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Using automation for stronger human connections requires playing to the strengths of the modern workforce

by Paul Maguire, Appian
Article ImageThe way companies build and maintain a connection with their customers is changing.

Now more than ever, organisations are turning to automation technologies to transform customer experiences and create greater human connections that strengthen customer loyalty. Companies are looking at emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to deliver a better and faster service.

But, just like humans, these new digital members of the modern workforce have unique strengths and weaknesses.  Using these new technologies is not the key to success; how they are used is.

While automation can take over countless inbound customer enquiries companies receive across multiple touchpoints – something that would take legions of agents to handle – this mustn’t come at the expense of the all-important human element of customer service. Replacing humans with bots in tasks that humans are best at can be damaging, especially for highly customer-oriented companies where establishing good customer loyalty is what keeps the lights on.

A recent survey of companies in the United States and Europe by Appian and IDG found that 53% of companies are currently using chatbots and 55% are using Interactive Voice Responses (IVR) in their customer service. And many more reported they plan to start using them in the next 12 months. But troublingly, only 41% of employees felt the way their organisation is using automation is actually helping them forge stronger customer relationships. So before making these investments, companies must ensure they’re using the right technology, in the right way.

Chatbots and IVR can be great at responding to basic, routine requests quickly but what they’re not good at is building rapport with customers and handling more complex requests. If overused, it can create a frustrating experience for customers who are struggling to get through to a real human being. In fact, eight out of ten survey respondents agreed that IVR feels cold and impersonal, while 82% felt their organisations need to focus on increasing the humanity of their customer interactions by bringing back that “personal touch.”

Know your RPA from your BPM

While 58% of respondents believed technology can bring businesses and people much closer together, most of them didn’t feel their organisation’s technology actually achieved that, with less than half agreeing it had significantly increased the amount of time they could spend with customers. So what is to blame here: the technology itself or the way it is being used? Typically, it’s the latter.

Differentiating between the various forms of automation out there – Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Business Process Management (BPM), chatbots and the list goes on – isn’t always straightforward. And this certainly isn’t helped by the pervasive “digital-transformation-or-bust” rhetoric that is lighting a fire under most companies, prompting them to invest in automation for automation’s sake. Each technology has its ideal use cases. When it comes to getting the most out of automation, playing to the strengths of both your technology and your people is the secret to success.

This should start with looking hard at what your customer service goals are. For most companies, these will be about creating a more personalised experience and enabling a faster, more efficient service. From there, it’s a case of finding the right technology to support your staff to achieve those objectives.

If we look at RPA, this is all about boosting efficiency by automating specific, rule-based tasks that are time-consuming and error-prone for human workers – like indexing, updating or maintaining systems data. In customer service, this can allow agents to offload tedious manual tasks to bots and spend more time interacting with customers. It can also quickly connect agents to accurate customer information by storing and categorising it more efficiently. As any veteran customer service agent on the frontlines knows, people don’t like to wait on the phone. Speed and accuracy are everything and RPA can enable both if it is part of an integrated digital platform.  

So does that mean RPA is the way to go? Possibly, but it very much depends on the task at hand. You wouldn’t screw a joint using a monkey wrench. Meaning RPA is just a tool, and like any tool it is really good at certain jobs but it has limitations. That’s why the optimal route is often to have a whole toolbox at your disposal – using multiple technologies to automate different stages of the workflow, with human reviews and interventions where appropriate.

To put this into a real-life scenario, consider the steps that must take place when a company receives a complaint message from the mobile phone of a dissatisfied customer. Straight off the bat, the chatbot can read and process the message, ask additional questions to find more information and route it to the right department and service agent using Machine Learning algorithms.  But if the company also uses AI, this can take over the next step of actually interpreting the topic and sentiment of the message (in this case, identifying it as highly negative) and determining the best next actions. These could include sending an apology message to the customer to acknowledge the negative sentiment and turn that towards neutral, opening a complaint and notifying the customer with a new case number all in a few seconds, and all without human involvement and handled by a Business Process Management system. In the meantime, RPA is pulling and compiling data from various systems, from customer order and billing history, customer service records and requests, to their credit rating from a third party service in the case of financial transactions, such as new account opening requests.

By the time an agent gets involved, they will have all the information they need to resolve the issue swiftly or to reach out to the customer directly. Meanwhile, the customer has been kept up-to-date on the status of their inquiry and have the peace of mind that it’s being resolved. Whilst there are multiple technologies and people involved, a powerful automation platform can integrate the various systems and orchestrate all the data and workflows for a seamless experience, for both the customer and the agent. Imagine how much longer that entire process would take if left solely to human workers? The time that could be spent in front of the customer.

Make automation more about people than about bots

Automation is ultimately achieved through a set of tools, saving time, reducing errors, and enabling employees to focus on higher-value added activities like complex problem-solving and customer relationship management. Unsurprisingly, around 96% of consumers say customer service is an important factor in their choice of loyalty to a brand. But at the end of the day, people are more likely to remember a friendly and helpful customer service rep over an indifferent automated response. So using automation technologies like RPA, AI, and BPM to create more opportunities for service agents to interact with customers is how you win at building human connections in the age of automated customer service.


Paul Maguire is Senior Vice President EMEA & APAC at Appian. Maguire has over 25 years of experience in the IT and software industries, and has held management and executive positions leading teams to achieve consistent, predictable and sustainable levels of success and growth. Appian helps organisations achieve Digital Transformation across a range of key industries including Banking, Insurance, Pharmaceuticals, Telecommunications, Utilities, Public Sector, Retail and Manufacturing.

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