Chatbots or Humans: Which Will Win for Customer Service?

18 July, 2019


Chatbots or Humans: Which Will Win for Customer Service?

The story of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack accompanied by his sidekick Babe the Blue Ox, looms large in American folklore. One part of his story, popularized by Disney, involves a showdown between Bunyan, yielding his double-bladed ax, and a steam-powered chainsaw.

A competition — “Man vs. Machine” — was held pitting Bunyan and the chainsaw operator against each other to see who could cut the most timber in a single hour. The machine won out, barely. Bunyan, feeling the pangs of defeat, left the area heading for parts unknown.

The battle between man and machine has continued since the invention of the wheel and, today has implications where customer service is concerned. Instead of axes versus chainsaws, however, it’s chatbots against human agents.

Which will win out as the best option for resolving customer service issues? Let’s examine the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The Case for Chatbots

Freshdesk, a helpdesk software company, says there are three roles chatbots can play:

  • As a sales channel – Chatbots are never offline and can sell products even when agents aren’t online;
  • When agents are offline or overloaded – Chatbots can appear only when needed, such as when agents are offline or overloaded;
  • Faster onboarding – Replacing agents and onboarding new agents can be a costly, time-consuming process. Bots eliminate these issues. Bots won’t quit or ask for a raise.

Jay Baer, marketing consultant and author of several books on customer service and marketing, said in an interview that companies with any volume would use technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots, and more are trying. (To his point, statistics forecast that by 2020, 80 percent of brands want to have chatbots operating in their websites.)

“Companies will try and skim the basic stuff off the top with AI, as they should,” Baer says. “It’s a huge financial driver that, done well, is something customers really like.”

“Done well” is a significant caveat, he advises. “We’re in a transitional phase now, and some inquiries will require human assistance due to a bot’s inability to resolve the problem.”

The Case for Human Agents

Chatbots may represent the “shiny new toy,” but that doesn’t mean human agents are obsolete. Far from it.

Eighty-three percent of consumers say that they prefer human interaction over digital channels when trying to solve customer service issues, according to the Global Consumer Pulse Research study from Accenture Strategy.

A similar statistic, from contact center technology company NewVoiceMedia, says 75 percent of customers favor live support from agents for customer service versus 25 percent who prefer self-service and chatbots.

If you believe these numbers, the evidence is clear: People prefer live human interaction to bots when needing to resolve service and support issues.

What role can agents play most effectively? Freshdesk lists three:

Managing complex, technical issues. Chatbot responses are limited to interactions that fit within the parameters of their database or script. Their lack of understanding of and inability to solve complex problems are among the top issues expressed by customers for using chatbots.

Documenting or reviewing product damages. “Chatbots can’t filter through different product damage tickets and try to determine if a refund should be issued to a customer or not,” Freshdesk says. “This job can only be entrusted to trained agents who can document product damages, review them, and decide to refund customers.”

Dealing with angry customers. Customers will get angry at times, and that’s not something bots can address — at least not yet.

A negative customer experience can do much harm to a brand’s reputation, which is why a well-trained, experienced agent can be the catalyst between a bad experience and a good one — and turn an angry customer into a loyal one.

“When a situation becomes emotional or complex, people want to engage with people,” says Dennis Fois, President of NewVoiceMedia. “As businesses add more customer service channels, conversations are becoming more complex, and higher value, and personal, emotive customer interactions play a critical role in bridging the gap for what digital innovation alone cannot solve.”

Fois adds that “Frontline contact center teams will continue to be the difference-makers on the battlefield to win the hearts and minds of customers, and organizations deploying self-service solutions should ensure that there is always an option to reach a live agent.”

Striking a Balance Between Bot and Human

The battle between bots and humans in customer service may continue but, eventually, a balance will be struck. The ideal is for there to be no winner or loser. If that happens, the customer is, ultimately, the loser.

Instead, businesses should take advantage of all that technology has to offer but never lose the personal touch only humans can provide. In that way, the two — bot and human — can play their respective roles to produce the best customer experience possible. Anything less is unacceptable.