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Should customer-service processes be automated as little as possible?

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A point that was raised by Max J. Pucher on this forum, should customer-service processes be automated as little as possible?

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  • Wow, how did you find that buried in those posts, they're like a bazillion words long ;)

    Automation is one of those Grail quests that was kicked off in the early days and followed blindly. Now decades later people are still hunting but nobody understands why or the reason it all started in the first place.


    Trying to automate everything is a mugs game. And whilst some extremely repetitive processes will lend themselves to automation the fact that customer service is in its nature pretty chaotic, forcing people to conform to one or two paths is just dangerous from an experience perspective.

    And it’s the same for business rules within processes. They are guidelines, a means to allow the business to define a loose path for a process to take before a decision needs to be made but where constraint and auto-reflex starts to appear is when an organization hardcodes business rules into process and workflow applications and it all becomes so inflexible.

    True customer service lies in actually interfacing with the customer. To do that, you don't use a system. You use people.

  • Agree with Theo. Customer service requires people interacting with customers but customer service processes should exist to a certain extent. Certainly internally for the vendor providing the service. It is also beneficial to incorporate automated status updates to customers along the way. Depends on the business and type of service but a good mix of people and technology is a good idea.

  • Yes, processes involving request (changes, updates, deletions, new sales) can and should be automated. In fact, many of my customers use BPM for streamlining customer service and customer care. Examples that come to mind cover billing (change of address, change of name, change of amount), claims (issue resolution, appeals, greivances), sales (new customer on-boarding, name change, product change, etc).

  • Theo, you just gave me the bait for some lively debate... :) You said ;

    "Trying to automate everything is a mugs game"

    Since you used the word everything, I will forgive you but in reality, I could argue, you SHOULD try to automate everything that requires no/little human discretion and has an impact on someones time/money by not doing so. To the readers here, in your own house ;

    Do you Vacuum or Sweep with a broom?
    Do you use a remote control or get up to change TV channel/Volume
    Do you Drive an automatic car? Manual? Or drive a Bike?
    Do you use a DishWasher or Wash-up in the sink
    Electric Shaver or Old fashioned blade?
    Typewriter or PC and Printer
    Hot keys (or copy and paste) or manually retype

    You see, these are all things, that without them often costs us time/money/hassle and where something can be automated, it really ought to be. Just because it's automated, doesn't mean you actually save time but more often, it either does, or gives you more time (often better quality time) to do something else.

    And that's where I think most businesses go wrong. There is still LOADS to do in most enterprises to automate things that should be automated allowing people to spend the time savings on the most important things. I once heard a Call Center manager tell me that were not interested in cutting AHT (Call times) and after some lively debate, even he admitted that keeping "manual" work in the process just because was not common sense. Use the time saved to have a better conversation with the customer, more focused and more relevant - OR cut the time - customers get frustrated when they have to spend too long doing the simple stuff have little patience when you want additional time to "up-sell".

    So, I say, AUTOMATE the hell out of EVERYTHING that can be automated (sensibly) and use the time saved to either cut costs or promote a better process / customer execution / experience.

    • LOL thanks David.
      I could argue that each one of your points still requires manual intervention though ;)

      Empty the vacuum
      Press the button, or worse still, look for it lost down the sofa
      Load and empty
      I use a blade
      Still need to type it out
      Both ;)

      "AUTOMATE the hell out of EVERYTHING that can be automated (sensibly)" - possibly, but nobody truly understands when to stop, and so it becomes obsession. And there's a perfect example in itself, the Exec running on AUTO-pilot trying to automate everything without thinking it through.

      • Yeah, a little tongue in cheek with the Automate the Hell out of Everything :)

        But vacuuming does automate most of the sweeping. Neither automates the central collection and emptying of the rubbish!

        Steer - only because the automated steering tech isn't here - YET!

        Dishwasher automates the washing of dishes, 100%. Neither puts plates on shelves!

        And so you reaffirm a point I make a lot too. Which is to automate the bits (often the easy bits are the most time consuming/costly/annoying/prone to error bits. With Desktop Automation, we automate more often the simple things first which results in savings EVERY single year from that day forward.

        So, I think we agree, Automate the Hell out of what's easy and provides easily large justifiable benefits. But, If trying to automate everything prevents you automating anything then you probably really are in a mugs game!

  • What is a customer service process? Every process should service a customer isn't it?

    I think in this case processes are meant where there is a lot of people-interaction with customers (who, yes really, also seem to be people).

    What should automating mean in this case? Some kind of Siri? That's indeed unpersonal and inflexible.

    So I think the contact between people shouldn't be automated, it must be a real conversation. But to support this communication automation will be used for that I think:

    - information will be looked up in a CRM system
    - Conversation will be done via skype
    - Next appointment will scheduled in calendar system
    - Promised documents will be generated within Document composition tools

    So even if supporting automating things are used customer contact must not become an automatic pilot. (If customer asks Y then answer is X, ELse send flowers)

    • Well, I'm 90% with Emiel on this one. Most companies should be very much focused on customer-oriented processes (customer service will be part of all of these). But there are some large institutions that actually have very important processes that don't touch customers for a long time. Think automotive design/prototyping (at an engineering level, not at a look/feel/emotion level). There are interactions with suppliers that are the suppliers' customer service processes in a sense :)

      • Agree. Some (parts of) processes indeed can benefit from good old tayloristic automation (If, at least you agreed that the results of these processes must be delivered efficient and with no variance)

        Was thinking about this question while vacuum cleaning (after putting the dish in the dishwasher and switching of the telly) and isn't it about empathy? Trying to understand people's feelings, ideas, worries etc?

        And trying to automate empathy....will look it up in my c++ manual

  • IT should be the slave to business and as such there to make life easier for all to do a good job. As such automation in customer services has its place organising information to be presented to the authorised users at the right time to allow informed and intelligent interactions with customers. The customer should be left with impression the supplier is on the ball with good interactions and communication/documentation all correctly handled on time with good escalation handling when things go wrong. Intelligent automation has a big role in helping to achieve this?

  • Thanks Peter, for being one of the few people who actually still reads things. The main problem is that people look for simple solutions to complex problems. And sometimes look for complexity where there is not any. And if they find it they decide that it is not good and 'automate the hell out of it to get rid of it.' Good luck with that.

    Complexity is not bad but it is human. To remove it means to dehumanize. It is already hard enough to get good service when you have human interaction. It is nearly impossible when the human is guided by well-defined processes! Without human interaction you do not get service, but you get 'serviced'.

    I think it is the biggest lie of all to say that humans are freed to do more important things by BPM automation. Yes, we use vacuum cleaners and dishwashers, but we still decide when to clean and what we clean how. BPM is no such tool but it removes our ability to decide as the decisions are precoded in the flows. And if you want to make it flexible enough to prethink all possible varaitions then it becomes way to difficult to implement and to change.

    The question is WHAT IS AUTOMATION? 99% of people understand it as using BPM flow-diagrams. Providing a library of forms, pre-structured documents, orchestrated data access to backend systems, goal-defined case structures all provide automation, but it does not remove human decision making and it allows human interaction as is needed. And that has to be available across all communication channels. Human interaction is the non-commodity stuff that makes a brand and creates customer loyalty.

    And in terms of not-customer touching processes ... there aren't any (except for manufacturing). Also other employees are customers of internal processes. Innovation and creativity can't be automated in any way. In the end it is all about communication in purposeful (=goals) collaboration. There aren't any flow-like processes, just contexts that we communicate in and resources that we need in that context.

    Efficiency can't be achieved by doing the wrong thing cheap. Cheap standardized processes are wrong for the majority of customers and therefore they may cost little money but they are not effective and not efficient. That makes efficient, automated BPM processes an illusion. And all the free time that the service agents now are supposed to have, what can they do with it and in what way does that enter the customer record and in what way does the organization improve through that? Not at all. They are just asked to perform more of the standard processes faster ...

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