Sometimes the greatest pain of a customer service leader is the buzz of a new technology that results in a Sunday night CEO email asking "when are we going to get this"?

In 2016, the leading contender has to be Artificial Intelligence (AI). It seems at every turn we’re seeing AI show up, whether it’s in the form of toys like Mattel’s new Barbie doll, Amazon’s Echo or IBM going big with the Watson TV spots featuring major celebrities.

As AI enters our technology lexicon it begs the question: How does AI fit into a customer service strategy?  

Make Self-Service Channels Smarter

The first place to impact the customer experience is by applying AI to self-service channels. 

Too often, these channels aren’t personalized or customer journey specific — and they leave customers in endless loops of confusing options that negatively impact customer satisfaction scores.

Automated voice channel is an obvious start for AI. For example, instead of giving every caller a generic list of menu choices in your automated phone channel, applying AI to your phone system can dynamically provide personalized service to high value customers instead of generic menu choices, based on a host of relevant criteria.

This same concept applied to web chat with AI powered bots can provide personalized self-service and escalate chat interactions to live agents only when a customer requires more advanced support or a "human touch."

This elevates agents to high value interactions that can help close sales, while automating mundane web chat requests like store hours or return policies. Applied in the right context, customers aren’t even able to distinguish bot from agent, and they come away with an experience tailored to their needs.

Extend Service Beyond the Service Department

The most impactful application of AI is beyond the traditional contact center, where a company’s service footprint grows exponentially. 

When one considers the collective sum of smart devices in a company today that can communicate information about customers and their products to the cloud, an incredible source of customer service data is available to leverage.

When AI can be leveraged to invoke specific service actions based on this data, before the customer is even aware there is an issue, a giant leap in customer experience is made. 

Think about the appliance that dispatches a service tech; the airline connection re-booking made; or the part that is re-ordered without a customer knowing about it.

Moreover, as we continue to see every day with the launch of new consumer products that make homes, cars and wearable computers ‘smart’, the service that is being built inside these products becomes the appeal of the product itself.

We’re moving into a service era where the only products that differentiate themselves (and keep customers paying monthly subscriptions) are the ones that deliver relevant, in the moment information to customers that AI enables.

Put the Human in Your Human Response

The major criticism of AI-powered service channels is in the computer’s lack of emotional intelligence (or EQ). We’ve all experienced the voice recognition system that fails; the email response that doesn’t answer our question; or the text message recalling a product we don’t have.

But those are the simple failings of AI. The ones that hurt customer service reputation the most are when a computer is put in a position to handle an issue that a human should, where logic and a workflow can’t necessarily be applied.

And yet, overexposure of emotionally charged customers to agents is often one of the key reasons cited for high agent turnover, stress and burnout. AI can help alleviate that pain point and can help identify which situations need to be escalated to an agent.

Both the promise and the opportunity for AI is in the art of its application. Unlike many new technology applications, customers don’t experience AI. They experience service.

Setting your AI course as one that starts with solving a common customer problem is an ideal way to garnering future investment and application for AI across the company, which can also help alleviate those late night emails.

Title image "a touch of the sun" (CC BY 2.0) by Thomas8047