People not Bots are to Blame

Nicola Collister
October 9, 2023
10 mins

I’ve spent my entire life innovating, creating & delivering Service – It shouldn’t be this way?

I’m proud to have started my career and spent much of it (over 25 years) working to help some great brands deliver on the promises they made to their customers.

Perhaps I was lucky that I started my career at the RAC where I was instrumental in creating the new and often iconic service centres you see alongside, for example, the M6. I was told that we were there to serve our Customer’s brilliantly. When they became stranded nothing mattered other than the reassurance that it was ok, help was on its way and that we would get them back on their journey, safely – The Knights of the Road – that was our strapline – I felt very proud to be part of that.

Needing To Make A Profit Is Nothing New

The other thing I was lucky to learn – Thank you to Dean Nicholson for teaching me these things at the RAC – was that business is about making profit. With profits you can provide certainty and opportunity for Colleagues and Customers alike. So in addition to business growth, how efficiently and effectively are you delivering this – ensuring you are doing things ‘right first time’ – sending another patrol or a contractor back out was a poor experience as well as costing a lot and potentially eroding any profitability.

But it’s like at some point the two things I knew to be certain got separated. Providing great service seemed by many in the ‘C’ Suite to be believed to be incompatible with making a better Return On Investment (ROI).

I will say again, throughout my entire career I have shown this to be a complete fallacy. Great Service improves ROI (more cost effective and delivers revenue growth) which has now been proved time and time again through various global research studies by Forrester, KPMG Nunwood, Deloitte to name a few.

Are Bots Ruining Service – Especially now

I did a post on LinkedIn: Bots Are To Blame. It was prompted by a piece written by Sir John Timpson – Chairman of iconic and renowned UK retailer Timpson which is now run by his son James Timpson whom I have met a few times at various North West events or his restaurant in Anglesey.

To paraphrase, Sir John was commenting in a piece he wrote for the Telegraph where he had seen a demonstrable drop in service quality after an initial lift at the start of COVID. This is to an extent endorsed by the recent UKCSI results posted on the 6th July 2021.

This post got a lot of response and comments so thank you to: Mark Billingham; Stephen Yap; William Carson; David Clarke; Martin Hill Wilson; Morris Pentel and many others for your comments on my post last week.

At the risk of a massive generalisation there was a mixed reaction to ‘Bots are the Blame’ and more agreement that poor service and the decline in service is due to a wide range of reasons. These boiled down to the following:

1. Poorly designed experiences that haven’t been reviewed end to end e.g. something has just been bolted on or stuck in:

a. Bad bots are a result of bad design

b. Bad design has its roots in functional not end to end; sold by a tech business as a must have; or cost driven ,decision making (let’s put X in as it will stop Y)

“Bots which look to stop people talking to humans regardless of need are where I believe the issues lie”

“The cheery 1950’s voice of the IVR still lets me know “we’re experiencing a higher than usual call volume due to the Coronavirus outbreak” more than a year after the first national lockdown. That’s really disconnected, and such an easy fix”

2. Executives who are paying lip service or don’t really care about the experience as they are too focused or pressured to deliver Revenue YOY growth or an EBITDA number no matter what:

“Given the ever increasing trend in retail (and other sectors) to ‘lean’ further & further into the transaction over the last decade rather than joined up thinking around experience I’m not surprised at this report”

3. Customer Contact functions despite their name don’t drive the contacts, it is failings across the end-to-end journey that does that (less than 10% are usually contacting about poor contact centre service), however poor data & insights into these drivers continue to put pressures on contact centre or customer services director having to do MORE for LESS as the other business areas are NOT held to account for the failings, they are driving

“Bots aren’t to blame, that’s just poor management, a good bot can be a great experience”

4. Technology is not fit for purpose – many businesses still cannot join up the experiences through data, channels and interactions – 15+ years ago the industry obsessed about OMNI Channel and we are still talking about this and hearing horror stories of how service colleagues have to navigate 8+ windows on their screens due to different systems they have to work their way around to get to the answer a customer needs – oh and by the way they are usually a colleague on minimum or national living wage!

“If you’re thinking about automation as primarily to reduce cost to serve, you’re thinking about it the wrong way. Automation done well enhances the experience, for example by efficiently routing calls to the right human. It is not a replacement for a human”

“It sometimes gets worse when after finally getting through to a human, I then get a standard customer support scripted response to notification of problems, which are often technically nonsense”

Brilliant Basics – We need to Beat the Bad Out

Whilst the post was couched in CX terms, or more accurately got a lot of response from the CX community, I don’t want to go down a CX angle. I will however borrow a phrase we use a lot in our engagements: Brilliant Basics

For me good design is a fundamental skill. A brilliant basic if you like. Far too often services are designed in a vacuum, set in the context of the end point ‘Customer Service’ but labelled ‘Customer Experience’ as that was the new fad several years ago.

Put simply, this is not good enough! So here’s 4 steps that can help beat the bad out …..

  1. Recognise the important elephants in the room
  2. Treat the CFO as your best friend
  3. Following 3 simple steps – See Below
  4. Collaborate widely outside of your functional remit

1. The Elephant in The Room – Service. A cost of failure to be marginalised

I used to be renowned for calling out service that was akin to putting ‘Lipstick On A Pig’. But I’ve moved on and think I will be making more use of the Elephant in the room – which has now donned a bright pink tutu and is dancing to rave music.

Very few if any sectors have emerged unscathed – certainly in terms of service but also more widely – from the pandemic. We have also had the government shore up the economy to a predicted level of £500+billion.

Now let’s remember two things. The government spends our money (even if it borrows it first) and it is going to want it back and secondly, business is about profit, even charities have to make money.

This spills over into (and in my direct experience always has in most organisations) a view that service is a cost that should not be there and as such (and perhaps because the metrics are so easy to capture) is under constant pressure to get rid of itself. VERY few organisations genuinely see, let alone realise, the benefits this often most emotional of contact channels can bring to their companies

2. The Chief Financial Officer – The Your Best Friend

So, this sort of brings me back to where I started. Understanding and creating the link between Brand/Customer Centricity and the ability to drive a better ROI.

If you correctly understand the relationship between the bits of your brand that drive most value and the role your colleagues play in servicing it, then you are on your way to being an asset your CFO is going to want to listen to versus a cost to be squeezed – which affects every decision that you make.

And the single most fundamental skill you need is the ability to Commercialise Service – build a ‘Value’ based Business Case encompassing what the cost of service is and the value it brings, or the opportunity costs to improve through the full end to end impact of the service changes you are proposing, based on real metrics, solid assumptions and ideally the direct involvement and support of all the key stakeholders.

3. Three Step Solution

a. Identify the problem – be specific and seek out root cause

b. Design the solution – build scenarios using design thinking to get to winners

c. Create a business case showing how the solution delivers a better ROI

“Rules based bots are great for simple tasks whilst AI bots are great for customer service issues. However, both have to be created, developed and reported on!

Very much like a customer service advisor”

This last point is critical – because it universally gets hit with the cheaper hammer. Better might cost more in service, but deliver better customer value (both immediately, or over a defined period that is proven). It may also be cost neutral, but require investment, and also identify up & downstream savings in broken internal processes that are bleeding cash.

“Good design and UX Testing with real people can solve 80% of the problems which can improve customer retention and grow life-time customer value. Bad UX design will lead to expensive customer acquisition costs”

4. The Ability to Think & Act Wider Than Your Functional Remit

This is something we see again and again. In fact, it has led to a canned response when people ask how we build cross functional / hierarchical collaboration in our solutions “we get people from different levels and different functions to come together to collaborate on creating a solution to a problem”

I am not being trite here. Yes, there is a lot of nuance into what goes into this to make it sing, but you would be amazed how many times our initial request for say, finance participation, are met with why?

We very rarely find these mixed groups have the problems some internal people perceive they will have, besides the benefit far outweighs the odd teething problem.

It’s Not The Bots – It’s the People

True Artificial Intelligence is yet to exists (there is a test – nothing has passed it yet), so all bots are only as good as the people who built and trained them and given the systemic issues I have pointed out in this article, it is no wonder that Bots can fail – they have been badly bought and badly trained.

And Finally…

So what I hear some of you say. Well, the so what for me and the team at Custerian is simple. If you want to succeed in connecting your business purpose to the outcomes your customers crave and buy more of from you in preference to competitors… then you need to step up to the People (Not Customer) Experience plate and engage in the sort of business wide outcome orientated change that makes the most of your greatest asset – Your Colleagues – by engaging and aligning them to the things that deliver the greatest return on investment for all stakeholders – including Customers.

Something we have been actually doing since my days at RAC… . and what we created Custerian for – Re-Purpose For Profit.