I once answered a business telephone line with our company greeting and I was very focused and perfect—perhaps a little too focused and perfect. The lady on the other end paused and then asked, “Are you a real person?” I laughed and assured our customer that I was indeed a real person.

We have all been there one way or another. It can be frustrating when you don’t know if the voice on the other end of the line is a human or a virtual human using so-called artificial intelligence. But I think that the frustration goes deeper than that.

Whenever we are prevented from speaking with a real person our customer experience degrades, however slight. That’s another reason why Dilbert got it right with the character “Mordac, the preventer of IT services.” Too often, companies seem to be trying to prevent a positive customer experience. Perhaps that is just one of the reasons why we see such an effort to refine AI. We want AI to replicate the human-contact experience in all aspects so that the customer experience does not degrade, however slight. The idea is that if AI can handle the customer’s request efficiently and convincingly, then the organization saves money and a positive customer experience is preserved. Everyone wins, at least in theory.

As much as I understand that conceptually, scientifically, psychologically, and commercially, I remain somehow unsatisfied and of course that directly affects my customer experience. It’s both an overt and a subtle situation, but it’s definitely not good. Ashlee Vance very accurately captures the experience (“Life, or Something Like It” Bloomberg Businessweek. September 11, 2017, pp. 42–47):

Even successful customer-relations experiences with chatbots, ones where the bot gives the right answer, tend to leave people dissatisfied because they feel like they’ve been pawned off on an inferior being.” (p. 46)

Technology is a wonderful thing. I value it for all its magnificent benefits and I continuously use it to the max. Yet we are human beings and we crave human interaction, especially during those moments when we have a pressing issue to resolve.

AI can do many things because it is the culmination of technology. Nevertheless, it remains technology no matter how intensely we might try to convince ourselves (and our customers) that it is human. Note the quote: “because they feel like they’ve been pawned off on an inferior being.” And what does that do to the customer experience?

About James Meadows

Currently I serve as a training team manager for Johnson Controls at a customer-care center in Kansas City. Additionally, I am a business consultant, a freelance corporate writer, an Assembly of God ordained minister, a Civil Air Patrol chaplain, and a blogger. I believe we are living in the most fascinating times of human history. To maximize the opportunities these times present, I have a passionate interest in leadership development and organizational success, both of which I view as inextricably linked.

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