1. Introduction

In any organization, the evolution of customer service is very much a function of technology.  For example, in an age of just voice, you could call the box office and order your tickets, if you knew what you wanted.  But times have changed. We now have a range of marketing and customer service techniques, not just voice but digital as well, e.g. email, SMS and chat.  And these techniques are used in a variety of ways.  On the proactive side, customers are being bombarded with text messages, especially email and SMS.  And there is a softer sell too as web sites and social media pages allow customers to engage at their convenience. Let's start by having a quick look at both of these techniques.

2. Proactive

Proactive marketing can yield very positive results, when it is targeted on the basis of known preferences.  When this information is unknown it will often yield few benefits, and may simply turn off the customer.  Even so, proactive emails and SMSs will continue to be a staple part of any organization's marketing toolkit.

3. The age of self service

With the development of the web and social media, the customer experience has become more enjoyable and less harassing, as we simply set out our wares and allow customers to choose.  Sometimes there is a belief that self-serve systems are good enough for customers to find what they want.  And of course, most businesses and organizations are often happy for their customers to serve themselves because of the clear impact on labor costs.  In fact, try calling any organization to transact some business these days and unless you are plain lucky, or you have the good sense to press zero, or 9 or whatever takes you to a live person, then you may be stuck with serving yourself anyway.

If organizations are clear about their labor cost savings and their websites deliver a half-decent service, then it can be argued that everyone wins.  But not with a lot of conviction.

Most organizations who track web site visitors will know that of the many that come to visit, a majority disappear, sometimes quite quickly, with no positive impact on their business.  And there are two main categories of these disappearing visitors that should concern any organization.

  • Casual visitors who might be encouraged to buy something but are unlikely to do so unless they get at least some help.
  • More importantly, customers who really wanted to buy but just couldn't figure out the options on the web site that would allow them to buy the right product. So they give up too.

Nothing new in all this.  We all identify with these behaviors and have many tales to share.  So what can we do to make customer experiences more enjoyable and crucially produce better value for organizations?

4. The rise of Chatbots

The great thing about self-service is that there is an intent to empower customers and let them make his own choices rather than being sold to.  And with this has come a certain respect for the customer by ostensibly putting him in the driving seat.

But self-service is not a panacea.  Customers can easily be confused or disorientated on a website and may struggle to have an enjoyable or useful experience.

So, bring on AI and chatbots the next big thing in customer service. We could be forgiven for thinking that they provide an answer to all the world's problems.  The undersigned gets regular emails on the subject, including the one received as this note is being written.  It expresses well the current unblinking fervor of the supporters of Chatbots and AI.

Technology has transformed the way customers purchase products and interact with brands.  They now expect seamless, personalized digital experiences when interacting with businesses–and if they don't get it from you, they'll go elsewhere.

How can you ensure your company leverages the power of technology and stays at the forefront of changing customer demands?  The answer is easier than you think.

This article explores the numerous reasons why chatbots are the smart solution for engaging customers and elevating their experiences with your brand – and you'll learn how early adoption can keep you ahead of the competition.

AI functionality and chatbots can certainly improve the customer experience.  There are AI practitioners around who reckon they can solve all the world's information problems, if you can just give them another ten years.  But it is not going to happen. Yes, it has the capacity to make the customer experience much richer, but customers look for very quick results.  They will tolerate some delays while a chatbot tries to guide them, but will quickly get impatient, unless the chatbot nails their question. Nevertheless, it is realistic to expect a lot of take-up of chatbots.  The trick will be when to sense that the customer is not getting what they want and about to sign off!

Let's consider how chatbots might impact some typical experiences in the Arts.

Joe Somers visits a theatre website.  He has a limited budget and is looking for a production he can take his young children to.  He is personally hard of hearing and wants to sit close to the stage with an unimpeded view.  There are a number of potential productions that might be of interest, but he is unable to form a view as to how suitable they are, even though there are synopses of the plays available.

At first sight, you would think that a chatbot might be suitable for Joe and be able to answer all his questions.  In theory it is possible, but all questions are going to get asked and answered serially.  This may take some minutes and if Joe is not sure he may just vanish – off to another theatre site.

Here is another example.  Irina Sutowsky is new to London.

She wants to book some concerts featuring Russian composers and she is fussy about conductors and if possible wants to see Gergiev or Jurowsky, both of whom she knows appear in London occasionally.  She is price conscious and wants to be sure that whatever seats she gets will give her a good view of the orchestra.  If she can't get this balance right, then she won't order tickets. She is new to London and is not familiar with online booking systems and may need some guidance.  And to be fair, her actual knowledge of Russian music is a bit limited so she would love to be able to discuss programs with someone, so that she doesn't get out of her depth.  Without this understanding she won't book.

Chatbots will struggle to make Irina happy.  What she needs is great customer service.

5. Beyond Chatbots and the Impact of WebRTC

What if you gave Joe and Irina the chance to speak to a knowledgeable agent who can address all their concerns very quickly and leave them with a warm feeling that their business was welcome?

In the world of instant communications that we live in it is now possible to easily communicate between two browsers and use all manner of media, including voice, text, video, file-sharing and also co-browsing in doing so.  The technology standard that enables this to happen is something called WebRTC and literally all you need is a browser on a PC or smartphone; nothing else. WebRTC is not new, but in 2017 it has reached a point where the technology has become straight forward to deploy, and crucially, leading browser manufacturers now support it.

Let's see how this might work for Irina.

The chatbot realizes that it is making heavy weather of answering Irina's questions.  This may need some humility on the part of the chatbot, but there are ways of achieving this without losing Irina!

The chatbot then switches to a live agent for a chat session.  This goes well, but the live agent is slow to understand the questions Irina is asking.
She asks if she can actually speak to the agent.  "Sure thing", says the agent.  "I can call you or you can press the phone icon on your chat window and you will be straight through to me."
Literally seconds later they are talking.  Irina is very excited because the agent is clearly knowledgeable.  He co-browses with her to show things of interest. It gives her confidence to choose a concert and the agent shows where she can download a short clip of the music she is going to see.  The agent also shows her how to handle the booking procedures.  All done using just browser technology only.
Irina is now a happy customer who will come back.  And next time she comes back and gets addressed by a chatbot she is likely to ask if she can speak to the same live agent.
The impact of WebRTC working in this way is certain to revolutionize customer service in all sectors.  It will of course bring with it challenges such as how to deal with low value enquiries that take up a lot of time.  But these are management issues that most organizations should take in their stride.  They are just issues to be resolved.  They won't hold back the tide of WebRTC.

What this technology does is to put the customer in the driving seat.  Compared with earlier forms of customer service and selling, it gives them back their self-respect and allows them to develop a good relationship with an organization, on their terms.  This may be anathema to those who believe that customers need to be sold to.  But allowing customers to engage with you when they want and having the capacity to quickly answer their questions using whatever digital or video technique they prefer, is just a great way to do business and have happy customers!

The technology is not complex to deploy and early adopters who deploy the technology sensibly can expect to extend their market share compared with laggards.  Deployment costs should be low and what is attractive about it is that it can be easily trialed and ROI quickly assessed.

Size clearly matters.  Some smaller organizations may find it hard to justify having live agents constantly available but larger organizations in the Arts1, booking audiences in say three figures on a regular basis, may find it a no-brainer.

Michael McKinlay
Sytel Limited

October 2017

6. Note on WebRTC

WebRTC (Web Realtime Communications) enables peer to peer video, audio, and data communication between two web browsers.  This allows for video calling, video chat, and peer to peer file sharing entirely in the web browser, with no plugins.  WebRTC is a free, open project that provides browsers and mobile applications with Real-Time Communications (RTC) capabilities via simple APIs.  The WebRTC initiative is a project supported by Google, Edge, Mozilla and Opera. And, as of June 2017, Apple also announced support in Safari.

1  This article was originally written for IT4Arts, hence the subject matter being focused on the Arts industry.  However, the sentiment is pertinent across all industries.