Don’t blame the bot! AI and the human factor


When I talk about marketing with my customers and at events, I discuss how analytics, including using artificial intelligence ( AI ) and machine learning, can drive improved customer experience. I often say that without analytics, marketing departments might as well just go home.

Technology, data and insights

In today’s world, we are surrounded by data. Companies are trying to collect the right data and transform it into meaningful insights using powerful algorithms. But despite increasing use of technology and increasingly demanding consumers, the basic rules of customer engagement have not changed. In marketing, the equation of “relevance + convenience = acceptance” is still valid. The only difference is that over time, the precise definitions of relevance and convenience have expanded to recognise the importance of tighter targeting and the involvement of real-time technology and more channels.

The basic rules of customer engagement have not changed. In marketing, the equation of “relevance + convenience = acceptance” is still valid.

Most companies have a range of technologies they use to (try to) deliver a consistent customer experience to their clients and prospects. Organisations are doing everything possible to understand their customers, who are their most valuable assets. They are trying to learn about them and predict their behaviour using real-time analytics with high-performing models. The technology allows organisations to use the data, discover the best insights and deploy these insights in daily operations to drive optimal customer experiences.

But is this really true? What about the human factor? I think this could turn out to be even more important.

Technology or talk?

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this.

When my son was born, almost 19 years ago, I opened a savings account for him at my bank and put a fixed amount into it every month to build a fund for him. When he was about 6 years old, he opened his own children’s savings account at the same bank – the lure of the piggy bank, with PIN code security and digital money-counter was too cool to resist. My son used the savings account for a while, but when he turned 12, it became a traditional current account. He never used it as such, because his mother opened another account for him at her bank, but it remained there, dormant.

The day my son turned 18 years old, the money in the savings account that I had opened for him was transferred to that dormant current account in his name, and the savings account was closed. I only discovered that when my monthly deposit to the savings account was refused, and I called the bank to ask what had happened. They suggested that my son should contact the bank because I was no longer able to handle the account on his behalf.

This is where the story gets complicated, and indeed, quite astonishing. The adviser at the bank told my son to go online and apply for a debit card, which was free for students. He could then use the debit card number to create an online banking profile, transfer the money to the account of his choice and then close the long-dormant current account.

Don’t blame the bot! AI and the human factor

This young man needs to decide what to do with his long-term savings account. He could be your next loyal customer, depending on the advise he gets.

Yes, really. A long-term customer (albeit not active), son of another long-term customer, and that was the advice: how to close your account and go elsewhere. Not only a ridiculously drawn-out process for something that should have been very simple, but a huge missed opportunity!

The bank adviser could have asked my son whether he needed to access the funds immediately, or if he wanted to open a student’s savings account or short-term deposit. They could have advised him on how to invest the money for the future – it was a substantial amount by this stage, after all. This could have been an opportunity for the bank to build a relationship and grow a customer with a potential good and predictable lifetime value. But instead he was advised to close the account, so he did.

The future could be bots

Two weeks later, I had a business meeting with the team responsible for customer engagement at that very bank. They showed me all the new initiatives they were launching and how they were using analytics technology (provided by the company I work for) to understand customers and predict their behaviour, including using the latest AI technology to drive smart conversations with customers through digital assistants and chatbots. The contrast with my son’s experience struck me forcibly.

Don’t blame the bot! AI and the human factor

A bot would have significantly outperformed a human bank adviser – at least as far as the bank was concerned.

A bot, it seemed, would have recognised my son, collected all the necessary data from his questions, analysed his behaviour, asked the right questions and advised him on what to do with the money in his current account. It would, therefore, have significantly outperformed the human adviser – at least as far as the bank was concerned. My son might even not have been able to tell the difference between a human and a bot on the phone, although face-to-face would probably be a different matter.

And that is the nub of the matter: Would you be prepared to talk to a robot instead of a person? I think the moral of this story is that the human factor is often forgotten in the process of digitisation. The bot might have done better for the bank, but the adviser answered my son’s question, and helped him to achieve what he wanted (the account closed, and the money elsewhere). A combination, though? The human adviser, supported by the bot that recognised my son? Perhaps a very different story, and a better outcome for both bank and customer.

Organisations forget the human factor at their peril. They need to continue to invest in people, get the right personnel to interact with customers, train them well and teach them how technology can help them to get the best out of every conversation. Bots are not the answer to everything, but neither are humans alone.

Organisations need to continue to invest in people. AI and bots are not the answer to everything, but neither are humans alone. #AI Click To Tweet

About Author

Rene van der Laan

Director, Global Practice - Customer Intelligence

Rene van der Laan celebrated his 20th anniversary in the enterprise software business in 2017. Although he can be considered a software veteran, he is still not done learning, thinking and definitely not done talking. Rene closely follows the ever-evolving world of marketing, customer experience and analytics. In his international role at SAS Institute he evangelises the Customer Intelligence topic - in his presentations he does not shy away from statements like: "without analytics, marketing departments lose their right of existence", "most companies underestimate the value of the customer experience" and he challenges organisations that often have no clue who their customers really are and don't know which direction the organisation should take with their customer journeys. The bold statements are based on the many conversations Rene has with marketing, analytics, digital and customer experience professionals as well as with their respective leadership. SAS' software solutions can help organisations to rise to their challenges, with a joint roll-up-your-sleeves mentality to deliver the ultimate experience their customers deserve - while keeping the organisation's objectives in mind. In his spare time, he also does not just shout from the sidelines, but during the weekends he leads many hockey matches to sporting success or he coaches one of the kids to victory. If he is not doing that, you will probably see him working on his handicap on the golf course.

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