Call a major company, and you’d be surprised if a real person answered the phone. It’s more likely that you’ll first be told which button to press based on your question. Pressing that button opens a new menu of options, which leads to another branch, and so on.


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For customers, the process can be frustrating but as you’re pushing your keypad, the company’s computer system is collecting information about you. By the time you finally get to speak to a customer service rep, you’ve already answered most of the questions that she would have needed to ask. She can read your selections then focus on the task that the computer can’t accomplish: identifying the details of the issue and solving your problem.


This process describes customer service automation in one of its most common and simple forms, and the benefit to the company is clear: the less time staff spend asking routine questions, the more time they’ll have for the more difficult problems. The company will become more efficient.


Call automation is just one part of a growing trend in both sales and customer service. That trend includes asking customers to select answers from a website FAQ instead of sending an email. It includes autoresponders whose content and sales recommendations are based on contact lists segmented by purchase, demographics or registration. It includes algorithms that make special offers based on previous choices. It even includes chatbots that turn up in the corners of websites and use text and natural language processing to create the illusion that the customer is talking to a real customer service rep.


All this artificial intelligence can be very effective.


When Smyths Toys, a toy company in the U.K. and Ireland, increased its online marketing, it found that it also generated significant volumes of abandoned shopping carts and customer service tickets. The company turned to an automation software firm to solve these problems. According to the software firm’s case study, the toy company focused first on tracking the customer journey on the website, and in particular on the checkout form. When customers contacted a customer care representative, that rep could see where the customer had been and precisely where they had got stuck. That quickly improved the response rate. When a customer used a promo code that expired before the transaction was complete, for example, the rep was able to quickly identify the problem and honor the discount.


The software was then able to use the data it collected to reach out to customers using chat, SMS, or voice based on their on-site experience. Because it was able to predict customer needs, a simple form of artificial intelligence, nearly two-thirds of the customers offered live chat messaging responded positively, reducing the number of support tickets.


It’s no wonder that a 2018 survey by The Economist Intelligence Unit found that 90 percent of respondents expected AI to improve growth, and 27 percent had already incorporated AI into key processes and services. Nearly half had at least one AI pilot project already under way.


Many of the automation systems made by firms like HubSpot, Salesforce and Genesys (which powered Smyth’s Toys’ software) are aimed at medium to large businesses. Service organizations generally use them to gather information, to automate routine customer issues such as resetting passwords and tracking orders, to route cases to the right agents, and to pre-fill fields for both agents and customers.


But complete systems aren’t cheap and their implementation requires re-training staff and making new technical demands.


Even small firms though can begin automating their processes themselves:


  • A FAQ page that predicts and answers common questions can be bought off the shelf.
  • Phone call branching software might irritate customers but its automated data collection improves efficiency and is easily available.
  • Customer tracking through website cookies can reveal bottlenecks, allowing the business to deliver better options and build a smoother path from recommendation through selection to checkout.
  • Contact list segmentation is a staple of email marketing and doesn’t require powerful, state-of-the-art technology to use. It just demands an understanding of customer demographics and a marketing team that can produce targeted content and track the results.


Even small firms have plenty of options to implement simple automation and AI-powered sales and customer service processes. But small firms also have an advantage: they can talk to customers directly. Automation works best when it improves a personal connection, not when it replaces it.


There still needs to be a friendly voice at the end of the phone.


About Joel Comm


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As an Internet pioneer, Joel has been creating profitable websites, software, products and helping entrepreneurs succeed since 1995. He has been at the frontlines of live video online since 2008 and has a deep expertise in using tools such as Facebook Live, Periscope, Instagram or Snapchat to broadcast a clearly defined message to a receptive audience or leveraging the power of webinar and meeting technologies.


Joel is a New York Times best-selling author of 15 books, including “The AdSense Code,” “Click Here to Order: Stories from the World’s Most Successful Entrepreneurs,” “KaChing: How to Run an Online Business that Pays and Pays and Twitter Power 3.0.” He is Co-Host of The Bad Crypto Podcast one of the top crypto-related shows in the world and has spoken before thousands of people around the world and seeks to inspire, equip and entertain.


Web: or Twitter: @JoelComm

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