Can CX save us from a bleak future?

Dystopian visions send Nick Bush a warning about the future of customer experience

I misread a message from a colleague yesterday telling me that Gordon Tredgold’s article on 15 things teams hate about you was on LinkedIn. I clearly hadn’t woken up as I thought the article was 15 things you hate about LinkedIn. To which my initial reaction was “only 15?” – harsh maybe but I then realised I had a beef with most of the social media I use. (OK, I know LinkedIn doesn’t really class itself as a social media app but you get my drift.)

But that doesn’t stop me from spending considerable chunks of my day on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram (I went cold turkey on Twitter a while back and feel much better as a result)…

And then I read an excellent, if slightly depressing post from Chris Skinner entitled “We are the robots” which asked the question “Is technology making us slaves” and in which he gives an account of a ride from an airport in a driverless car to an automated check-in his hotel. No human contact at all.

Welcome to the future… a bit like science fiction but without the jetpacks and flying cars.

Now that’s what I call dystopia

Back at home I’m being entertained, if that’s the word, by a great TV drama series, “Years and Years”, a family drama set against the backdrop of social, political and technological turmoil in an imagined future UK. It contains some brilliant writing and some great actors but what strikes me most is that its speculative future is entirely believable, being based on issues that concern us today: migration, climate change, populism and the unstoppable rise of technology.

With The Handmaid’s Tale getting into its third season and Black Mirror tempting as a Netflix binge, dystopian drama is back on my agenda.

But are these dire warnings couched as entertainment making a difference?

My use of technology – Twitter aside – has not reduced a bit since I can get the following benefits from that little device in the palm of my hand:

  • News from various sources.
  • Music and live radio.
  • Connections with friends and family via Facebook and WhatsApp.
  • Emails whilst on the move.
  • Work connections via LinkedIn.
  • Optimal navigation of the roads and transport networks
  • Instagram (I still haven’t worked that one out fully as a trip to my page will show).

…and being a Brit, the weather app is a constant source of info – and a source of disappointment as another British summer fails to appear.

As a piece in the Economist reports, over 50% of the world is now online so my experience – my addiction you might say – is by no means unique. But I worry that with the many advantages of technological connectedness come the disadvantages of social isolation and a lack of human connectedness.

Customer experience to the rescue?

The drive to automate customer experience continues with a recent Gartner survey showing the over half of respondents expected AI to have the biggest impact on CX with chatbots and virtual assistants coming second. I’ve no doubt that automation can improve and streamline customer experience but increasingly I wonder what the cost will be, particularly where the needs of vulnerable customers are concerned. Increasing automation still requires the customer to do most of the work and if there are elements in process that the customer doesn’t understand or if something breaks the streamlined flow, bots are unlikely to help.

I’d like to see CX maintain a focus on human-centred interactions which may mean kicking against the trend for mass automation and focusing instead on the emotional capital that customers invest in your organisation. Customer journeys that pay attention to this and voice of the customer programmes that go deep enough to understand it will make sure that even if our phones become more and more integrated with our daily lives (a character in Years and Years has her tech integrated with her body) we won’t lose what makes us human, and ultimately what makes life worth living.

This post was originally published on The Next Ten Years

Why tech help is a no-go area for AI

The one area where AI and bots are most needed will be one of the last to be automated

How do you handle a tech crisis? Pretend it’s not happening? Shout and scream at the malfunctioning system? Break things? All of the above?

If you’re a self-sufficient person who thinks they still understand how computers work you may be tempted to crowdsource a view from the many helpful pages on the web. However, the minutes tick by while you’re reading this stuff and the minutes then become hours. Before you know it you’re in danger of making no progress with half a day already gone.

Who can help me? you wonder, suddenly realising that, if you look hard enough on your suppliers’ sites you can find a helpline number.

Help! I need someone…

I’m pretty much describing my day the other week when I found my laptop with the hard disk equivalent of a tachycardia: disk drive whirring away like crazy with near 100% disk activity. Defeated by many similar-but-not-quite scenarios on various help forums – and having fruitlessly re-set my Windows 10 installation (here’s my one bit of tech advice: do not do this unless you have no alternative) – I decided to become a case for my hardware (Dell) and software (Microsoft) suppliers to sort out.

The Dell experience was passable with a hardware expert guiding me through a diagnostic process to determine that the hard disk was functioning normally, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth: the PC was (just!) out of warranty and extending it to cover software support for a further two years would be almost 50% of the cost of the original system last year.


I declined their ungenerous offer, figuring that Microsoft may well be the culprits since I had noticed that a regular Windows update was not loading and, from a diagnostic process that we can call “gazing forlornly at the control screen”, I deduced that it was stuck in a loop of repeatedly downloading the update and failing to install it.

I came to this conclusion during the long breaks waiting for the first Microsoft techie to help me out, not aided by the remote-control software he was using to take control of my screen failing to load at his end. As the breaks in our conversation got longer and longer I suspected he was juggling several customers at once and, after a fruitless 90 minutes, rang off, had a cup of tea, and had another go.

Chat line

This time I went for the chat option. This proved to be a more effective approach and Microsoft could even pick up the earlier case given the reference number (I shouldn’t really be surprised at this simple piece of cross-channel working but I was – I’m sad that way). Whilst the earlier remote-control software still wasn’t working the agent used a different one, did a lot of techie things relatively quickly (that’s relative to me and the previous agent) using some old-style MS-DOS commands and – hey presto – update installed and disk access back to a healthier level.

So, what did I learn from this tale of woe?

1) Tech help is outcome-focused

No one asked me what I was trying to achieve when the error occurred, and this is probably one area where, as a service provider, you don’t need to understand this as it’s blindingly obvious: my desired outcome is nothing more than getting back to where I was i.e. a working PC.

2) …a high skill level is required

The problems that arrive at a Windows tech help desk are many and varied as you can tell by the profusion of solutions offered on the web for many similar-but-not-quite problems. Each implementation of Windows seems to have its own quirks, so a high level of intuition and knowledge is required to get to the root of the problem.

3) Chat beats phone every time

I have come to this conclusion following some interactions with other providers. Chat gives the process of technical help more structure and allows you to get on with something at the same time (also true for the agent). Phone demands more of your attention and is particularly frustrating in a multi-tasking agent environment.

4) AI could help, but it’s a long way off providing a substitute for the human factor

Given the multiplicity of problems and solutions it’s possible to envisage a time when machine learning could supplement a human agent, analysing possible solutions from a range of previous problems. But I doubt you’d get as rapid a response to the problem as I got (albeit on the second attempt).

Maybe a better use of deep, machine learning would be in the design and testing of Microsoft’s Windows updates to make sure they don’t cause the problem in the first place.

After all, the best way to improve technical help is to reduce the number of reasons a customer has to contact them in the first place.

AI: are you being duped by Google’s Duplex?

Getting a realistic view on the rise of the machines means being aware of the hype cycle

Film buffs will know that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – a film that consistently ranks in my personal top 10 favourites. Its plot included that great sci-fi trope, the Malign Artificial Intelligence (AI), in the shape of HAL, the on-board computer who attempts to kill the two astronauts and then take over the Jupiter mission that forms the main portion of the film.

Well, the year 2001 has come and gone and the only Jupiter missions we’re making are unmanned so, once again, the rate of technology development and innovation relative to its fictional counterparts has let us down. The tech-prediction industry is subject to massive distortion and hugely unreliable: whether it’s in fiction or building on current innovation it’s an act of imagination after all.

So how much weight should we give to the current hype around AI?


Google demonstrated a pretty impressive new piece of tech the other week. Dubbed Google Duplex this piece of Benign AI can do some things that a PA might do like book hair appointments or get you a table to meet clients, even book a conference room. On first view, the tech is impressive. The software has the ability to imitate a human’s natural foibles in speech – even the umms and ahs. It is impressive in that it appears so natural. That said, the range of functions it can perform is still pretty limited and to be honest, the amount of time saved is not going to be huge – who finds booking a hair appointment a problem? And it also raises ethical issues about whether you disclose that it’s a machine who’s talking to you.

I’m not going to second-guess Google’s future plans, but Duplex, as impressive as it sounds in demonstration is not particularly revolutionary, at least not in the outcome it creates. It’s not a “game changer”. At least not yet.

My question is “does this advance in technology create any new opportunities for improving things for my customers?”

Answering this question involves steering a way between hype and thinking creatively about the possible outcomes. I can see the cost-saving implications over time as this sort of technology becomes more available, cheaper and smarter, but consistently great customer experience is a challenge even for highly talented human beings so can a machine seriously contribute?

Robot wars

It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to picture a situation where Google’s Duplex assistant can be the recipient of calls. Indeed, it’s easy for the sensationalist journalist to produce headlines such as “Rise of robots threatens to terminate the UK call-centre workforce” – as was recently reported in the Guardian.

The cost-saving potential alone shows it’s a threat to existing ways of managing customer queries. But customers are notoriously fickle. Some will have no issue with an all-knowing virtual call centre assistant without the almost obligatory wait whilst others will be less impressed with the lack of genuine human interaction. Does automated response increase customer experience or reduce it?

For quite a long time, anything other than a simple interaction will require hand-off to a trained human service representative. People who are not clear communicators may find the experience frustrating even though technology’s ability to understand a wide variety of communication styles is improving.

Whilst it’s not a dramatic rise-of-the-machines Terminator-style threat just yet, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for it.

Keep thinking

And by plan, I mean imaginative, creative planning that continually tracks and assesses customer outcomes in the context of what developments are underway. In meetings last week with potential contributors to The Next Ten Years – with a deep interest in AI-driven innovation – we examined possibilities created in different markets.

In banking, it’s easy to picture an extension to services like Monzo’s which allows customers to keep tabs on spending across various categories with automated proactive review on past spending patterns, income etc to provide a more holistic view of your finances and spending possibilities. I can imagine the app being extended from money management into lifestyle management (which from a consumer customer perspective is the business banking should be in) tut-tutting at you if you buy an extra round of drinks and immobilising the car if you don’t blow into a tube before attempting to drive home etc etc. It might also tell you the planned holiday in the sun is going to be 2% more expensive now because it’s linked your planned spending patterns to alternative providers giving you a stream of alternative options whilst you make your decision.

The individual apps to accomplish most of these things are mostly available now, but the potential sifting through of alternatives that can be done automatically without human intervention is the next development that will help identify critical information in relation to your needs.

The possibilities are endless but the distortion , false information and misaligned results  are not only ever present but increasing difficult to manage as the information world continues to explode with endless alternatives.

Think outcomes

Even in my made-up example I’ve moved from the customer outcome that Monzo current delivers which could be phrased as “keep tabs on my spending” to “help me stay on track financially, now and in future” or “help me manage my lifestyle”.

The deep understanding and alignment to customer outcomes is where the opportunity lies. Sure, advances in robotics will change the nature of the call centre in the next few years (very likely within three to five) but viewing these as cost and efficiency improvements with a same or slightly improved experience is to miss the wider opportunity.

A view on Customer Success i.e. the delivery of desired outcomes and enhanced experiences will be absolutely critical to maximising the impact of any new technology. Starting with the customer, looking beyond the immediate hype and taking a realistic view of technology progress will help – as futurist Roy Amara put it:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

Or as Michael Hammer observed:

 “We need to prepare for a world that cannot be predicted.”

Actually, the nearest we can come to prediction is the needs, wants and preferences of our customers. We need to place considerably greater focus on that to help harness the sheer potential that AI offers.

Keeping focused on customer outcomes will keep you focused on the long run. It’s possibly the only predictor that you can rely on!

My week in CX #8

Delays to last week’s customer experience owing to some pressing client work means that I’m casting my mind back to about a fortnight ago… if only I had some memory enhancement to help me… more on that later. It was a week in which tech matters seemed to come to the fore, particularly in the area of artificial intelligence (AI) where the future may be arriving, albeit slowly.

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