Relationships or solutions: How collaboration can succeed in an AI world

Recently, a lot of trending customer journey analysis around user experience, marketing and technology, is attempting to take humans and their cost out of consideration, replacing them with technology and automation. But what are we pursuing with such an effort?

Apart from optimisation and efficiency, are we pursuing the anticipation of emotions or feelings in a given circumstance and expecting technology and automation to take care of it? Interestingly, most successful brand stories are about human beings who have gone out of their way to help customers.

One reason for that is "help" between brands and customers is based on empathy rather than just solutions. So, it is paradoxical to find a lot of content surrounding AI focused on making contact "more human" and more "naturally conversational". With that said, are we expecting AI to drive customer-brand relationships rather than solutions?

Customer experience issues are more centered on what people didn't or wouldn't do. Automation appears great as a hygiene factor but to what extent, is the bigger question. There are some good examples of how technology and automation enable us to deliver better brand experiences.

For example, KLM airlines has taken on a symbiotic approach in using AI. It aims to tackle the volume of customer requests through AI because it can be overwhelming for its human agents and allows its human agents to focus on intervening at the right time. Thus, delivering more proactive, personalised and thoughtful customer service when required.

Therefore, AI chatbots become a support, an assistant to the human agents rather than competition. This is a simple example but a great insight into how a tech solution should work - timely, correct and personal (when required). Surely, the role of tech should be able to enhance the ability of people to connect better with customers and deliver better experiences rather than take over the relationship entirely.

Even Malaysia Airlines has recently unveiled a new flight booking chatbot to smoothen the customer journey. Earlier this year, klia2 introduced "Scan Self & Fly" bag drop units in order to ease the volume of travellers' checking in and avoid delays due to queues. Even with all these developments, the interesting point to note is that the relationship between the customer and the airline still weighs heavily on the in-flight service, which can be much more personalised and requires human intervention at various levels, working in collaboration with technology.

So, is the AI solution centred around collaboration between humans and technology? The answer is an emphatic "Yes". In fact, AI learns from human beings and their experiences, hence, collaboration is undoubtedly necessary. It also seems to be about counter-balancing the limitations of each other (humans and AI) rather than fighting each other off.

Collaboration is a smarter way to solve a problem and how we do it depends entirely on customer needs, emotions and how they interact with our product/service. The real concern is that while creating an interesting solution, for some inexplicable reason, we tend to overlook people’s emotions and reactions to that solution and the solution takes centre stage.

We must remind ourselves that efficiency is not a substitute for empathy. In fact, empathy is critical for any relationship that ultimately thrives on advocacy.

Advocacy is another critical component in the consumer journey which is trending because of automation. Everybody thinks advocacy is about getting that automated CRM plan right, get the customer into the eco-system but it’s not. It’s about the customer experience journey and how much can you learn about your own consumers along the way.

Let’s look at Grab and Airbnb for example, we have all experienced their services. Advocacy is critical for these business models to thrive. They are advocated because of the ease of service, but look closely at the collaboration between people and technology. Technology is an important function, a great glue that keeps all three stakeholders together on one platform - host/driver, passenger/traveler and the service provider - but it does not necessarily build a relationship between all of them.

Our Grab and Airbnb experiences are primarily determined by the people you encounter through this service. These platforms are so heavily reliant on customer-driver and customer-host relationships that they use every possible way to make the experience as transparent and detailed as possible, opening all channels of expression: customer reviews, ratings, different grades of members, compliments in the form of badges and rewards.

In fact, Grab has even started sending messages about mutual respect between drivers and passengers, being on time and safety measures, moving towards advocating and maintaining a healthy relationship between the driver, passenger and themselves. Of course, these businesses have also taken advantage of these healthy relationships and diversified into other revenue streams as well.

New age businesses realise that the real value is in creating more meaning for customers. They don’t want to be seen as apps or platforms or companies, they want to be seen as useful partners playing a real role in people’s lives. The truth is that they are much more focused on customer experiences rather than customer service, irrespective of being in a product or a service industry.

To sum it up, this is how collaboration has a good chance of working:

  • Find the problem that you want to solve;
  • Figure out why you want to solve this problem, what value does it add to stakeholders involved and how is it delivering that value;
  • Don’t look at the short-term value, gauge the long-term impact;
  • Map the customer journey, compare the current customer journey versus the desired customer journey versus the ideal customer journey. It will highlight realities, probabilities and possibilities;
  • Push your people to do extraordinary things for customers. They make great stories;
  • Find small details through which you can differentiate your customer experience and overcommit to deliver them;
  • Don’t do everything, try to keep CX simple;
  • When should people intervene and when should AI. Find that balance;
  • Ensure technology helps to speed up the processes;
  • Don’t compromise on empathy, it’s the foundation of every relationship;
  • Advocacy will follow if you get the above right.

In the end, we need to use AI to amplify the effect of people, to complement and shape our customer experiences, not define and control our customer relationships.

The writer is Moiz Rangoonwala, head of strategy, Zenith Malaysia.