Customer experience has evolved in exciting ways in the past few years. Michael Iacobucci, CEO at Interactions Corporation, cites two major reasons for this industry-wide evolution: the increasingly critical need for better customer experiences as a brand differentiator, and the AI advancement to enable those experiences. According to a recent survey, 75% of customers say they will pay more to do business with a company that provides good CX.

“Exceptional customer service is not optional for today’s businesses,” Iacobucci said. “In order to succeed, CX must be a top priority.”

He added that along with the growing demand for better CX, technology has also evolved. Some of the major tech advancements for CX include improvements to AI, more sophisticated natural language processing and the introduction of voice assistants that can engage with customers in natural, human-like conversations.

“The pandemic has only added fuel to the fire,” Iacobucci said. “Factors including labor shortages, increased customer uncertainty and the need for business continuity in a remote-first world only accelerated the adoption of these technologies, ushering us into a new era of CX.”

Eighty percent of customers today say that the experiences companies provide are as important as their products or services, and customers are 2.7 times more likely to continue doing business with a company that provides high-quality service. Iacobucci spoke to Simpler Media Group about the changes the industry has experienced since 2008 and what he expects from the future of the industry.

Simpler Media Group: You've been in this industry for a long time — more than 13 years at Interactions alone. Can you take us back to what the customer experience industry looked like when you first started, including the role technology was playing at the time?

Michael Iacobucci: The promise of the customer experience industry has been the same since my first day on the job: fast, effortless experiences for every customer, every time. But back in 2008–2009, companies were deploying technology that wasn’t up to that task. The industry was riddled with limited dial menus, ineffective Intelligent Voice Response systems and speech systems masquerading as artificial intelligence but incapable of understanding, responding to or learning from customers. The goal was more often to deflect or contain customers, rather than to engage and serve them.

Take first-generation chat solutions and chatbots as an example. At the time, they were the shiny new object everyone had to have — but not only was the technology not up to par, brands also implemented these solutions without thinking about how they would fit into a larger, cohesive customer experience strategy. Naturally, this approach soon disappointed and frustrated customers.

I knew as an industry, we could and should do better. I was intrigued by the potential for technology to reimagine the most frustrating experiences in our daily lives. And I’m glad our team at Interactions stuck with it — we’ve advanced leaps and bounds since then.

SMG: Are there places where this industry is still falling short? What can be done about this?

Iacobucci: Oftentimes, we still see AI and automation applied in a way that is not customer-centric. Take the rise of one-size-fits-all DIY solutions as an example. Companies are drawn to these options because they promise fast deployment and ease of use, but there’s a lot more that goes into fostering excellent CX than throwing technology at the problem, including design and customization. Too often, these DIY solutions that promise to fix a company’s CX are actually deployed at the expense of CX. Technology, even when it’s the latest and greatest, underwhelms when it isn’t designed and deployed with the consumer in mind; it can only be impactful if it improves the user experience.

We’re also seeing a lot of companies across this industry applying technologies like AI to incrementally improve the customer experience for agents, customers, or both — from prompting agents on what to say next, to using AI to predict customer emotions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but I often watch these companies and think they’re building on a shaky foundation — like adding a fresh coat of paint or a snazzy new mailbox to a house that’s bound to collapse due to a faulty foundation.

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I believe we’ve pushed our existing CX paradigm about as far as it can go. We’ve seen a lot of improvement in the last decade, but the moment for incremental improvement is past now. It’s time for some fundamentally different thinking about how we can most effectively leverage the newest AI technologies, and [it’s time for us to] reimagine the relationship between AI and people to better serve our customers.

SMG: Can you elaborate on this redefined relationship between AI and people?

Iacobucci: AI and people both work best when they work together, and I don’t see that changing, even in this new era of CX. But as call volumes rise, labor shortages stretch on, and customers become more irritable, AI can and should take on an even more prominent role to keep businesses running smoothly.

Companies can, for example, lead with AI to open and facilitate each conversation with customers. Many tasks — from making a payment, to changing a billing address or scheduling an appointment — can be done quickly and easily with AI. This allows customers to control their own journeys, taking care of matters on their own time and their own terms, 24/7, while taking some of the strain off overworked agents. With recent advancements, AI-powered solutions are capable of handling more than ever, and I think it’s time we let them.

SMG: What keeps you interested in this industry after more than a decade? What are you most excited for regarding what's to come?

Iacobucci: I said at the beginning that our industry has promised fast, easy, painless experiences for customers for more than a decade; I’ve stuck around because we get a little closer every day. Today, I believe we’re at a real inflection point for the industry. The technology, investment, market maturity and demand are advancing in a way that allows us to deliver on this promise.

I’m excited for the reality I see right around the corner. A reality where businesses are implementing an opti-channel strategy to provide customers with the best channel, for that moment in time and for the task at hand, so they can get their problem resolved quickly and painlessly. No repetition, no getting bounced around to multiple agents, no choosing from a restrictive dial menu — just fast, easy resolution to questions and concerns.

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