Customer service and helpdesk operations have always been costly, convoluted processes that no one enjoys—not the customer, the business, nor the individual representative. Customers get upset about long wait times, inefficient processes, and feeling as though they're not being heard. Companies spend millions on what largely amounts to a loss leader -- sometimes even a liability -- often without much success for either effort or investment. A large part of the problem seems to originate down with individual service reps, who are often swamped with highly repetitive administrative tasks that take away from their core function: customer care and satisfaction. The result is inevitable: a 2017 study conducted by Propeller Insights estimates that more than half of its survey's respondents rated customer service as a C or lower.
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But in recent years, companies have begun seeking out ways to help the situation, with some deploying chatbot assistants that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to automate much of the grunt work involved in providing quality customer service, especially at scale. Changing consumer habits and lifestyles has facilitated this evolution as well. The aim of these chatbots is to let companies offer better customer service for less money. More importantly, they can help customers enjoy a better online shopping experience. Helpshift is one company in particular that's been especially aggressive in changing this aspect of e-commerce.
Before we get into what Helpshift is doing, it's important to understand exactly what these new intelligent assistants are and what they do. Chatbots usually appear in the form of conversational assistants, housed on both webpages and in messaging applications. As far as their application to customer service, they use machine learning (ML) algorithms to determine a customer's problem and then recommend a potential solution. Customers talk to these chatbots in the same way they'd chat with a friend on a platform such as Facebook Messenger often with no idea they're actually conversing with a machine.
With chatbots, customers are no longer required to hold or wait in a virtual queue to receive service. If a customer says to a chatbot, "I lost my credit card," then the software can instantly process the query and return a variety of links, such as "Deactivate my card" or "Issue me a new card." Natural language query processing technology is now sophisticated enough that users can phrase questions in whatever conversational tone works for them and the chatbot is able to properly parse and respond. Chatbots can also be integrated with a wide variety of back-end applications in addition to your helpdesk. The chatbot handling the lost credit card, for example, could not only return links, but also route the customer to the appropriate customer care department, either online or via business-grade voice over IP (VoIP), and even kick off security measures that automatically freeze the customer's account until a fix is in place.
The Henry Ford Approach
Abinash Tripathy is the founder and Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the aforementioned Helpshift, a San Francisco-based developer that provides AI customer service tech for companies such as Honeywell and Microsoft. According to Tripathy, the typical customer service operation—including tools, staff, training, and software—can mount enormous costs to companies.
Tripathy's strategy with Helpshift was inspired by a trip he took to a call center in India. "There were thousands of people working in this building on the night shift. What I observed was that humans were not really being humans in their operations. Everyone was sitting there acting like a robot," said Tripathy. "That spurned a bunch of thought, and it gave me flashbacks to when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line and made this whole process more efficient. When the Ford factory went from complete human labor to an assembly line, the cost of the cars went down because automation slashed production prices. And so that was kind of the 'a-ha!' moment for me."
Tripathy and his team have taken the assembly line approach to customer service with Helpshift. "If you look at the old way of doing these contact centers, everything was done on the phone," said Tripathy. "Employees were using an analog device, talking to a customer, typing in queries into a database, and passing that information along."What we've done is provide the capability for the customer to serve themselves inside the digital channel ," he continued. "If you look at a modern customer, they are basically living inside digital channels, and those channels could be a mobile app they use every day or a website or desktop app. But traditional customer service forces them to step outside of that." For Helpshift, the approach of digital assistants simply makes sense for the modern consumer.
What's interesting is that, from Tripathy's perspective, AI tools are helping customer service reps as well. "On the agent's side, we have a bunch of capability that leverages AI to help them on the job," said Tripathy. "Because of how robotic the industry is, the attrition rate is one of the highest of all industries in the world. It's just boring, mundane, repetitive work. With AI, we can change that. The boring, mundane stuff can now be handled by bots." According to Helpshift, customer satisaction rates are also driven up by these chatbots. Tripathy said that according to their customer satisfaction (CSAT) survey results, their customers usually have between a four and five on a five star scale. Additionally, customers using Helpshift have seen an uptick in their iOS App Store ratings.
Service staff can now focus on the more challenging tasks. though that may cause consternation for some helpdesk professionals. The AI revolution is already taking jobs and it's still likely that customer service workers will be made redundant. When asked about the ensuing layoffs that platforms like Helpshift are likely to cause, Tripathy conceded that some staff will likely be eliminated by his team's product. Still, it is interesting to consider how AI will positively affect those who manage to stay in the industry.
You've likely already interacted with an AI chatbot if you've done any online shopping in recent years, and their presence in popular online stores will only grow over the next few years. Helpshift's smart assistant tech is already being used internationally with Finnish developer, Supercell, one of the world's biggest mobile developers, using it to service hundreds of millions of installs around the world. Despite their success, the Clash of Clans game developer has less than 250 employees. They use Helpshift for their customer service needs to help them maintain user satisfaction, without the need for heavy investment in support staff.
And Supercell is far from alone. As today's small to midsize businesses (SMBs) grow, so will their need for effective customer service. AI chatbots offer automated service at a much lower cost than more traditional support operations. It's easy to imagine Helpshift and other companies growing exponentially over the next few years. Costs aside, they may find themselves adopting these tools simply to meet customer expectations. As more customers spend their time in apps and on websites, having phone-based support could be seen as more than just a waste of money: it could be damaging to the brand as a whole.