“I am your personal customer advisor”

Good day to you. This is Jutta Rahenbrock.

I’ve gotten into the habit of humming along with the music coming through the receiver – at least when I know the songs. At the moment, Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” is playing – and I have a little time to think about the message between the lines, since “The next available staff member will be with you [i.e. me] in five minutes.”

Trapped in a keystroke labyrinth

A moment earlier, I had the pleasure of proving my mettle in a round of paint by navigate by numbers: “If you have questions about your home construction loan, press 1 …” Surely, you’re familiar with these sorts of helplines. According to my own research, 95 percent of all German citizens have an encounter with such a helpline at least once every two months. They’re also called “hotlines,” but the word “hot” is a little misleading in this context. I don’t know about you, but as soon as that uninspired music on hold comes on (the GEMA performance rights organization is probably collecting on every tune), my mood takes a darker turn. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to talk to a real human being who could offer some real help?

Is this digitalization?

On the other hand, this scenario invites us to think about digitalization, and what it should be. Undoubtedly, the provider of the helpline (and the provider of the underlying customer contact system) will assert that “the digital solution has markedly enhanced the efficiency of the service process.”

As far as I’m concerned (and I know I’m not alone on this), digital solutions should be aimed at real progress – meaning faster handling of customer concerns, with little or no waiting, and outstanding customer experiences. Solutions with digital “DNA” should feature speed and efficiency that satisfy customers. Or have we gotten so used to waiting on hold that we no longer expect that kind of performance?

Chatbots for helplines

More and more companies are trying out systems designed to provide that kind of progress. The most prominent example is Google. In the middle of last year, at its I/O developer conference, Google showed how its virtual assistant – “Google Assistant” – can make hair salon appointments and restaurant reservations (see link). In this case, the AI system was the caller. Needless to say, however, an AI-based voice system can also make a good service provider. With such systems, service helplines can do away with Q&A pages and forms, and relieve their human customer advisors of many mundane tasks (including the task of having to placate angry customers – such systems can also benefit helpline staff’s nerves!).

Think of a health-insurance provider that has to process 40 or 50 thousand calls a day. Many of the calls involve standard concerns, such as requests for new health-insurance cards, address changes and questions about coverage and premiums. Such calls tend to follow well-known patterns. They can thus easily be handled by digital assistants, i.e. by chatbots.

In a typical call scenario, the bot would ask the caller to state their insurance number. The bot would then open the caller’s file and guide the caller, via a naturally sounding Q&A menu, in classifying their concern. If the classification leads to a standard type of concern such as “replacement for my insurance card,” the bot immediately initiates the relevant service process. If it leads to a more complicated concern, such as an involved question about dental coverage, the bot hands the caller over to a human colleague. And that human colleague has time for a productive discussion, because their virtual colleague has relieved them of all the standard tasks. So, this is a winning scenario for all sides.

But remember the part about transparency

This all sounds great, but one element is missing: transparency. The kinds of chatbots who come on the line today have precious little in common with those old automated information systems (such as the one Deutsche Bahn / German Railways used to use) and those wooden-voiced robots of early science fiction films. Today’s bots say things like “you know” and “uh,” and they can fool you into thinking they’re human. Scenes of bots talking to each other, to the tune of “here’s my digital assistant talking to my provider’s chatbot,” will probably soon be going viral. And my bot may soon be spending my money, without even asking me. Maybe he’ll try to buy tons of goldfish food, even though I don’t even have an aquarium …

So, here’s Rahenbrock’s first law for bots: “A helpline bot must always identify itself as such at the beginning of any call.” By the way, that simply means I expect a bot to introduce itself, i.e. show the kinds of phone manners Europeans expect people to have. Ideally, the bot would also say a courteous “goodbye.” 😉

Here’s wishing you a continued great week. I’ll be back soon!

Yours, Jutta Rahenbrock

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