Why Digital Customer Service must Balance Automation & Human Connection

This guest post is written by Stephan DelbosEditor & Content Manager at Brand Embassy.

The hype surrounding Facebook’s chatbot announcement made it seem like some people were envisioning a Transformers-like takeover of customer service by bots. The introduction of chatbots into digital customer service is great because bots are fast and very efficient. But humans still have a huge role to play in customer service and always will. It might be less dramatic than a chatbot coup d’état, but the future of customer service lies in the balance between automation and human connections. Knowing the undeniable advantages of chatbots and making use of them, while also giving human agents the freedom to connect with customers will be the key to providing responsive, personalized service that delights customers and inspires their loyalty.

Many commentators look back on pre-internet customer service as the good old days, with real people helping people and developing long-term relationships. The internet, the narrative goes, put up a wall between brands and customers, making digital customer service potentially faster, but far less personal. The solution to that conundrum certainly isn’t to stop using technology — chatbots and digital customer care can be key differentiators, because they allow brands to streamline and simplify customer service at scale.

But we’ve reached a tipping point, when everyone is starting to realize the importance of customer experience, and that brands need to step out from behind that digital wall. 83% of U.S. consumers prefer dealing with human beings over digital channels to solve customer services issues, according to new research from Accenture. It’s not that technology is suddenly useless. On the contrary, chatbots and advanced customer service technology are more important than ever before. In fact, the smartest brands will actually use automation to put the human back into the customer service equation.

The beginning of a beautiful friendship

We love technology and we’re big fans of innovation. Anything that could possibly help brands serve their customers better sounds fantastic to us. But technology alone can’t provide excellent customer service, because customers want personalized human connections. That’s why 52% of consumers have switched brands in the past year due to poor customer service, which includes brands that made it difficult to get in touch with a human customer service agent. Bots are invaluable, especially when customers also have the opportunity to speak with an empathetic, responsive human.

Think of the popular stories you’ve heard about great customer service, from Zappos to Netflix or Hilton. It’s hard to imagine these being orchestrated by chatbots alone. But it’s also hard to imagine this extraordinary level of customer service being possible if agents didn’t have advanced technology at their fingertips.

The advantages of automation in customer service are too large to ignore. We have the technology, so why not use it? The key is knowing when to use automation and when to rely on humans. Doing so requires a clear-eyed consideration of what humans do best, and what should be left up to bots.

What should be automated?

Great customer service in the 21st century just isn’t possible without technology. Chatbots have all the advantages of computers: they’re fast and they’re rational. In the future, contact centers will take advantage of all that chatbots have to offer, but will only rely on them to do the things they’re best at, the 1st-level contacts for repetitive questions and issues that are easy to solve. There are exciting opportunities for brands who know how to make automation work for them.

As a basic bottom line, all brands should offer proactive live chat. Automated chatbots will seek out customers browsing the website and contact them based on what they are looking at. This kind of proactivity has positive effects on sales and customer satisfaction, but is often too much of a burden for human agents to take on, especially when there are many customers and a small team. Bots can free agents to do more important things.

Intelligent ticket routing is another vital feature of automated customer service. Intelligent routing, particularly in digital customer service where expectations for quick response and personalization are high, is a great way to utilize the best of both worlds. Brands have automation to select the best possible customer service agent, and a human touch to personalize the experience. It’s a question of using technology to lead customers to human agents if and when they need it.

What needs a human touch? 

In the future, human agents will focus on complex issues, and will use their emotional intelligence and instinct whenever they can. Essentially, technology will take care of the technical stuff, freeing up human agents to do what they do best. This will be a systematic change in the way we think about and execute digital customer service.

To cultivate the human touch in digital customer service, brands have to do three things:

  • Recognize the importance of empathy
  • Make personal connections
  • Provide repeat contact points

83% of American customers who have switched brands say that better live or in-person customer service would have inspired them to stay. Customer service should be less about “satisfying” customers and more about moving them smoothly through the service experience time after time. But even earlier, before making a sale, chatbots can get in touch with the customer and guide them along. Bots take care of the easily solvable problems, leading customers to qualified agents who can then develop and sustain relationships with customers over time, which means increased loyalty and distinguishing customer experience.

It’s time we brought humans back into customer service, but that doesn’t mean abandoning technology. Brands that achieve a balance between automation and human connections will succeed by utilizing the advantages of technology without neglecting age-old human contact.

About the Author

Stephan Delbos is Editor & Content Manager at Brand Embassy. He is inspired to bring emotional connections and real experience back into customer service.


Leading Off Customer Interactions With Positivity

This guest post is written by Jeremy Watkin, Head of Quality at FCR.

I’m a huge baseball fan— a Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim fan to be exact. In baseball, the order in which the players bat is called a “lineup.” The general rule of thumb is that the first batter, or leadoff hitter, is one of the best players at getting on base— either by hit or walk. This person also tends to be one of the faster players, so when they do get on base, they can both steal bases and score on hits where the slower players wouldn’t be able to.

Let’s go ahead and take this analogy and mosey on over to customer service. Imagine that our customers are pitching to us and the questions they are asking are the pitches.

Another thing you should know about baseball is that most major leaguers have no problem hitting a fastball— especially if it’s right down the middle and they know it’s coming. It’s often the pitches that move around a lot, like the curveball and slider, that keep hitters off balance.

We tend to be good at answering the fastball questions from customers. After all, we are well-trained customer service experts for the product or service we support. It’s the curveballs that give us fits. Think about the questions we either don’t know the answer to or know we specifically can’t accommodate.

It’s in those moments that we so often take the wrong approach at the plate. We generally approach those curveballs with words like unfortunately, no, sorry, can’t, I don’t know, and a variety of other negative responses. More times than not, responding to our customers in this manner is a sure way to strike out.

When customers consistently throw their best curveballs, and they will, it’s important to have our best responses ready to go. While this is important for all customer service channels, it’s all the more important for the text-based ones like email, SMS, and social media where we may only get one chance to respond— on behalf of the entire company! Clearly this is something we should practice ahead of time.

Practice hitting the curveball (AKA answer tough questions)

When it comes to hitting the curveball, sometimes it’s all in your approach. The approach I’ve seen (and done) over and over again is the one where we respond telling the customer we can’t do something. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say we work for a company that sells widgets and a customer asks if we can overnight ship a widget to them. Knowing full well that we don’t offer overnight shipping, the typical approach is to say something like:

I’m so sorry but unfortunately we don’t offer overnight shipping at this time. Thank you so much for contacting us. Have a nice day.

At that point we’ve essentially struck out. The response focused on what we couldn’t do with no focus on what we could do. Whether the customer states it or not, they are forced to either wait or take their business elsewhere.

Like a professional hitter, let’s change our approach and see if we can hit the curveball this next time. Here’s a response that focuses on what we can do for the customer:

Thank you so much for your interest in our widgets! I’ve provided a few of my personal favorites below as you search for your favorite.

In regards to our shipping, we’ve found that our order fulfillment time is so quick that customers often receive their items faster than our estimates. While we don’t specifically offer overnight shipping, let me know if you have any flexibility on the date you need to receive this by. I want to get a fresh, new widget out to you and will do what I can to make that happen as soon as possible.

The Play by Play

Do you see what I did there on my second response? Like a good baseball analyst, let’s break it down:

  • Show Ownership- After thanking the customer for their inquiry and gently sharing some suggestions with them, I very softly touched on the fact that I couldn’t do exactly what they were asking. I did however let them know that I was there to help connect them with a solution.
  • Begin a Dialog- In my first reply, I told the customer I couldn’t help them…PERIOD. That’s effectively the end of the discussion unless the customer wants to argue with me and tell me I’m wrong. In my second approach, I sought to find an alternate solution for them that we could easily support. Perhaps the customer didn’t need overnight shipping, that just happened to be the only possible option they saw. If they needed the item in 2-3 days, that’s a big difference and I, as the expert on my product, can determine if we can accommodate that.
  • Solution-minded- In welcoming the customer’s response, I’ve shown myself to be open and receptive to what they have to say. In some cases, the customer will have more flexibility than we initially assumed. If the customer does respond stating that they need it by tomorrow, our company then has a decision to make. This is a great place to employ the 1 to say yes, 2 to say no principle. Rather than responding and saying “Unfortunately there’s nothing I can do,” ask someone in leadership if there’s something we can do. What if the customer’s willing to pay extra for the expedited shipping?

The point of this is that we are finding ways to do business with customers and solve their problems. That’s a good thing. While there are certainly times to say no to customers, we say no far too often where even just a little flexibility and understanding would create a customer for life.

Practice Makes Perfect

Let’s try a few more statements on for size before we end this post. I’ll present the negative and then the positive:

Question: What’s the status of my order?

Negative Answer: Unfortunately your order is still in our warehouse because it was delayed by a day.

Positive Answer: Thank you so much for your patience with your order. It is shipping today. If you haven’t received tracking information to your email, it should be there very soon. I hope this information helps.

Question: My online order status says “backordered.” When will I receive it?

Negative Answer: Unfortunately, your order is indeed backordered and will be unavailable for another month or so.

Positive Answer: I’m sorry for the delay in fulfilling this order. It looks like we will be able to ship your product out to you in about a month. If this order is more urgent than that, here are some other products that are very similar that we do have in stock right now. Let me know if you’d like to order one of those instead.

Question: Why is my credit card being declined?

Negative Answer: There are many reasons your credit card might be declined. Are you sure there’s enough money in your account. You are going to need to contact your bank.

Positive Answer: I’m sorry your credit card is being declined. That’s frustrating and we really want you to be able to use our service as soon as possible. I would suggest contacting your bank to see if they have information about the decline. If they say everything is ok, give us a call and we’ll help you try your card again.

My eternally optimistic colleague, Hammer Winn helped me in writing this article and so it’s only fitting to quote him as we think about adopting a more positive mindset in our responses to others:

“This approach not only changes the tone of the interaction, but also creates a customer for life. Practicing this positive approach not only improves your customer service but also has the power to improve your life and relationships.”

Take a moment to think about some of your responses throughout each day and find ways to rewrite them so they focus on a solution, show ownership, and encourage dialog with the customer.

To slightly modify a quote from the great baseball player, Mark McGwire, Customers dig the long ball. Learn to hit the curveball and you will hit more home runs with your customers.

About the Author

Jeremy Watkin is the Head of Quality at FCR, the most respected outsource provider. He has more than 15 years of experience as a customer service professional.  He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog.  Jeremy has been recognized many times for his thought leadership.  Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.