“We are currently experiencing a very high volume of calls. Please hold the line and a customer service representative will be with you as soon as possible.” Cue terrible hold music on a never-ending loop.

In a time when we can get whatever food we like delivered within the hour or have our insurance claim approved in three seconds, is this old way of customer service good enough anymore? How long until customers who are forced into these kinds of archaic experiences start looking for something better?

Salesforce research found that 84% of customers believe the experience a company provides is just as important as the actual products and services it sells. 

And, according to PwC, nearly one-third of people will walk away from a brand they love after just one bad experience. No second chances.

It’s true, brands don’t have it easy nowadays. Bad customer service spreads, while savvy consumers have access to more choices than before. Like Sisyphus endlessly pushing his boulder up the hill, it makes gaining (and keeping) your customers’ business an ongoing task – while one slip is all it takes to undo all your hard work.

So, if you’re looking to add artificial intelligence (AI) automation to your customer service operations, here’s why you shouldn’t neglect the experience in lieu of scale alone – and how you actually can have both while playing to your emotive, brand-aligned strengths.

A brief history of the customer service experience shows us the way forward

Listening to a seemingly endless rendition of Green Sleeves hold music is a situation we’ve all found ourselves trapped in. Even when someone is finally available to help you, you could end up straight back on hold as they shunt you around different departments to handle your query. 

In-store customer support isn’t necessarily much better in the 21st century. Many simple questions won’t justify a trip to a store, and you’ll still have to deal with queues and the possibility of being redirected to the brand’s website anyway. 

But at least you get to speak to a human!

Up until the mid-2000s, these were usually your only options. However, as the noughties progressed, so too did customer service technology. Online help desks and ‘live chat’ features began to pop up more often, although it was still a human doing the customer service legwork. 

By the mid-2010s, advances in AI and the popularity of messaging apps brought a new realm of automated customer service. The human touch began to leave as efficiency and cost reduction took hold.

The chatbot era began – as did the era of voice assistants – and the changing face of customer service became faceless.

The result? Today, customers are increasingly likely to ask Siri or Google an answer to their questions, even specific ones they might previously have asked in store. Google “how to repair an iPhone X” and there are around 200 million results trying to answer that question on Apple’s behalf.

In lieu of instant customer service, people go elsewhere to get their answers. These businesses have completely lost ownership of the customer experience. And it matters to customers, too. Three-quarters of consumers say they want more human interaction in the future, not less.

Let’s unpack this move to automated customer service. Because as quickly as technology stripped away the personal customer experience, it may also be able to put real personality back into it – as we’ll get to shortly.

What is automated customer service – and when do businesses and customers like it?

Welcome to the age of automation. It’s quick but it’s a bit cold at its heart – like a TV dinner.

Automated customer service is any technology that gives consumers help and assistance without human intervention. But there are levels; there’s a big difference between, say, a simplistic ‘we’ve received your query’ automated email response and the very best AI chatbots and virtual assistants for customer services. 

That said, most automated customer service solutions have similar goals at first glance. They look to offer reliable, scalable customer services at a speed and convenience level that’s not usually achievable through staff alone – and do so at a reduced cost to using real customer service reps.

And in many of these regards, automated customer service fits the bill when delivered through chatbots and website self-help portals. In fact, we know from the PwC survey that these are some of the factors that matter most to customers, too. 

Speed and efficiency (80%) and convenience (77%) were two of the top three qualities that people look for when they interact with a brand. Instant service is of the essence. More than half (52%) of the people polled said they’d even “pay more” to receive faster, more convenient customer services.

However!

The third most important factor consumers want is knowledgeable and helpful employees, friendly service, easy payments and human interaction. All of these were ranked as of high importance by over 70% of people – and around half of people would pay more for it.

Customers want it all. And are prepared to pay those brands who take exceptional customer service seriously. So, imagine if you could put the speed, convenience and human interaction customers want with the scalability and cost control that you want…

How do AI digital humans make for a better experience?

This is where we believe digital humans can make a real difference.

Customer services can now largely be automated without stripping the human touch, empathy and emotional connection out of the experience. Digital humans are accessible to tens of thousands of customers at once, 24/7 and immediately (like a chatbot or automated voice machine), but they bring one-on-one conversation, empathy-driven responses, and the brand’s personality back into the experience.

Two-thirds of consumers may want the human touch, but 75% also say they still want brands to use the latest technologies to create better experiences. 

That’s not the contradiction you may assume it is at first glance. Digital humans can do both – in truth, they’re the only technology that can.

So, what about brand experience? We’re now entering a consumer climate where digital humans can become brand ambassadors. Let’s be clear, real staff are the best at delivering a personal brand experience. Nothing shows natural conversation, empathy and emotion like a real person; but digital humans are designed to scale where humans cannot and deliver the same experience to thousands at the same time.

Take Nola, who works for the biggest retail group in New Zealand. She offers a consistent and immediate experience for customers, but a friendly and personal one, where customers can ask what they want and find an answer “face to face”.

Companies can have all the advantages of traditional automated customer service – such as 24/7 availability, scale, lower costs to serve and more – yet also differentiate their brands, offer a human touch and form strong emotional connections with consumers. 

And as with the best brand experiences, Nola and other digital humans are irreplaceable – no competitor can offer the same emotionally connected experience.

Delivering exceptional customer service through brand experience

While technology has been making TV dinners, stand-out businesses have been creating emotive experiences that are closely tied to (and delivered by) their brand.

Human customer service and support reps are incredible at emotive brand experiences.

They’re trained, on-brand and on-message. But they’re also people with personalities, so they’re able to make for a fantastic emotional touchpoint between the consumer and the business. If customers are happy, reps smile. If customers come to them with a problem, they show shared concern.

Which is one of the gaps digital humans are designed to fill. Whether they’re asking your digital human advice or being handed off to your now-freed up real-life reps, there’s a human touchpoint throughout the experience. And one that lives and breathes your brand.

To put the cherry on top, no competitor can share in that particular experience. They can build a chatbot that does the same as yours, they can put the same FAQ together online, or use the same messaging. But they can’t replicate the personal experience that your customer service reps give people.

The effect of this, Salesforce research shows, is that 73% of customers say an extraordinary brand experience raises their expectations for the other companies they use – putting distance between great brands and their competitors.

This brand experience has largely been forgotten in customer service in lieu of speed and efficiency. And that’s left a lot on the table, particularly for customers that have a problem that needs solving and an emotionally charged desire for help.

It’s a chance to start or build a tangible, valuable emotional connection with the brand – and a lot of businesses are missing their chance.

Why emotional connection matters in customer service

Research shows that a fully emotionally invested customer is 52% more valuable to a company than a baseline ‘highly satisfied’ customer. And they spend twice as much with the brand every year. That’s a lot of goodwill (and money) to be leaving behind if customer service automation is applied heavy handedly.

Facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, the right words at the right time; AI now equips many of the same tools that customer service representatives use every day to build rapport and trust.

Nothing but a human face and voice can replicate great conversation, because everything else misses 93% of what makes great conversations possible.

At UneeQ, we knew about the importance of that emotional connection – we write about it a lot. But it was during the 2020 pandemic when we learnt how important it was.

We built our free, public health advisor, Sophie, in two weeks; but started adding more emotional responses based on how people were using her. So, she gives advice on effectively washing hands, for example, but if people show signs that they’re emotionally struggling, she’ll show empathy, warmth and a sense of caring in her responses.

What are the advantages of automated customer service?

We’ve hinted at some of the advantages of AI-powered customer services, but let’s review: 

  • Speed, scale and convenience: Automated customer services are fast and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to an unlimited consumer base. 
  • Triage customer services: Sort and prioritize customer queries automatically, while guiding people towards self-help resources. 
  • Consistent communications: Ensure uniform brand communications with consistent messaging, help and support.  
  • Free up staff: Remove laborious manual tasks from customer service reps, allowing them to deal with more complex or sensitive requests.
  • Lower costs: Streamline customer services to make them more cost-effective and efficient.

What are the disadvantages of automated customer service?

Despite many benefits, there are also potential disadvantages for businesses to mull over when considering automated customer services.

  • Lacks the human touch: Most customers still prefer to talk to another person when trying to resolve problems. 
  • Struggles with complexity: Some issues are simply too difficult for an automated platform to resolve without human intervention. 
  • Reliant on AI advances: Automated customer services can only evolve as fast as AI and related techniques, such as machine learning. 
  • Brand differentiation: It’s tough to provide a unique, brand-focused customer experience with traditional automated technologies.
  • Missing the emotional connection: Consumers may find it difficult to form a lasting emotional connection with automated services.

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