Automating Customer Services? - Dr. Nick Keca

Automating Customer Services

Technology is changing the world in ways that we can’t even imagine, and automating customer services is a great example.

Technology: Enabler or Nemesis

Technology is changing the world in ways that we can’t even imagine, and, as far as I can tell, people are uncomfortable even discussing the subject, especially the scarier aspects, such as how technology will change the world of work as artificial intelligence (AI) augments human effort and full machine automation replaces it.

Having started my working life in engineering manufacturing, as a machine tool engineer, robotics and computerised numerically controlled (CNC) machine automation was common place. However, as sophisticated as those machines were at the time, they were limited in the things they could do. They also needed smart people to tell them how to do it – with machine code. This is not the case today. The combination of machine learning and sophisticated robotics mimic human capability – but better, as machines don’t need any of the things that humans do, like food, rest, sleep, holidays, etc.

No wonder people don’t want to engage with the topic. It presents a potentially bleak picture and raises complex philosophical questions, like…

Why employ humans at all, and, what will humans do if machines take most of the jobs humans do today?

These are profound questions. At some stage, there’ll be a wider recognition that automation, though more efficient, creates many problems for society leading to the development of a geo-political agenda to accommodate the economic and social impact. No surprise then that the biggest advance of the technology age won’t be about technology at all. It will be about how society embraces and adapts to its impact.

A prime indication of this is the recent announcement that David Cameron, the former Prime Minister of the UK, has taken a senior role at an AI company.

Question Why would a career long politician take a role as Chairman of the Advisory Board at Afiniti, a company that specialises in AI solutions in customer service centres?

Answer – to help navigate the political, economic and social challenges associated with the tens of millions of people working in contact centres globally today whose jobs will be displaced by automation, and the socio-political sensitivities.

If you look at the Board of Directors and other Advisory Board members at Afiniti you’ll see a similar pattern of influence. This is an organisation of high profile movers and shakers.

Automating Large-Scale Customer Services

For those that don’t tend to worry too much about what happens tomorrow, be aware that this isn’t a future development. It’s already available today. Companies like Afiniti, IBM, Google, Amazon, Alibaba, and others, already have established technology they are either deploying in their own customer service operations, and/or marketing to others. Neither is AI restricted to customer service operations. Automation is emerging, strategically, across all industries and business functions. Given a large proportion of jobs can already be automated today, over the next five to ten years, almost no jobs currently done by humans will be unaffected to a greater or lesser degree.

Those whose business propositions are at the forefront of the automation revolution, such as Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) executives, are spending much of their intellectual capacity developing strategy and figuring out how to transform their business model, from the large-scale, capital and human intensive Bricks and Mortar enterprises common to customer service/BPO organisations today, to a new target operating model where the majority of interactions are handled by machine, regardless of interaction type, language, or geographic location of the business’ customer.

Considering the nature of large scale customer service operations, whether outsourced or not, this is no easy transition (strategically, financially, technically or operationally) for existing players constrained by legacy estates, infrastructure and organisational capability.

How Can Humans Stay Relevant?

The scale of these changes mean they are unlikely to occur as a Big Bang. So, what can we do to stay ahead of the curve? How can we ensure that people remain relevant in the era of creeping automation and intelligent machines?

The answers lie in our individuality. Our unique personalities. Individual dispositions, and the flexibility with which we can interact with each other while adjusting dynamically to changing circumstances, like mood, emotions, positive and negative behaviour, like bias and prejudice, and dynamic business processes. In that respect, the challenges we have today are the same challenges we will have tomorrow. Machines will just be a new category of team mate.

In the medium term at least, learning new skills and learning how to become behaviourally flexible is what will differentiate humans from machines, particularly where service interactions involve other humans. We need to find new ways to accommodate the assistance that machines will provide us as we do our jobs, while adjusting to the fact that as technology matures, it is the human that will become the more sophisticated assistant.

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