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Customer Care Needn’t Scare Customers

While Indian companies have used AI technologies to automate routine tasks and enquiries, they must remember that human agents remain indispensable for handling complex issues and empathetic interactions.
Photo: Mohamed Hassan/PxHere

A CEO, while on a business trip to Malaysia, one night received a series of SMS messages from IDFC First Bank notifying him that his account was getting depleted in tranches of Rs 5,000 every 25 seconds. He tried calling the bank customer care but the experience has been nothing short of horrific. The IVR stages took too long while many more thousands disappeared from his account.

Kajaria Ceramics, when it diversified into bathroom accessories, offered longer warranty to lure customers. A faucet got damaged for a customer but it took her over a week to get a technician to come and inspect it, and another 4-5 days to get a replacement from their head office. No use for the toilet for over two weeks.

If you are a Finnair Plus member from anywhere other than Finland, your frequent flier loyalty doesn’t have much of an advantage for last minute requirements. You cannot get anything done at Finnair counters across the globe – only by calling their customer care in Helsinki during their official business hours.

ICICI Bank Emeralde Visa card offers free unlimited international lounge access for customers but in two airports (Warsaw and Tblisi), a customer was denied entry. In the wee hours of the day, the customer could not access either the bank or their partner Dream Folks, besides losing money on international calls to India. Absolutely no toll-free service.

All these incidents happened in the last one month, even as companies were embracing AI in a big way to serve customers “better”. Technology may be terrific for service providers, but it is terrible for customers. Take for instance the AI chatbot of MakeMyTrip. It doesn’t recognise much of anything in a customer’s problem and refuses to pass on the issue to a human representative. AI-powered bots of HDFC and Indigo fare much better as they are better trained for wider aspects of customer care.

Clearly customer care leaders are facing a multitude of challenges and tech is not the only answer. Gen-Z might just pick up the phone and also tweet, while boomers might stick to digital chat – so where can AI fit in? What is the future of customer care in the AI-powered era? The global chatbot market is slated to touch $1.2 billion by next year.

Tomes of articles make us believe that AI is poised to revolutionise how businesses engage with and support their customers. As we look ahead, several key insights and changes are anticipated.

Irrespective of outcomes, customer care has undergone a significant transformation in recent years, driven by advancements in technology, changing consumer expectations, and the rise of AI-driven solutions. Traditional customer service channels such as phone calls and emails are being supplemented, and in some cases replaced, by AI-powered chatbots, virtual assistants and self-service portals. These innovations, at least in theory, offer round-the-clock support, personalised interactions and faster resolution times, leading to better overall customer experience.

AI algorithms are good at analysing customer data, preferences and behaviours to deliver personalised experiences. Businesses must leverage AI-powered personalisation to tailor product recommendations, marketing messages and support interactions based on individual needs and preferences. By understanding each customer’s unique journey, customer care leaders can achieve deeper connections and drive better care.

Customers expect seamless experiences across multiple channels, including websites, mobile apps, social media (Twitter especially) and messaging platforms. It is high time that businesses prioritised omnichannel integration, leveraging AI to unify customer interactions and data across various touchpoints. This will enable consistent messaging, smoother transitions between channels, and a holistic view of the customer journey, enhancing overall satisfaction and engagement.

AI-powered predictive analytics increasingly play a crucial role in enabling proactive customer support. By analysing historical data, customer trends, and contextual information, businesses can anticipate issues before they arise and intervene proactively to address them. How very lovely it would be for customers! Whether it’s predicting product defects, anticipating service disruptions, or identifying potential churn risks, predictive analytics help to stay one step ahead and deliver unexpected solutions for customers.

While Indian companies have used AI technologies to automate routine tasks and enquiries, they must remember that human agents remain indispensable for handling complex issues and empathetic interactions. Businesses should focus on this augmentation with human-agents and leverage AI to provide them with real-time insights, suggested responses, and relevant information to enhance productivity and effectiveness. This will deliver high-touch, high-tech customer care experiences.

What changes must customer care leaders anticipate and embrace?

Investment in AI talent and training: As AI continues to reshape customer care, invest in talent acquisition and training to build AI capabilities internally. Hiring data scientists, AI engineers, and UX designers with expertise in AI-driven customer experience is essential for developing and implementing innovative solutions. Additionally, ongoing training programmes are crucial to upskill existing employees and ensure they are equipped to leverage AI tools effectively.

Ethical AI practices: This is a critical consideration for the AI era, particularly in customer care where sensitive data and personal interactions are involved. Prioritise ethical AI practices, including transparency, fairness, and accountability in algorithmic decision-making. Implementing robust data privacy measures, bias detection mechanisms, and ethical guidelines will be key to ensure trust and loyalty.

Continuous innovation and adaptation: The pace of technological innovation in customer care is relentless, requiring businesses to continuously innovate and adapt to stay ahead of the curve. Embracing a culture of experimentation, agility, and learning is essential for identifying emerging trends, testing new technologies, and refining customer care strategies in real-time.

Customer-centric mindset: Leaders must place the needs and preferences of customers at the forefront of their decision-making processes. This requires a deep understanding of customer journeys, pain points, and aspirations, as well as a commitment to delivering exceptional experiences at every touchpoint.

As we venture into 2024 and beyond, the future of customer care holds immense promise and potential for those businesses that embrace the above insights and changes.

M. Muneer is a Fortune-500 advisor, startup investor and co-founder of the non-profit Medici Institute for Innovation. Twitter @MuneerMuh

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