By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service
This Spring, I wrote about my less-than-happy travel experience flying from Cleveland to London. During that multi-day odyssey I experienced both the upside to automation (the impressive United Airlines app) and some of the downside effects on human interactions that these automated systems can have.
With AI conversations taking place at every turn, I keep thinking about that balance between automation and the human touch when it comes to service. I came across this Harvard Business Review (HBR) piece that has a fairly optimistic take on how workers can maintain their relevance as more companies evaluate AI tools like ChatGPT to take on everything from online service chat functions to writing marketing copy and even creating art.
The crux of the article is that AI is automating intellectual capital in the same way that machinery automated physical labor during previous eras. Just as machines, for example, allowed us to lift heavier and heavier things, AI helps us solve more complex problems because it can evaluate a lot more data than a mere mortal, and throw gobs of computational power into coming up with new solutions.
There are limits, though. AI is not thinking so much as analyzing an immense amount of information, and most of the information was created by flawed, biased people, which means those same biases can creep into the results – and in the case of automated service systems, programmers are often trying to restrict solutions to a fairly limited set of known scenarios.
Once you exhaust those scenarios, the human factor comes into play – a real person must intervene and evaluate the situation. This is where another AI risk surfaces – the limitations of the automated system can start to seep into how employees deal with customers. Service representatives start looking at problems through the lens of what the automated system allows them to do, rather than using their own knowledge to come up with solutions.
The HBR article touches on this, too. For real people working in tandem with an automated service system, it is important to remember the qualities that humans bring to the equation that AI lacks – creativity, empathy, and emotional intelligence.
Creativity, Empathy and EI Remain Critical in Service
Creativity is already critical, both in the call center and in the field, but will be even more important as AI-based systems handle most of the straightforward customer interactions that can be easily solved or routed via automation. When exceptions occur, we will rely on the knowledge of our people to apply a level of curiosity to the situation that AI systems just don't have.
Empathy and emotional intelligence are another story. We know that today’s definition of good service is not just about fixing a given problem, but also being able to effectively connect and communicate well with customers and, in many cases, play a role in driving their business outcomes.
If an automation system is in place, by the time a customer gets through to an actual employee they are usually pretty frustrated (this was true with my own travel experience last month). Their problem has not been addressed through the AI layers of service capabilities. The call has been escalated, probably right along with their blood pressure (speaking from experience). Making sure employees know how to recognize that frustration and respond accordingly (even if it means going off script) is critical to achieving high levels of service. Active listening and empathy at this stage goes a long way to helping the customer feel like their needs are being understood and addressed, even if the employee involved in the engagement cannot solve their problem right away.
This is why service organizations really need to understand that automation and AI are not an end unto themselves; they are tools that work best when they are put in place to unencumber frontline workers from menial tasks, democratize knowledge, and enable the irreplaceable human touch to be applied in the times it’s truly warranted.
Service leaders face immense pressure related to the challenges to hire capable workers at the same rate their most experienced technicians are retiring. AI and automation present a huge opportunity here to take some of the burden off these teams and organizations – these systems can not only manage mundane, repetitive tasks, but can potentially help technicians become even better at their jobs. But the human touch is always going to be the difference maker when it comes to customer satisfaction.
Last week at Field Service Connect in Denver, event organizer Mark Scherzer told of a billboard he’d seen that said, “AI took my job…to the next level.” I believe we need to put teams minds at ease about the risk of AI to their livelihoods; there’s plenty of work to go around. AI is here to uplift those teams, to make service more streamlined and seamless, to eliminate wasted time and efforts and focus truck rolls and in-face time to value-added activities, and to make knowledge it takes to help the customer accessible at the second it is needed. AI is here to take field service to the next level; the importance of human touch shouldn’t be in question.
Have thoughts on this issue? Please share your own experiences and thoughts on AI and how you see it innovating field service.