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AI and automisation should be embraced, not feared’ says Jo Causon, CEO of the Institute of Customer Service

A report, published earlier this month, by the International Bar Association suggested that innovation in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics could compel governments to legislate for quotas of human workers and disrupt traditionally accepted working practices.

It goes on to suggest that around a third of graduate level jobs that many individuals and employers take for granted today may be consigned to history because machines or software will be more ‘work ready’ than someone fresh from the education system.  And the report also warns that the idea of creating competition and differentiation between organisations, based on customers’ service experience, could be eroded as robot production lines and intelligent computer systems undermine the need for human activities.

There is, in my view, no denying that automisation is a force for good where it removes activities which, in reality, are purely transactional. Imagine someone wanting to purchase a train ticket or pay their Council Tax; both are simple scenarios requiring logic, with little emotion, real problem solving, communication or innovation skills and competences required and there is no reason why a computer cannot be deployed to perform these tasks.  Doing so will free up individuals to undertake what are, in my mind, real customer service roles and activities , creating more job satisfaction – and therefore, engaged employees – as the people in these roles can be retrained for customer-facing roles that require a greater level of interaction.

The fact is that, with the world of work changing fast, organisations should focus on appropriate people development so that employees have the right skills, competencies, capabilities and training to be able to deliver in their roles and also find well-paid, productive work in the future.  The new apprenticeship levy does encourage people development at one level, but good employers will be those exploring ways to upskill their people across the full range of today’s multi-generational workforce.  Put simply, automisation and AI will not just affect new entrants to the labour market and to ensure customers’ experience a seamless and more than satisfactory service across every channel and opportunity, employers should be considering how they ensure the workforce is fit for purpose now and capable of handling tomorrow’s future.

This is because, as more jobs are automated, employees will be redirected into customer roles that robots and machines are unable to fill.  Customer service skills rely on emotional intelligence, problem solving, innovation and empathetic connection and this is especially true given that the latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index shows that behaviour and attitude is more important to customers than price.  The issue with robotics is that they currently lack the sound of authenticity, so there needs to be a blend of human interaction with automation to give customers the experience they crave. Of course, I appreciate that the real opportunity with AI is that it learns and develops and this can only serve to really revolutionise work and interaction.  However, there will always be the need for customer experience professionals who have the skills and competences to deliver alongside greater automation and AI.

That is why it is increasingly essential to provide employees with better customer service qualifications that help make this transfer into the ‘intelligent economy’.  Indeed, a recent Institute of Customer Service report, called ‘The Customer Knows’, highlighted how the skills that will be required will revolve around customers’ desire for both a personal assistant and a trusted advisor, how the ever expanding range of devices and materials connected to intelligent technologies will transform the way people interact in a personal and professional capacity and how this will fuel the demand for greater personalisation.  In other words, whilst technology can address their desire for speed and efficiency, the capabilities that employees require will need to focus on emotional intelligence, with competencies focused on how to read and manage different personality types and emotional states.

There are still some who doubt the benefits that AI and automisation can bring.  Yet both should be embraced, not feared.  Neither can fully replace relationships between customers and suppliers, but with the right skills, the right training and the right balance, both can be used to create more meaningful customer relationships that build trust and loyalty and, ultimately improve organisational performance.

Jo Causon is CEO of The Institute of Customer Service