My new workmate is a robot

Mikaela Dery


written on November 9, 2017

Automation is the easy part. Getting people to work alongside machines is much harder – but these companies are succeeding.

You sometimes wonder how senior executives at the big firms ever get any work done, so often are they being interviewed for work trends research. Take this latest example about the impact of Artificial Intelligence in the workplace.
Lexus, Alibaba and Uber were three of the big global companies studied for a recent report from MIT about the perceptions of AI. They found that thoughtful implementation of AI can significantly enhance both customer and employee experience.

For the study, the researchers classified high performing, or “iconic” companies as “businesses that both maintain the highest levels of customer experience and have world-leading brand recognition.”

Of these, they found that, “91 per cent of respondents from these firms indicate that they use AI solutions to some degree to increase customer satisfaction, as compared with 42 per cent of overall respondents.”

And counter to the contemporary fear that the widespread use of AI will result in redundancies, researchers found that, for these firms, “automation technology supplements and extends the capabilities of their customer support teams, rather than simply replacing call centre headcount.”

Felix Lui, head of the customer experience business group at the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, says “AI helps all of our customers with inquiries, and resolves half of them completely. Many of our sellers use it not just to solve after-sales complaints, but for before-sales contact as well.”

Alibaba was an early adopter of AI, where Lui is in charge of 3,000 customer experience team members, including 1,600 frontline agents and 400 process engineers. He says that AI is expanding the functionality of Alibaba’s inquiry management channels and cites  an example where a chatbot was able to identify, and resolve a logistics breakdown in half an hour, “Our human resources simply do not have the speed and flexibility to respond like this,” he says.

Despite the success of AI for him and his team, Fui maintains the importance of the integration of humans and technology. “I am not confident that the machine can always make the final call,” he says. “Humans need to make the call – but machines can check and support those decisions.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Monika Schulze, Global Head of Customer & Digital Experience at Zurich Insurance.

“Every customer expects Amazon-level completion times,” she explains, and notes that “customers will often willingly choose automated channels and chatbots to speed things up.” But, citing the importance of analytics in increasing lifetime value, she concludes, “technology cannot be looked at as the solution to customer experience challenges, but as an enabler,” she says, “it is culture that plays the more crucial role.”

Executives from Uber, on the other hand, felt that while the marriage of technology and human talent are important in customer service roles at the moment, this might change in the future. Researchers found that, “Uber believes that human interfaces are still essential to optimal customer experience, but this does not blunt its appetite for investing in automation, predictive analytics, and machine learning-enhanced applications.”

Even so, Uber’s Global Head of Community Operations, Troy Stevenson, believes that it will be some time before technology is able to replace the nuanced understanding required from teams to service customers at the highest level. “Automation is the easy part,” he says. “Getting agents the right insight to resolve problems is still hard.”

Read what HR professionals think about the future of work and find out more with AHRI’s research report ‘Future of Work: HR Hopes and Fears’ (exclusive to AHRI members only).

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