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PHOTO: Angelo Moleele

Business looks significantly different today than it did just a few months ago. While the impact of the pandemic on enterprise operations and strategies has varied dramatically across industries, one thing has remained consistent: consumers are changing the way they engage with brands. When it comes to customer experience (CX), for example, there’s a notable shift in how people feel about the use of artificial intelligence (AI) — and I believe it will transform customer service in the long run.

For years, consumers have been wary of customer service automation, likely due to the profusion of ineffective systems. But as businesses fast-tracked adoption of automation solutions to manage the current crisis, I believe people are ready to welcome more AI in their daily lives, via a virtual agent or otherwise. The pandemic has altered how people in the US feel about AI in a variety of contexts, customer service included.

Here are the three driving factors I see changing consumers’ perception of AI-powered CX in this pandemic:

AI Is Helping CX Teams Meet High Demand

Before the pandemic, customer service expectations were already at a high, with 93% of customers reporting that customer service is an important driver of brand loyalty according to HubSpot research. But when the coronavirus took hold of the US in March, the industry entered a new age of reckoning.

Call volumes to pharmacies, airlines and restaurants rose. Meanwhile, contact centers are thinned out by social distancing and, amid widespread economic uncertainty, companies felt heightened pressure to satisfy and keep as many customers as possible. Companies turned to CX technology at accelerated rates to shorten wait times and meet customer demand.

Related Article: What Happens When Customer Support Works From Home?

Consumers Are Seeing More Sophisticated Solutions in Action

In the past, chatbots and interactive voice response (IVR) have subjected consumers to clunky “robot speak,” miscommunications and repetition, leaving people frustrated and giving automated CX a bad name in the process. Despite massive advancements in conversational AI, a 2019 survey found that 86% of consumers preferred to speak with a human when given the option.

As the pandemic pushes advanced CX technology to the forefront of business, consumers are tasting the convenience and efficiency of AI-powered solutions — and it's having a lasting impact. According to a survey conducted by my firm in late April, most would prefer to have inquiries handled by AI if it would be faster, and are now more comfortable having a full conversation with an AI agent.

Related Article: Why Your Approach to Chatbot and IVR Projects Is All Wrong

Comfort With AI Is on the Rise

With social distancing orders in place, many people have grown wary of human-to-human contact. AI offers a clear alternative, in customer service and beyond.

As we move into the "new normal," where AI is increasingly integrated into CX, I believe this comfort with AI will continue to rise. That said, for that to happen, companies must do everything they can to maintain consumer trust with AI. Companies should always lead with transparency where a virtual agent is involved. For instance, it should never be unclear to a consumer if and when they are communicating with a virtual versus a human agent. Otherwise, you risk leaving a customer feeling creeped out.

The pandemic has ushered in a newfound urgency for technological progress, and with it, a change in how consumers perceive automated CX. As AI emerges to meet higher demand, offer greater convenience and build deeper brand trust, consumers are more open to AI adoption than ever before. Despite uncertainty, I believe shifting consumer sentiment has opened the door to an entirely new standard of meaningful customer care.

Related Article: How to Handle the Crisis of Consumer Trust