At the most recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, there was much talk about the power of automation and robotics, with business leaders and politicians excitedly discussing the incredible potential reimagining whole industries based on the use of artificial intelligence.
Some of the headlines which follow automation and artificial intelligence through the media do not always share the same excitement. There are understandable concerns that for every job done by a robot there will be a loss of jobs for real people; but it need not be the case. These technologies do not have to replace people. Of course those decisions will be up to individual employers but there would be a false economy in replacing people rather than redeploying them to other parts of the business, or helping them acquire new skills so they can add increased value.
Recent research from management consultants McKinsey & Company suggests just five per cent of occupations are at risk of being entirely automated because as automation transforms processes, people will find job opportunities to compliment the work machines do. More anecdotally, some businesses have countered suggestions they are replacing people with claims they are actually recruiting more people than ever as a result of the increased opportunities created by a business that is more efficient and productive.
While it is true that some applications of robotics, in industries such as manufacturing are doing jobs once performed by people, there is also a growing need for skilled technical staff that are able to manage, program and monitor robots and machine processes. There are career paths opening up all the time for people who can manage the process of automation and can help companies derive greater value and deliver improved services as a result.
This is true also in areas such as customer service. So-called ‘chatbots’, where a customer will have a conversation with a robot, by phone or text, are increasingly the frontline of customer service, handling specific queries, providing information and pointing customers in the right direction for further assistance. These chatbots can reduce customer waiting times and perform an important role in quickly handling routine questions. But they will not replace people altogether, even at the front line of customer service and certainly not at the backend.
There will still be people on the phone, on email and online for customers who do not get the resolution they were seeking or whose query cannot be easily automated. People will be required to deliver a tailored, individual level of service and will have the time and support needed to do so, because automation will be taking care of the high-volume, easily resolved enquiries.
Automation in the right hands is not about making people redundant, but rather letting them focus on delivering quality of service, while automation handles quantity. It should improve both customer experience and the experience of the people delivering it.
People will also still be required to manage the processes of customer service and ensure the technical management of chatbots is up-to-date on the latest offers, initiatives and policies. These roles will be more senior, opening up opportunities for career progression not always seen on the front line of customer service.
Whatever people’s reservations, the automation of customer service is coming and it is coming fast. Oracle research has revealed 80 per cent of businesses expect to be serving customers to some extent using chatbots by 2020.
However, the truly transformative power of automation is perhaps not in automating tasks which once might have been done by people, but rather automating tasks which simply could never be done by people, such as the complex analysis of huge volumes of data in fractions of seconds.
This will enable a further revolution within customer service.
Automating the simultaneous analysis of customer data, sales data, marketing campaign data and supply chain data will enable customer services teams to offer a far more personalised, premium experience to customers, tailoring special offers and recommendations just for them.
Sectors such as retail and banking are already exploring the potential of this revolution in customer service and momentum around its adoption is gathering all the time.
We should all be in no doubt that from now on, when we are engaging with a company, whether we are speaking with a human being who is offering a great service, or communicating with a company via their website, that is an interaction which will be increasingly be enabled and improved somewhere along the line by automation.