Human Customer Service and Technology: Striking the Right Balance

Madeline Jacobson
4 mins
call center worker at computer shows balance of human customer service and tech

You’ve probably had an experience where a chatbot or automated phone system has helped you find an answer to a basic question, such as a business’s hours of operation or how to schedule a product demo. You’ve probably also had a frustrating automated customer service experience–whether over the phone, email, or via chatbot–where you’ve tried to navigate your way to a human customer service agent without success. Perhaps you gave up after several minutes of going around in circles, and maybe you even decided to take your business elsewhere.

The first experience shows how technology can help streamline and improve customer service. The second shows why a human touch is still necessary even as automation, AI, and other customer service technologies improve.

According to an international study from PwC, two-thirds of consumers believe that companies have lost touch with the human element of customer experience, and three-quarters want more human interaction in the future. Additionally, 90 percent of Americans use customer service as a factor in deciding whether or not to buy from a company, according to research from Microsoft.

Today, delivering a positive customer experience requires balancing technology that saves time and removes friction with human customer service that provides empathy and solves complex issues. 

Why Human Customer Service Is Here to Stay

While bots may be able to handle basic transactions, human customer service isn’t going away any time soon. For one thing, the introduction of new technology to support the customer experience can sometimes lead to the need for more human support. The Harvard Business Review highlighted the example of a nationwide retail bank that rolled out a new online banking platform and found that, due to the popularity of the platform, their total transaction volume increased and customers began calling their customer service department more.

Technology can automate and facilitate routine tasks, but customers still want to speak to a human when faced with ambiguity or when looking for a creative solution to a problem. For example, let’s say a shopper orders a new robot vacuum but finds that it doesn’t behave as expected when they first turn it on. They might start by reviewing the product guide, browsing a list of frequently asked questions on the manufacturer’s site, or watching a troubleshooting video, but if they don’t find information about the specific problem they’re encountering, their next step will likely be to reach out to a customer service agent. A customer service agent can listen to the problem as described in the customer’s own words, take in the context of the issue, and come up with an appropriate solution. 

Human customer service agents can also empathize with and be sensitive to customers’ emotions. This is especially important when customers are looking for help resolving an issue that is emotionally fraught for them. For instance, if someone is getting ready to buy their first home, is anxious about the process of taking out a home loan, and feels like they have a lot of unanswered questions about the process, an automated voice or chatbot script isn’t necessarily going to ease their concerns. A human agent, on the other hand, could pick up on nervousness in their voice and respond in an empathetic manner, helping identify and address the source of their concerns.

While self-serve customer service options can be powerful tools, it’s still important to give customers access to human customer service agents to address those more emotional or complex issues.

5 Ways to Balance Human Customer Service and Technology

In customer-centric organizations, technology supports customer service agents, enabling them to do their best work and deliver great customer experiences. Agents are also trained on this technology and empowered to use it to work more autonomously. 

Here are five best practices that leading organizations use to uplevel their customer service:

Provide training on soft skills that can’t be automated.

Listening with empathy, being an advocate for the customer, using critical thinking to solve a complex issue: these are all customer service skills that can’t be automated. And as technology becomes more advanced and able to handle simple transactions, it’s important to focus on training customer service agents on the skills they need to deliver exceptional–not just routine–customer experiences.

Make human customer service available across all channels.

44 percent of consumers say that businesses need to make it easier to get in touch with a real person for customer service issues, according to a survey from CGS. As you introduce channels for digital transactions, make sure you’re not stranding customers without an option to talk to a customer service representative. For example, if you use a chatbot on your website, you should provide an option for customers to chat with an agent if their question or issue can’t be easily resolved through the standard set of chatbot solutions.

Increase your customer service agents’ digital dexterity.

Digital dexterity requires employees to not only have the knowledge and hard skills required to use technology in their work, but to be agile and have an open mindset about learning new ways of working. As a customer service manager, you can start by making sure your team members receive ongoing and on-demand training on the technology they use in their workflows. You can also communicate the value of building new technical skills and reward team members for successfully developing these skills.

Empower customer service agents to make decisions.

As you empower customer service agents to use technology effectively, you should also empower them to work autonomously whenever possible. The Ritz-Carlton is one brand that provides a good example of this: knowing how valuable it is to provide a great customer experience and drive loyalty, they empower their employees to spend up to $2,000 per customer incident without having to seek out additional approval. Allowing customer service employees to solve problems on their own–with reasonable guidelines in place–leads to a better work experience for the employee and a better customer experience for the person they are assisting. 

Give agents on-demand access to your organization’s collective knowledge.

Another key component of empowering your agents is making sure that they can access the knowledge they need to assist customers, whenever they need it. Your agents shouldn’t feel like they have to hunt down a subject matter expert or go spelunking through a series of shared folders every time they need to answer a customer’s question. Instead, agents should have access to a centralized, searchable knowledge management platform that serves as the single source of truth for your organization’s collective intelligence. This will give employees confidence that they are accessing the most relevant, up-to-date information and reduce the time it takes to answer customer’s questions, leading to a better customer experience overall.

Customer service technology can improve both the employee and customer experience if implemented thoughtfully, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for a human touch. As customer service departments and contact centers evolve, it’s important not to lose sight of the value human customer service provides.

January 18, 2022

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