Customer service is poised for an AI revolution

AI is viewed by customer service decision makers and agents alike as a boon to the customer and employee experience. AI adoption is nascent, but it's set to soar as more teams turn to chatbots, text, and voice analytics, and other use cases. Use of AI by customer service teams is projected to increase by 143 percent over the next 18 months.

Using AI to improve sales Louis Jonckheere, co-founder and chief product officer at Showpad, sits down with Tonya Hall to talk about how AI is used in sales.

If you're anything like me (or millions of other everyday consumers), you may be surprised to contact customer service only to be prompted with a litany of questions about who you are and what you're issue is. If I dial a service line, I've been conditioned to expect a friendly voice -- real or not -- that recognizes my phone number and asks if I'm calling about a recent transaction. What's more, I expect a similar experience if I connect over a myriad other digital touchpoints. Such is the level of sophistication we as customers now hold as standard, and the impacts on customer service are nothing short of transformational.

Also:  Why chatbots still leave us cold

A solid majority of consumers and business buyers (62 percent) now expect companies to anticipate their needs. That's incredible in and of itself, but it's also a problem for customer service organizations, as the same study found that 63 percent of customers say customer service isn't as fast or easy as they'd like. In lieu of cloning themselves to do more for customers, or acquiring telekinesis to read their minds, service organizations need increasingly advanced technological capabilities to bridge the customer expectation gap.

Enter: Artificial intelligence (AI), a set of technologies that are often associated with science fiction, but are taking on an increasingly prevalent role in some of the most common settings imaginable -- like customer service interactions.

Service Organizations Want to Use AI -- They Just Don't Know How Yet

Salesforce's new State of Service report found that more than half of service organizations -- including 69 percent of teams with excellent customer satisfaction -- are actively searching for ways to bring AI into their operations. But those use cases remains largely elusive to service decision makers, only 39 percent of whom have a fully defined AI strategy.

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Service Decision Makers on AI

The study found that high-performing organizations -- those with excellent customer satisfaction -- are significantly more likely than underperformers with average or worse customer satisfaction to have embraced AI. Still, AI is new to customer service toolkits overall, with fewer than a quarter of organizations using it today. Yet AI is on the cusp of having a much bigger presence, with 143 percent growth anticipated less than two years from now.

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Use of Planned Use of AI Among Service Organizations

We're Getting a Sneak Peek of AI's Role in Service

With skyrocketing adoption, AI's fuzzy customer service use cases are about to get a lot clearer. Salesforce's researchers asked early adopters about how they're applying the technology, and found AI strategies centered on offloading repetitive, time-consuming tasks from agents. Gathering basic information from a customer for agents, for instance, is the most common AI use case.

Also: Over half of consumers will choose a chatbot over a human

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Service Organization Use Cases for AI

Three-quarters of these AI pioneers are automating routine service tickets completely, thereby giving agents the bandwidth to focus their attention on customers' unique, complex issues and redefining their roles as strategic client advocates. Indeed, more than half (51 percent) of agents at teams without AI spend the majority of their time on mundane tasks like resetting passwords or giving updates on shipment status, while roughly one-third (34 percent) of agents on teams with AI say the same.

Fifty-one percent of agents without AI say they spend more of their time on mundane tasks, versus 34 percent of agents with AI. 

One example of human and machine customer service collaboration is the use of chatbots -- AI technology that simulates voice or text-based conversations with humans. Today, only 23 percent of service organizations are using chatbots, with high-performing service organizations using bots 2.1X more than under-performers.

Also; Making AI communication more human

Sixty-four percent of agents with chatbots are able to spend most of their time solving complex problems, versus 50 percent of agents without AI chatbots. 

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AI Chatbots Usage Among Service Organizations

AI is transforming workers' roles, and customer service agents are no exception. Overall, 70 percent of agents believe that automating routine tasks would allow them to focus on more complex work. Still, much conversation is (rightly) focused over the ethical implications of AI to the workforce. The darkest forecasts predict a wiping out of jobs. Yet four-fifths of service decision makers agree that AI works best when augmenting, rather than replacing, humans. It's incumbent on these leaders to plan their AI strategies with people at the forefront, and to embrace transparency in their plans for the technology.

Eighty percent of service decision makers believe AI is most effective when deployed with -- rather than in place of -- humans. 

Also: Your therapy bot will see you now 

The Results are In for Early Customer Service AI Adopters

By gathering basic information, automating  issues such as password resets, and automatically classifying and routing inquiries, customers get their questions answered more quickly and agents are able to allocate their time in the best way possible. So it follows logically that both of these groups are seeing benefits by using AI.

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Service Professionals with AI Who Report The Following Benefits

A whopping 84 percent of service organizations with AI report improved prioritization of agents' work -- the top benefit -- and a similar number (82 percent) have increased first contact resolution (FCR) rates for customers. For nearly four-fifths (79 percent) of these teams, AI has led to increased customer satisfaction or Net Promoter scores, and three-quarters even report happier agents.

Sixty-nine percent of teams with AI have even seen increased case deflection as a result of their adoption, a boon to agents and customers alike.

Even with its low rate of adoption today, AI is ushering a new era of customer service. Leaders will no doubt be drawn to the efficiencies brought by AI, but should also celebrate its power to let people do their best, most fulfilling work. If you're in the process of defining the role of AI at your organization, I implore you to think holistically about not just what AI can automate for your customers, but the ingenuity it can release in your workforce.

74 percent of AI users report reduced agent email and calls, and three-quarters even credit AI with increased agent morale. 

The research shows that customer service agents deeply care about how AI can benefit their work performance. Seventy-one percent of service agents view AI as helpful to their jobs. 69 percent of agents want to learn more about AI's impact on their job. That said, a small majority, 27 percent of service agents are worried about the negative impact of AI to their current responsibilities. 

Also: Bad bots are stealing data and ruining the customer experience

The question for customer service leaders -- or any business leader, for that matter -- isn't if AI will impact their business, but how. AI, along with a cadre of other digital technologies, are ushering an unprecedented, new era of innovation that will redefine business models and lead entire industries into uncharted territory. In the Salesforce study, high-performing service leaders are already more than three times as likely as their underperforming competition to have defined their strategy for this intelligent era. The rest will be need to catch-up quickly, or risk obsolescence in the post-digital era.

This article is part of a series exploring key findings and insights from the third edition State of Service research report. You can read the full report here.