Smart Service: AI and Customer Relationships

By Tara Nooteboom


When it comes to developing or repairing customer relationships, customer service is one of a business’s most influential outlets. Unsatisfactory service can leave a bad taste in a customer’s mouth and drive them away, while exemplary service creates return customers and brand advocates.

However, as platforms proliferate and customer expectations rise, companies are struggling to scale one-on-one customer interactions appropriately, missing the opportunity to convert customers with problems and questions to return customers through excellent service. For example, customers expect to be able to contact a business via their website, Facebook, or over the phone, at any time of day, and for the representative they speak with to have the basic facts of their account before speaking with them. With customer service being a critical brand differentiator and the risk of soaring operational costs also looming, companies need to strategically handle this high stakes tradeoff.

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It therefore makes sense that as AI becomes increasingly interwoven into our technological landscape, businesses are leveraging its power to solve customer service problems. By helping customer service departments work smarter, not harder, AI is improving both the quality and efficiency of customer interactions, providing “mass personalization and contextual intelligence at scale.”

Although the long-standing light applications of AI in customer service fall somewhat short,—insensitive chatbots, long phone menus, etc.—new applications on the horizon offer an exciting glimpse of the future role AI will play in this influential space.

In some of the most prominent spaces, AI is being leveraged to give human representatives the edge in providing quality service. Of these, the technology with the highest “cool factor” is one developed by Cogito, a voice technology start-up in Boston.

Cogito’s software analyzes raw call audio, scanning for inflection, speech patterns, and customer emotions using algorithms to provide feedback to the representative. “We’ve built a way to numerically measure and understand how well a conversation between human beings is going,” says chief executive Joshua Feast. “Conversations are a lot like a dance,” he argues. “But not everybody is as good at picking up on social cues and it isn’t always easy to know if you’re in sync with each other or not.”

The software acts as a real-time social intelligence coach, providing guidance to the representative on when to slow down, when to interrupt, or when to apply techniques for managing emotions coming from the other end of the line. This technology is a boon to businesses as it not only reduces costs in the form of training time but also improves customer experience on each call, increasing overall customer satisfaction and customer service success.

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However, Cogito’s software is a solution that still focuses on complete human-to-human interface. Other solutions in which AI and human representatives join forces focus on scale, as well as quality. The most promising of these models use AI as an interpretive layer between the customer and the representative, with the algorithms assisting in quickly identifying the relevant question or information and the human providing oversight and a social touch.

KLM, the flag carrier airline of the Netherlands, has drawn a lot of attention for its use of a solution of this kind from a company called DigitalGenius. In this solution, customer inquiries are analyzed first by AI, which suggests a relevant response based on past customer interaction data and the platform being used (long-form for email, 140 characters or less for twitter, etc.). Human representatives, then simply accept this response, or can review, personalize, and override it depending on the situation. Problems are solved more quickly, accurately, and consistently.

For KLM, this tool allows a mere 235 representatives to address 100,000 social media mentions and engage in 15,000 conversations per week. From a company values standpoint, the DigitalGenius model allows the company to stay true to their promise of quick and personalized service. “A personal approach is extremely important to KLM as this is what defines our social media service. Applying AI, KLM can handle a greater volume of questions while still maintaining its personal approach,” acknowledges Tjalling Smit, Senior Vice President.


From a customer relations standpoint, it’s easy to get excited about these technologies that harness the power of artificial intelligence to provide faster, more emotionally aware, and especially, successful responses to customers with problems. However, they don’t necessarily represent the best of what AI has to offer in improving customer relationships in the customer service arena. Where businesses might really set themselves apart in meeting customer needs is by using artificial intelligence to prevent and preempt customer problems in the first place.

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In analyzing customer data, AI can identify patterns and provide past solutions before customers even ask, and this is a growing expectation among customers. Over half of consumers believe that by 2020, companies should be anticipating their service call before it happens and providing proactive solutions. By leveraging the predictive analytic power offered by AI, companies should be focused on preventing customer problems rather than just addressing them well to provide excellent customer service. This power can also be harnessed to allow customers more effective self-service, the mode of service vastly more preferred by every age group. As companies look to AI and the future of customer service, they should focus their resources on engaging appropriately on social media and preventing service calls as best they can.

However, whichever directions companies choose to invest—problem prevention or agent assistance—sophisticated AI tools are helping them excel in customer service to build customer relationships and brand value at scale.


Tara J. Nooteboom is a graduate student in the Integrated Marketing Communications program at Medill. Originally from Southern California, she moved to Chicago in 2010 for her undergraduate studies at University of Chicago and has been in love with the city ever since. She currently lives in the Logan Square neighborhood with her two cats, Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. When she’s not thinking about how to use customer-centric solutions to solve business problems for IMC, Tara is working at her job, developing content for industrial supply company McMaster-Carr. LinkedIn


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