Contact Center Solutions Featured Article

Balancing AI and Human Needs on Customer Service Teams

November 05, 2018
By Special Guest
Natalie Fung, CEO AnswerConnect -

When Google CEO Sundar Pichai showcased Google Assistant’s ability to call businesses on behalf of their customers using artificial intelligence with an incredibly human-sounding bot, there was a collective reaction of mixed amazement and concern.

During the keynote, the bot went through the process of booking an appointment with a local hair salon – calling the salon, clarifying the service required, and going back and forth with a receptionist to determine a time slot before ultimately booking the service. Throughout the whole interaction, the receptionist had no idea that the woman she was talking to was actually a bot powered by Google Duplex.

Anyone who heard to the recording wouldn’t blame her. Google’s bot sounds like an actual person.

However, the value proposition of the bot isn’t necessarily how well it mimics a human being but that it actually gets the task accomplished for a human. A second example Google presented involved calling a restaurant where the host didn’t speak fluent English. This conversation would have been challenging for many people, but the bot was able to get through it seamlessly and without frustration.

There’s another upside to this technology: About 50 percent of consumers are still booking their appointments online, and most of them experience frustration with hold times and a lack of freedom to book appointments at their leisure. This means that companies with online booking are gaining business, whereas those without the technology could be losing it. Customers are likely to opt for businesses with online tools when the alternative is to call another business and possibly wait on hold, leave a voice mail, or have an awkward conversation with a human.

With a service like Google Duplex, businesses could have a more even playing field when it comes to having services and reservations scheduled, but they must take into account the substantial ethical concerns that come with their use. Bots, like self-driving cars, are potentially a major human accomplishment in innovation and technology. And like all tools, they are amoral. Their usefulness is without question and their possibilities are endless, but the ethical questions they present to businesses that want to use them will be difficult to navigate. Consider the following implications for their use and how they may affect your business.

Bots make things easy.

The activity of making an appointment at a hair salon or booking a reservation over the phone is a menial task. If we were all rich and powerful, we would hire a human assistant to do these trivial tasks for us. AI hints at a level of assistance typically reserved for an upper class.

This sense of luxury can enhance a customer’s overall experience. Bots can schedule appointments, answer questions, and assist consumers at any hour of the day, without taking up additional human resources. AI can make a menial task more engaging just by simplifying it.

Customers might not even know they’re talking to a bot.

When you are talking to a bot, you aren’t interacting with a singular, sentient new form of life powered by AI. We’re still very far from that. However, that scenario may be preferable to what is actually happening.

In reality, you’re interacting with a technology powered by servers, web tools, and thousands of lines of code that have been designed to respond to the words you say to accomplish a certain task. The bot is just a representation of a much larger apparatus that is recording everything you’re saying and doing, storing it in large data banks, using that information to enhance services on its network, and potentially using that information for other purposes down the line.

So when a customer is talking, chatting, or connecting on social media with a bot, does the customer have the right to know it’s a bot? A Google spokesperson recently said the company now has a policy to always have bots disclose their true nature when making calls, but does the consumer fully appreciate what that means?

What’s the bot doing with all that data?

A lot of questions arise when you start thinking about this not as an innovation of AI but, rather as a new method of attaining or displaying information to consumers at a nearly unlimited scale. Some of the decisions that businesses will have to make as they start deploying bots into their operations are:

• What data will we collect?

• Where will we store the data?

• Who or what services will we make that data available to?

• What are we trying to accomplish with the data?

• What is our IT strategy for protecting our customers’ data?

These decisions will have huge ramifications for businesses and consumers.

Businesses will not just be able to cut costs and direct their human employees toward value-added activities, but they will also use that data to enhance services – existing or new – for their customers. Customers can benefit from those enhanced services as well as new products and opportunities that may come from the technology. Service teams can boost their ability to serve customers in personalized, authentic ways.

Yet businesses are on a tightrope as they start employing bots that could potentially alienate or violate customers’ trust at a much higher volume than ever possible before. Bots are only as good as the data that fuel them, which means there is an increased possibility for more Siri fails or the need for more and better data.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of “Sapiens”, “Homo Deus”, and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, warns that the combination of AI and biotechnology could “hack humanity” by combining advanced algorithms with a direct feed of data on the reaction elicited in humans. While this may seem far-fetched at the onset, Harari’s descriptions of Amazon collecting data on how long it takes you to read a particular page on your tablet and where you stop reading, as well as what causes you to speed up, offer an intriguing insight. It is not a giant leap to think that Amazon could deliver us an even better suggestion for our next book if the company were also getting data on which passage made us cry, angered, or bored us.

With the promise of an “easy button,” there is virtually no stopping the march toward AI in our daily lives. There are ethical questions worth asking: Shouldn’t we know if we are talking to a bot? What exactly are we sacrificing for “easy”?

It is a pivotal time for leaders, and we need to be decisive when it comes to human connection, ethics, and the direction of our companies. We need to demand absolute transparency when it comes to bots and AI. We must push for rules and guidelines around data collection and use. Finally, we must remain focused on where technology and human connection work well together and when they do not. We also need to stop fooling ourselves into believing that a programmed set of responses can replace a human who can think, feel, reason, and work.

Natalie Fung is CEO of AnswerConnect (, and its parent company, FULL Creative.

A new, upcoming series of events from TMC, the publisher of this article, will look at both the benefits and challenges of solutions that leverage artificial intelligence. These new events including AIOps Expo, The Adaptive & Intent-Based Networking Expo, and The Future of Work Expo. All of the above are under the banner of The New Intelligence and will run Jan. 30 through Feb. 1 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Edited by Maurice Nagle