service. And of course, they want to have a human option available at any time, because they know automation is not at a level where it can take over 100% of tasks, or deal with all individual variations possible. But if they could, they would use it, without hesitation. They may say otherwise, but their behaviour tells it like it is.

Human interaction is no longer the default

Despite nuanced differences of opinion I largely agree with the four tips Buell provides at the end of his article. If you haven’t yet, go read it.

I also believe that we are yet to discover when human to human interactions can really make a difference. Just because we have never really given it as much serious thought because human interaction was the default. As the coin has flipped and technology driven interactions are basically the default today, we need to really think about when humans should be designed in.

Please do the exercise yourself. And when at it, don’t assume there is stuff that should never be automated. Because, if you want to come up with real value added human to human interactions, your starting point should be exactly the opposite.

Think about it.

Why not arrange a meeting to discuss the future of your company? Find out how CX Company can help you to increase your online conversion and get results from having better conversations with your customers. 

Elizabeth Russell - Sales Manager, UK & Ireland
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