It's time for a reality check. Chatbots are killing customer service.
Obliterating it, maybe.
If you're a customer, you probably already know that. The computer programs that conduct clumsy conversations with you when you have a customer question are maddening. But if you work for a company, maybe you won't believe chatbots are killing customer service until you see the evidence.
Well, now you have it, thanks to a survey released this morning by CGS, a business applications, learning and outsourcing services company.
The CGS study, part of its annual Global Consumer Customer Service Report, examined consumer preferences for customer service engagements, specifically chatbot usage. It found that despite today’s technology-dependent environment, many consumers still prefer human agents to chatbots for their customer service engagements.
Among the conclusions:
✓ Only about half of all respondents said that they would turn to a chatbot for a quick customer service need. Another 25 percent say they would reach out to a company via email or social media.
✓ Beyond simple customer support, many consumers still prefer human agents to chatbots. Nearly 50 percent of U.K. respondents and around 40 percent of U.S. respondents said they'd prefer a person.
✓ CGS recommends using artificial intelligence-powered (AI) solutions to manage quick service requests and using human agents to take a more strategic role in the contact center, focusing on detailed, complex customer inquiries.
"When it comes to a more complex or technical question, consumers will often look to speak with a live support agent," says Michael Mills, a senior vice president for CGS' contact center division. "The rationale being that a live agent can react and adapt to the complexity of that individual’s problem and resolve the issue. Artificial intelligence programs and self-service applications are only as valuable as the information that resides inside their databases."
But are chatbots killing customer service?
But are chatbots driving customers away? Maybe. After I reported on the rise of travel chatbots in my weekly Washington Post column, I heard from many readers who said the thought of talking to a bot was a turn-off. Perhaps they had the same experience I did when I tried to engage the program in a simple conversation.
The AI didn't always get it, which was frustrating. Even more irritating -- the company using the chatbot seemed to shrug the problem off. I detailed my own experience using Skyscanner's chatbot, which often misunderstood my requests. Some of the companies I mentioned in the column appeared to shrug off my concerns.
Reader Alfred Sonnenstrahl was troubled by that dismissive, wait-for-the-upgrade attitude.
"Are chatbots accessible to people who couldn't hear and speak well enough to be understood?" he wonders. "Is it in compliance with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that requires telecommunications equipment be usable and accessible for all, including people with disabilities?"
Based on my experience testing bots through live chat, I'd say the answer is usually "no."
That skepticism tends to be generational, says Mills. "It should be of no surprise that the over-65 group would prefer not using the technology, unlike the younger generation, who grew up with the technology," he notes. "It is human nature to go with what you are comfortable with. Older consumers may be challenged by the latest tech, while younger consumers live on their phones. They rely on texting and sharing information on social networks, but they will, similar to older generations, reach out via phone when their situation is too complex for other channels."
Give chatbots a chance
Out of fairness, I decided to give Skyscanner's chatbot another spin. Alas, it had been taken offline.
Maybe they got their hands on an early draft of the CGS study?
Should we exterminate all chatbots? Not yet. Mills recommends combining the chatbots and humans, which he calls a "blended" approach to customer service.
"It gives consumers the option of using the channel of their choice," he says. "These channels should work seamlessly together allowing a human agent to pick up where a customer left off with the chatbot, for example, and access information from that previous interaction. Making it easy for a customer to transition without repeating information or starting from scratch lends to a successful customer experience."
Overreliance on bots can be a turnoff for customers regardless of age or geographic location. Mills says if you want to find chatbots that work, check out the retail, telecommunications and hospitality industries, which use human agents with AI in a more seamless way. I'm still waiting for an example of a company that hits it out of the ballpark, with raving customers and lower costs.
Is anyone out there?
How to prevent chatbots from killing customer service
So what's the takeaway? Companies shouldn't move too fast to force chatbots on their customers, the survey suggests. Chatbots are killing customer service.
"Consumers will use a chatbot when they have a pretty straightforward question," says Mills. "As our survey showed, half of the respondents ranked chat as their top channel for quick customer service. Yet, they still prefer a human because bots are less helpful, and their answers are less detailed. When they have a non-standard question or an issue that they don’t know how to explain, they will look to speak with a live specialist."
In other words, develop and deploy chatbots, but keep the human agents. Relying completely on automation is certain to push customers away.
The CGS survey suggests that some companies are leaning on chatbots, which may save money in the short term but will eventually send customers running for the hills. Companies that serve an older demographic should pay close attention because older customers are the most resistant to using technology as their primary source of assistance. Older customers are among the most resistant to automation.
And then there's this truth: Chatbots can't replace human agents -- ever. After all, bots are completely dependent on the data in their system, which is managed and controlled by people.
"A human can answer a question on the fly, empathize with a frustrated customer and get to the issue pretty quickly," says Mills. "In some situations, such as a personal health matter, the individual may not feel comfortable discussing it with a bot. Delicately handling these types of situations can be key to the customer experience and satisfaction."
"Can" being the operative word. Some human agents act like bots when they're on the phone, reading from a script and refusing to deviate in any way. That can be even more irritating.
From this consumer advocate's perspective, we're at the beginning of a dangerous trend in customer service. Businesses around the world are looking at machine learning as a way to save money while still keeping their customers happy. This study seems to suggest that while they can save money through automation, they won't keep all their customers happy. And that's a problem -- for everyone.
Your age and your interpretation of progress might influence where you stand.
More than a million people clicked on a CBC News story last week about some retail stores removing their self-checkout machines. Thousands of readers also left comments, many staunchly taking a stand either for or against self-checkout.
The machines are now ubiquitous in many large retail stores, yet self-checkout remains a divisive issue among Canadians.
So what's driving the debate? Turns out, age can be a factor as well as one's view on whether the technology represents progress or a step backward as shoppers — aided by machines — do the work of cashiers.
"A lot of people do see self-checkout as a threat to workers," said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at Halifax-based Dalhousie University specializing in food distribution and policy.
"That's probably why the debate is so emotional for a lot of people."
The age factor
Self-checkouts are supposed to cut costs for retailers and provide choice for consumers. A recent U.S. survey suggests age can influence who's drawn to them.
Forty-six per cent of respondents aged 18 to 34 said, when given a choice, they prefer using self-checkout over a cashier.
That preference declines with age: 35 per cent of respondents aged 35 to 54 said they favour self-checkout, and only 19 per cent of those 55 and older would choose the machine over a cashier.
CivicScience, a U.S. data collection and market research company, surveyed 1,969 adults online in July 2018.
"Obviously, they haven't created [technology] that boomers want to adopt, so maybe that's a user-experience issue," said Casey Taylor, of CivicScience.
Although the machines have improved over the years, they've frustrated many shoppers, especially when they involved extra steps like weighing produce or applying a discount.
Why some stores have pulled their self-checkout machines
Consumer behaviour expert Brynn Winegard says that tech-savvy millennials may be more willing to accept such challenges.
"They're not daunted," she said. "Troubleshooting a self-checkout terminal is not an issue for them. It doesn't ruin their day."
David Ruta, 65, of Napanee, Ont., was turned off self-checkout about four years ago when, after scanning the only item he had, the machine insisted he scan a second item.
"I didn't have one," he said. "Then it stopped working for the [employee] who tried to help me, and that's when I left the store."
In contrast, 34-year-old Matthew Easter, of Ottawa, says he's found self-checkout machines quite seamless and believes they speed up the process.
"Why would I wait 10 minutes, maybe more, when I can check myself out in 30 seconds?" said Easter, who will only shop at grocery stores that offer the machines.
"It's a more convenient option, especially if you're a busy person."
What about the jobs?
Many people believe self-checkouts are part of an inevitable shift to automation.
"There's always going to be progress. There's always going to be technology that's going to come along to make things better, smarter, faster," said Easter.
But those who prefer to use cashiers often fear the machines will lead to fewer of them and longer lineups — and they don't see that as progress.
Self-checkouts: Who really benefits from the technology?
Although he's a senior, Ruta says he's not intimidated by self-checkout technology but instead is concerned about its effect on retail workers.
"I just would rather interact with a person," he said. "You put in these self checkouts, you're going to eliminate jobs."
Nadine MacKinnon, 59, of Toronto, agrees.
"They shouldn't be able to take away jobs from workers, force the customer to do that work for them for free."
Although it has added more self-checkouts to many stores, Walmart Canada told CBC News the move hasn't resulted in any job losses. Instead, some employees were re-deployed to other positions such as customer support for self-checkout.
But that may not always be the outcome. U.K.-based research and consulting group RBR said the number of self-checkout kiosks shipped to Canada tripled in 2017 compared to 2016, though it declined to provide exact figures. RBR attributed much of the growth to "labour pressures" created by recent minimum wage increases in some provinces.
Minimum wage hikes to cost Loblaw an extra $190M next year
Over the past couple of years, grocery chain Metro and retail giant Loblaw both announced they would increase their self-checkouts in select stores to help offset the higher cost of wages.
According to the World Economic Forum's 2018 Future of Jobs report, many jobs that can be replaced with automation, including cashier positions, are "expected to become increasingly redundant" over the next four years.
However, the study suggests that the job losses could be more than offset by the emergence of many new positions. But the questions remains what type of jobs will emerge and what happens to less-skilled workers.
Self-checkout fan Kyle Ross, 19, of Summerside, P.E.I., points out that even self-checkout kiosks generate jobs.
"You have the people that are creating the self-checkouts, the people that come and repair the machines when they need updates."
That doesn't placate shoppers like Ruta and MacKinnon, who still worry about displaced workers and how automation will change the shopping experience.
"I prefer to be served by a human being," said MacKinnon.