Will chatbots replace customer service reps?

Dec 14, 2017

Retail TouchPoints staff

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Retail TouchPoints website.

Chatbots — AI applications that simulate human conversation — are becoming more pervasive in online and mobile customer service, and acceptance of them is growing: 55 percent of American consumers and 65 percent of Millennials report that they want chatbots involved in the process. In addition, 20 percent of consumers say chatbots in general are definitely making things better, while 40 percent say chatbots are helpful but not yet living up to their full potential.

These are some of the results of an online survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted on behalf of Helpshift, a platform that supports chat-based customer support for companies.

Consumers welcome AI-driven chatbots in customer service for the following reasons:

  • To make the entire customer service process more efficient (75 percent);
  • To reduce the time it takes to get an agent on the phone (73 percent);
  • To reduce the time it takes to resolve the issue (71 percent);
  • To resolve the problem via chat and eliminate the need to call or email customer support (70 percent);
  • To reduce the time it takes to explain the problem to an agent (67 percent).

Nearly half (49 percent) of the respondents said that having chatbots available 24/7 was a benefit. When consumers need something quickly or need an answer to a simple problem, 18 percent of consumers in both situations prefer chatbots to human interaction.

Overall, 52 percent gave customer service in the U.S. a “C” grade or lower, and almost all (94 percent) said that they dread contacting customer support.

When asked to pick the one thing they most dread about contacting customer service, respondents selected:

  • Difficulties communicating with agents in offshore call centers (17 percent);
  • Long wait and hold times (16 percent);
  • Being transferred around and having to repeat their explanation of the problem (15 percent);
  • Never-ending automated self-service menus: (12 percent);
  • Being forced to interact with robots on the phone: (8 percent).

The findings follow Gartner’s prediction that by 2020, 85 percent of customer interactions will be managed without a human, and by the close of 2018, customer digital assistants will recognize customers by face and voice across channels.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you expect that chatbots will replace humans for most customer service issues? Have you had mostly favorable or unfavorable experiences using chatbots for customer service?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Undoubtedly, chatbots, both text and voice-rendered, will replace a large majority of customer service representatives. "
"Sometimes I think Millennials will do almost anything to avoid a human-to-human phone call."
"Any activity that requires interrogation of data should/could be made much easier and more digestable with the use of chatbots or conversational UI."

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25 Comments on "Will chatbots replace customer service reps?"

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Cathy Hotka

Chatbots can provide quick information to customers, but as a best practice should also provide an opportunity to communicate with a person. Some retailers — Lands’ End comes to mind — made their mark by allowing customers to communicate with helpful customer service reps on the phone, one-on-one.

Bob Amster

Chatbots will replace humans for most calls. They will solve the mundane problems without a problem (pardon the redundancy), however, it will take a long time before a chatbot can figure out every question from anybody (including from those who do not express themselves properly) and be of any use. I hope to live long enough to see it.

Seth Nagle

The technology is there! The question is, will companies fully invest to build it out?

Shep Hyken

Currently chatbots are being used to handle lower-level questions and requests, like a change in billing address or credit card. While they are getting “smarter” (and will continue to do so), the way chatbots are being used will not change in the near term. Some of the bots are “smart enough” to detect when their answers are wrong based on the customer’s response. They will then seamlessly switch the chat to a support agent. In several years, we’ll see AI improving and handling more complicated interactions. Until then, the best companies are balancing AI with the human touch.

Peter Luff

Yes, for routine and semi-routine activities, chatbots will be the way forward. Today they tend to handle basic routine tasks, in my experience they are pretty good if limited. As developers/providers become more comfortable with programming them and consumers become more accepting, the chatbots will move up the service value chain. Adding techniques such as emotional feedback from the chatbots within the vocal range and visual avatars will also help increase the acceptance.

Seth Nagle

Possibly. We’ve seen this evolution with call-in support centers and some companies do a great job and others I find myself consistently pressing zeros until I get the operator. I’ve had both experiences so far with chatbots as well.

For some tasks such as order status/inventory replenishment/finding similar products, chatbots will work perfectly. However for issues with products, account information or payment, users will want to talk to a rep and get the issue resolved instantly.

Sunny Kumar

I can see chat bots certainly playing an ever-increasing part in good customer service. Especially when it comes to providing simple answers to the simple questions which are usually hidden behind laborious call center processes or in the vast amounts of data a company holds. Any activity that requires interrogation of data should be/could be made much easier and more digestable with the use of chatbots or conversational UI.

Even though there is considerable work involved in joining up all the required systems to provide this natural interface, I believe we will see many more of these types of tools as there are efficiencies to be gained for both businesses and their consumers.

Shawn Harris

Undoubtedly, chatbots both text and voice-rendered will replace a large majority of customer service representatives. This is true given the specificity of the use case and advancements in artificial intelligence with respect to semantic and sentiment understanding within natural language processing, highly accurate translation services and text-to-speech models that sound more and more human.

Personally, I prefer chatting with customer service, and I’m not sure if it’s a human or bot on the other end given the generic responses often received. Are chatbots now passing the Turing Test? Have we arrived?

Ian Percy

The retail world is depressing me.

The other day I referred to Marshall McLuhan and his “the medium is the message” philosophy. When it comes to chatbots, the medium’s message to customers is that “we are robotic and artificial in our intelligence and want to avoid human connection as expediently as possible.”

Then here we post the degree to which customers are “welcoming” this artificial reality as though it is a positive sign and we should do more of it. But combine that with the observation that 94 percent of people “dread” contacting customer support from actual humans. That is NOT a sign of acceptance or preference … it’s a sign of resignation and despair. On my bad days, I fear retail has given up on being human.

Celeste C. Giampetro

I couldn’t agree more, Ian. Maybe if we invested in the upside of both options, customers would feel more valued. That means investing in the people who are the frontlines of your brand with continuous training on how to respond to a variety of situations. That also means using chatbots to automate the lower-level tasks and create efficiencies for your customer service reps.

Ian Percy

Exactly Celeste. Retail seems to find it easier to invest in technology than it does in people. Thanks.

Max Goldberg

Sometimes I think Millennials will do almost anything to avoid a human-to-human phone call. For the most part, I have found chatbots to not be effective in handling more complex interactions. That will change as they get “smarter” but I think, at present, it’s difficult for them to fully take ownership of a problem and solve it to a customer’s satisfaction.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

The operative words are “efficiency” and “specific.” Customers value quick answers to their questions, when and where they need them. If a customer knows what they need to know, it doesn’t matter whether the answer comes from AI or a human via a text.

If customer service is only viewed through the lens of answering questions to prevent returns, then AI wins on the basis of efficiency and coverage during “after hours.” However, if customer service is also viewed as brand and relationship building, it is very hard for AI to replace humans. While AI will be smarter and quicker with technical support, only humans can engage at an emotional personal level that builds relationships.

Great customer service will be a blend, offering the kinds of support at the level the customer chooses.

Lee Peterson

Personally I prefer a human, but I’m a digital immigrant. Digital natives may feel much differently. But I have already heard ads that tout the use of “real people” for customer service calls so I get the feeling I’m not alone.

Having said that, i think it depends. For truly functional service like calling for a prescription refill, who cares? But if I have a problem with a product, or even my cable, it seems much faster (even if it’s not in reality) and more, um, human to talk to a person and hear those magic words, “thank you” at the end of the event.

Lee Kent

Chatbots are here to stay and are a welcome change from having to talk with someone who is on script and will not deviate thus making the problem solving longer, harder and often getting nowhere. Will they be able to replace all human interaction in customer service? No. There will always be situations that require a person, however the chatbot can cull through the problem faster and the customer service person will likely have a clearer picture of the situation when they join in. For my 2 cents.

Ricardo Belmar

So many customer service issues can be classified as mundane or routine because they are simple questions or require little back and forth discussion with the customer — these will soon be handled almost exclusively by chatbots. Chatbots give the retailer an ability to respond faster to the customer and in many cases solve the issue much faster than otherwise possible. As long as there is always a well-defined path that transfers a customer to a live person when needed, this should result in overall improvement of customer service perception by shoppers. The best chatbot experience will go completely unnoticed by the customer when their problems are resolved quickly and easily.

Stuart Jackson

I hope not! For the sake of brands, not just customers, I really hope that there will always be a place for human interaction, whether that’s face-to-face or over the phone.

Chatbots are great for brands — they can cut costs and streamline services, deal quickly with easy-to-answer customer problems and free up resources. But they can’t replicate the kind of all-around experience and reassurance you get from talking to a human being. And they can’t pick up on underlying issues customers might have with your brand or products either.

Plus, let’s face it, many customers, certainly older ones, are just not comfortable with technology — and may well never be that relaxed about using it, which might mean you’re alienating a large number of customers without even knowing it. Chatbots have their place but they’re not ready to take on the full customer service role for a good number of years yet.

Ed Dunn
2 years 6 months ago

Just FYI, chatbot and phone IVR technology is the same paradigm. One is text pattern recognition while the other is voice recognition. But the recognition engine is the same. Future-facing, voice recognition will quickly overtake text-based chatbots as the communication channel in retailing technology. It will be more easy and natural to simply ask a voice-based engine for aisle help or help an associate answer a question on behalf of a customer.

Jennifer McDermott

No question, they will. And I don’t think it’s too far off either. Most queries handled by customer services representatives are basic, repetitive questions. Companies will need to retain some humans to handle more complex queries, but these numbers will be low.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

As chatbots become “smart” enough to handle more complex situations, they will become more prevalent.

Sterling Hawkins

It’s a question of “when” not “if” chatbots will handle most customer service issues. This is where AI can play a growing role in the enterprise and only a few of the chatbot providers out there have a true AI solution. Those that do can accommodate 70 percent to 80 percent of customer service issues and that number will only grow. At the very least, a chatbot will be able to work with the customer to a point where a human customer service representative can take over simplifying the whole process, leaving humans to do what humans do best.

Ralph Jacobson

Chatbots already have replaced humans at some innovative retailers. When coupled with true augmented intelligence technologies, it only makes sense for automated customer service technology to promote the entire product assortment/range based upon the objectives of the retailer, rather than just pushing the best sellers. You can drive overall margin and slow-seller velocity with this technology.

Joan Treistman

It is possible that chatbots will know more about how to resolve a problem than humans. I’ve had too many experiences lately where humans didn’t know how to do the simplest of tasks and wasted hours of my time.

But I think I’ll have to be trained as to what words will be most time efficient in getting me the information I need or the action I need. Perhaps someone will develop a glossary of terms most appropriate for chatbot interactions.

Aakash Varma

Intelligent chatbots are an effective, quick and to the point source of sharing information to customers. The question is not about “will chatbots replace customer service reps?” but about to what extent they will be replaced!

This has gained much momentum in last few years due to growth of AI as they have made these bots much intelligent to handle difficult scenarios.

Chemi Katz

Chatbots are successful in providing quick information to customers and will only get better over time as the natural language processing and machine learning algorithms backing them improve. For simple inquiries, they provide customers with quick answers and save shoppers time — as a chat bot will never put you on hold unless it can’t answer your question.

While we’re relatively far away from bots entirely replacing humans, retailers should deploy strategies that play to their strengths in the short-term. From the statistics displayed in the article, interaction efficiency was the overwhelming response from customers in why they appreciate chatbot deployment. For example, retailers can use bots to collect background information on an inquiry prior to transferring the customer to a representative or completely automate simple tasks like tracking an order’s status. Until the technology behind chatbots can solve complex customer problems, brands should use a hybrid approach to let bots do what they’re best at (saving time for customers) and let humans take care of the rest.

"Undoubtedly, chatbots, both text and voice-rendered, will replace a large majority of customer service representatives. "
"Sometimes I think Millennials will do almost anything to avoid a human-to-human phone call."
"Any activity that requires interrogation of data should/could be made much easier and more digestable with the use of chatbots or conversational UI."

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