Customer service: Agents of the future


The most important thing to teach - and the hardest thing to learn - is being good with people. When success relies on reliably producing great customer service, it might be the most important skill of all. Senior Learning Designer Elly Davies looks at the current intersections and possible futures of customer service and digital learning.

I've been doing a fair bit of life admin recently, involving many phone conversations with customer service agents. At their worst, these calls are infuriating, frustrating, time-devouring; at their best they are reassuring, pleasing, even delightful. Excellent customer service can make us happy!

But creating excellent customer service agents is no easy task. In my job, I'm privileged to hear first-hand the challenges faced by large organisations when it comes to supporting and upskilling thousands of people in a short period of time.

When training customer service staff there are some specific hurdles to overcome:

  • Manifold skills and knowledge required
  • High turnover of people
  • Varying shift patterns
  • Frequent updates to products and services
  • Limited time away from the phone

Digital learning is helping address these challenges today - in one of my recent projects we created nuggets of learning, available 24/7, which are designed to be consumed during a 15 minute phone-break - but what's the future for customer service training?

As the automated messages tell us "calls may be recorded for training purposes" and most contact centres use 'listening-in' as a way to get new people quickly up to speed. We can learn a lot from watching, or listening to, an expert but perhaps there's a way to super-charge this passive experience. And maybe that way is Artificial Intelligence (AI).

At the eLN Connect Conference in November I enjoyed Guy Gadney's keynote in which he gave us an overview of his recent digital storytelling projects, including The Suspect. This is a game in which you're invited to interview a suspected serial killer (powered by an AI chatbot) whilst he types back to you from his isolated cell in a police station. It’s gripping and got me thinking about its potential application as a teaching tool.

What if customer service agents could interact with artificial customers? They could try out different approaches and responses without upsetting any real customers. Like scenarios on steroids! My bet is that simulated practice would help a new agent 'put in the hours' and rapidly become more like their experienced counterparts.

"Uh uh" I hear you thinking "AI is no friend to humans working in customer service." Automated agents have been around for years, but are often a bit ropey. If they get clever, perhaps they'll put the human agents out of work.

I have to admit that on occasion I've had better service from Google Now than certain customer service staff, but when I need a clear response in the face of complex web of data, an effective and friendly human usually wins hands down. They also get my jokes (well, sometimes) and offer a bit of banter of their own. The best interactions are still with people.

The value of these quality interactions is becoming something smart companies are actively trying to produce. In a customer-focused enterprise, excellent customer interactions become the product you must be able to reliably reproduce.

It seems that IBM also take the view that humans shouldn’t be written out of the customer interaction process just yet, arguing that their digital assistant Watson is not artificial intelligence but 'augmented intelligence' designed to enhance, not replace, human capabilities. For those not familiar with it, Watson is the business version of Amazon's Alexa, Google Home or Apple's Siri: a digital personal assistant with artificial intelligence. These tools bring together disparate sources of data and use cloud-computing power to make them meaningful for the user… and that user could be the customer service agent.

It's the ultimate in performance support, where an agent can ask questions and get instant responses: What's our latest broadband deal? Does this insurance policy provide cover for bikes kept in sheds? What's the best way to respond to this angry customer?

AI has the potential to teach us a lot and if there's one thing we can learn from it right now, it's that AI is always listening and learning - and we should be too.

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