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AI tools: the limitations of technology in customer service

“Technology is the answer to everything.” But is it?

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Feb 28, 2022

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9 min read

There’s a lot of material out there excitedly announcing the ways technology can solve all of our problems. In the world of customer service for example, it’s hard to move for explanations of how AI and machine learning integrations can “maximize your operation” and “give customers lightning-quick response times.”

In a sense, they’re not wrong. AI certainly does have a lot to offer your customer service process, including for eCommerce businesses.

But it’s important to remember that customer experience is about quality before quantity. And AI tools are seriously limited when it comes to some of the most crucial parts of your customer service. In fact, 60% of respondents to one survey reported that they’d rather wait in a queue for a human agent than be immediately served by a chatbot.

Which is why we’re going to explore some of the biggest limitations facing AI tools, and explain why the best customer service experiences continue to rely on the human touch.

What are customer service AI tools?

The AI tools most commonly used in eCommerce customer service today include chatbots on websites, social media, and SMS. AI might also be used to automatically suggest self-support articles, or ask a series of prepared questions to categorize and route a customer request. Equally, agent-facing AI tools can help teams source the most useful information or most common solution for a given issue.

First up, AI does have a role to play

Don’t get us wrong, AI has a useful place in customer service. It can be effectively used to route customer requests to the most appropriate agent, to solve simple problems via a chatbot, to prompt a prospective customer to get in touch when they’ve been browsing your product pages, or even for self-service shipping queries, amends, or notifications.

It’s a great addition to a human customer service experience. But it’s by no means a replacement.

AI tools are severely limited in some key areas of customer service

Here are the biggest limitations of AI customer service tools – and why human-centric customer service is still so important for business success:

1. Dealing with time-sensitive requests

When managing urgent requests or problems that need to be fixed fast – such as an incorrect shipping address, or a wrongly ordered item – using chatbots can put even more strain on an already distressed customer. AI tools lack the intelligence to update the order right away, or even to recognize a time-sensitive request without making the customer go through the scenarios and fill in "routing" details themselves.

Context-ready AI still has a long way to go, and there are few things more frustrating for a customer in a rush than having to wade through a chatbot’s simple interface – when they know only a human will be able to help.

2. Reading between the lines

Every good customer service agent strives to deliver outstanding experiences, which in practice means not only meeting but exceeding customer expectations. This requires a commitment to quality before quantity, and a focus on the depth and efficiency of a resolution.

An AI tool is unable to understand and address the customer’s real needs that lie behind their query. For example when a customer asks “where is my order”, simply sending them their tracking link is unlikely to be the most helpful solution. A skilled human agent will instead open the link and check for themselves whether the package is moving and when it should be expected – and will often identify an issue that has triggered the customer’s query.

This type of experience improvement is possible across your customer service function, with a human agent able to ‘read between the lines’ and address customers’ real emotional and practical needs in a way that an AI tool cannot.

3. Making complex decisions

While AI can deliver a reasonably satisfactory experience for a significant proportion of your more run-of-the-mill customer service requests, it’s almost impossible to script a memorable customer experience for more complex requests. These might even require case-by-case decision-making only possible with a human agent. For example, a knotty customs declaration problem, a return policy extension request, or an entirely unique shipping issue.

Not only do these kinds of decisions typically require escalation or collaboration with other team members, but most customers also want immediate solutions. Getting a problem solved in just one interaction was voted the most important aspect of a good customer service experience in a Microsoft survey, attracting 35% of responses (and closely followed by a knowledgeable agent). With their reliance on automated – and typically pretty generic – replies, AI chatbots are simply unable to tackle these kinds of requests, which means the problem will need to be referred to a second point of contact.

Without a quick resolution, your customer will feel dissatisfied and the quality of their experience will suffer.

4. Understanding language subtleties

Today’s AI tools perform pretty poorly when it comes to reading customers’ emotional states in their language. Irritation, sarcasm, and irony are generally completely lost on a chatbot, which can lead to the AI making an already sensitive situation worse. In the most extreme cases, being confronted by an AI tool may drive an irate customer to simply leave, never to return.

On the other hand, a human agent can understand jokes, give personal advice, and express an opinion. Not only do these things enable the agent to make smarter decisions related to the customer’s issue, but they’re also what make a service experience enjoyable. If you can form a personal connection and interact fully, your customers are likely to feel a deeper sense of connection with your brand.

The benefits don’t stop there: A human agent may also pick up on what’s really going on with the customer, and prove able to address the problem that lies behind this specific complaint – building loyalty and identifying possible business improvements in the process.

5. Adopting your brand’s tone of voice and values

In a crowded marketplace, there are thousands of eCommerce businesses vying for attention and space. To stand out, you’ve gone to huge effort to develop a unique and charismatic tone of voice that captures the essence of your brand and products.

So it would be a real shame to waste all that time by using a tool that speaks to your customers in a completely different tone of voice, especially given that a customer service experience is likely to be their biggest exposure to your brand identity. A skilled human agent can study and adopt both the values and tone of voice of your business, enhancing your brand image and making sure that it remains consistent across every channel. So that your customers know what to expect, and can be sure that’s what they’ll get – every time.

A hybrid customer service approach is the answer

As we’ve said, AI tools certainly have their place in customer service, and we’re not saying you should completely cut them out of your operation. It’s true for example that chatbots can be a useful addition to a successful customer experience – tackling the most straightforward queries, providing self-help resources, and helping to funnel customers to the correct agent for a full resolution.

But it remains the case that AI tools are no true replacement for interacting with a human agent, in terms of the personalization, complexity of decision-making, detection of subtleties, and the ability of agents to both truly represent your brand voice and values and deliver a meaningful, enjoyable interaction for your customers.

If you are thinking of using AI or machine learning tools, it’s important to spend a substantial period of time training and testing those tools. So you can ask yourself if they’re truly providing the fully rounded service experience that your customers deserve.

Learn more about how AI tools can enhance the work of designated human customer support agents by booking a free discovery call with Dream Support today.

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