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Here’s why automation will never destroy the need for customer service labor…

I was in bed most of last week sick with that flu that’s been going around. One happy by-product of that downtime was that, when I wasn’t sleeping, I was binge re-watching Downton Abbey — that wonderful BBC series about country life and societal in Yorkshire England from 1912–1928.
 
There are many larger themes that play-out between “upstairs” (the family — Lords and Ladies) and “downstairs” (the servants — butler, cooks, footmen and maids) in Lord Grantham’s large household in “The Abbey.” But besides emerging women’s rights and changing roles, the coming of automation and the changing in role of labor in the English economy is on full display.
 
When the first plug-in electric toaster arrives downstairs at the house, the older head cook who had been working at the household since she was a girl, Ms. Padmore, fears for her job.  Her younger, more optimistic assistant cook Daisy is embracing education and other career possibilities as a way to get out of “service,” should the need arise because of the changing times.
 
Politicians in America and Europe and pundits in the business press are happy to scream at you from videos and blog pages over what they claim is one overarching and new theme in our economy: that AI and automation is destroying employment. Of course, this is ridiculous. The push and pull between automation and labor has been happening for millennium, with every improvement in technology.
 
If the inhabitants of Downton Abbey knew it, even a century ago, why are the pundits still screaming?

In contact centers, many pundits have predicted that AI and various other technologies will destroy contact center jobs, much like robots are destroying manufacturing jobs. But frequently, the reality of the marketplace is much more complex than what the talking heads claim.  PACE itself has a member that is on the leading edge of blending AI as both an assistant, and replacement for, contact center agents.
 
Humans are social beings — we will always want to talk to other humans. This is biological fact, just like the other thousands of species on our planet that have their own wonderful ways of communicating. Furthermore, as good as automated translation has gotten, humans communicate with a level of nuance and non-verbal queues that, so far, only the human brain can understand with any level of confidence.
 
Customer service — primarily executed with humans talking or meeting with other humans — is not going away anytime soon. While most people can now envision a time where anthropomorphic AI avatars are talking to humans as holograms, many people are social learners, meaning that they want to learn from other humans.  Don’t worry, the terminator is a long ways away from being smart enough to help you in a satisfying way (the killing part - maybe not so much unfortunately, as the US military has shown).
 
When a business is trying to sell you something, if the complexity of that good/service is such that you need to be educated to make the decision to buy it, (only commoditized products, by definition, need no customer education) then the cost of that good/service must be priced high enough to allow sufficient energy & labor to be spend on educating you in order to make the sale. Accountants have a term for this — it’s called “cost of sales,” and you can see that cost on the P&L statements from businesses around the world.
 
If that product requires customer education in any format, a large portion of those human prospects will want, by the nature of our biology, that product/service education to happen whilst interacting with other humans — because most humans are social learners. And if the business wants to sell to these human customers — then the business has to figure out how to sell to humans on our terms - and figure out where it goes in their P&L.
 
Of course, the same is true if we want to keep our human customers. Customer service will continue to be a human affair, and most large businesses know it.
 
For decades, businesses large and small have worked to reduce customer service costs to the minimum possible, because they know that those calls are not going anywhere. If you’re big enough and your product valuable enough, your customers will call you — they want to interact with other humans. None of us is powerful enough to change the evolutionary biology of the human species in its social tendencies.

Over the past 3 decades, Developed world businesses have been flocking to the developing world to capture the labor arbitrage available in having their customer sales/service calls answered at a lower cost. But even those businesses know that good customer service is not a simple picture — which is why we have tier 1 and tier 2 and tier 3 of service in call centers. That’s our industry’s way of trying to match the complexity of the customer service concern to the cost optimized labor for that call.
 
But the pendulum is swinging in the other direction at the same time as costs are being reduced. Business leaders are starting to evaluate the value of each customer to the business, and making value-based decisions on where that customer should be served.
 
Right now, that trend means that some businesses are employing domestic call centers for certain portions of their customer bases, since domestic labor is more expensive than foreign labor and thus seen as better (This is both a valid and an invalid assumption at the same time — more on that in a future post).
 
But we must extend this value-based customer service decision to interrogate whether or not automation is a factor. Specifically, if the customer is valuable enough to the business, would they trust a machine to serve the customer, or would they prefer a human to do it?
 
AI/Automation, and its supporting technologies, will continue to inject itself into the contact center environment - and I say welcome. Business leaders will always deploy technology when it makes financial sense.  And the spectrum of service possibilities that exist when you combine automation in a human/decision support role, or exclusive customer service role, simply mean that decision makers now have a myriad more tools to deploy when determining the best value/service point on that spectrum of service possibilities.
 
These decision makers maybe chastened to learn that, in reality, this decision is not theirs to make.
 
The answer, of course, is that the customer will make the decision for the business leader — because they are human. Decision makers will try this and that to see what works, and what delivers optimum value for the cost.  This is a good thing, this is our job.  But, If the customer is valuable enough to the business, and the customer wants to talk to a human, then a human they shall have. This will always be true if the business wants to sell or keep that very human customer.
 
So until humans evolve to become unsocial beings, or until a certain portion of us become unsocial learners, the need for other humans to labor in rendering customer service will remain. No matter how sophisticated those AI Avatars can seem, automation will never destroy the need for customer service labor. It’s a fact of our evolutionary biology that no business leader can change.
 
Mike Dershowitz
CEO
Rethink Staffing
 
Email/HO: mike@rethinkstaffing