Bots… am I working for you, or you working for me?

I hate self checkout lines. I’ve always thought of it as an excuse to turn the customer into an employee. Rather than pay for a great experience as I leave their store, they implement a system where I work to buy from their store. I can understand the inherent inefficiency that checkout creates, so certainly realize why creating efficiency may be an improvement. I also respect that many people like self-checkout because they think it helps them get out of the store faster. I prefer the “full service” checkout experience because I like having the human interaction, prefer not to bag my own groceries, and it has a similar time to getting out of the store in most cases. What if the self-checkout wasn’t a checkout at all? You see Amazon and others creating ways to simply go to a store and leave, or with COVID we see touchless drop-off of groceries right into your car. App based services are making it easier to even have the groceries delivered to your home, vs. even thinking about checkout at all. The question is… in which of these cases is the efficiency a positive differentiator vs. a negative? The efficiency needs to create a delighting customer experience, not a poor one.

In the same way we think about the grocery store, we can think about virtual self service. We’ve all engaged in great bot services and poor bot services. More often than not, the bot service comes across as annoying, overly sterile, and not getting what I need. However, great bot services are a serious differentiator and drastically improve the customer experience by increasing the speed of service and improving the human-to-human interaction once it is needed. The best bot services imbue empathy, engagement, and understanding, realizing that AI (at least at this point) has none of these traits truly, but also represent the orientation of the company toward the consumer. Does the company care about creating an experience that treats the customer well? That respects and engages vs. treats as a necessary annoyance?

Here is a good example of a powerful use of a bot in a recent challenge. Several customers of ours asked how they could improve the Smart Restart in a way that improved the employee experience while reducing the spike of requests against their human resources and managers. How could an experience that required empathy and understanding create efficiencies? In order to solve the problem we created a Smart Restart bot that leveraged AI to engage in a smart, helpful conversation with employees about the process of returning to the office. We did this with the Microsoft QnA maker, bot service, and Teams, understanding this was NOT a human interaction initially, but we wanted to help answer common questions in a more complete way than going to a FAQ (which we also helped create). A few questions you can see below… “What is Concurrency’s Smart Restart Plan“, “How are you deciding this?“, “Can I still work from home?‘… notice how the answers include empathy, such as “We’re going to take it a step at a time. Yes, for the time being, absolutely work from home. As we feel more comfortable returning to the office, we will. If you are uncomfortable, or can’t return to the office, we respect that.

The impact of a bot like this can be very positive, as it provides an adjunct to the team and also conveys that the company cares about them. This can help combat negative perceptions about Smart Restart.

Let’s look at a second example… this story starts with my dad. Growing up in a small town he loves having personal relationships with the people he does business with. He doesn’t like being treated as a transaction… he likes it when they can establish an understanding that makes the experience better. His favorite saying about this… which we kid about regularly is “they know me here“. Part joke, part serious… we knew that the guy at Mickey-Lu Bar-B-Q was going to make his char broiled hamburger exactly the way he wanted it, while giving us a couple extra treats from the bowl. This represents what we want from our business relationships… understanding and friendship.

This type of relationship is where coffee shops have been trying to succeed for years. You like it when the barista knows you, gets your drink, knows your favorite pastry. There is a reason we don’t just get our drinks out of automated dispensers… we want some kind of relationship with the people we work with. This took a hit with COVID and also took a hit as people became more mobile. How to approximate this experience when people aren’t coming in stores, or might go to a different store? How can we provide a Customer Experience (Cx) vs. just a single-store User Experience (Ux). Here is how Starbucks (among others Collectivo being my favorite) worked to address this same challenge.

This works off a real-time personalization engine based on time, where you are, what you’ve bought before, etc.

With this we’re not able to replace the human to human experience. As I said before, a machine doesn’t have true empathy or understanding (although perhaps to a degree). We know that the machine can’t understand us the way another person can. It can however represent the understanding of a person to another. It can represent the respect necessary to another person. It can connect us to each other when we need it. The best bot implementations (as well as self service in general) exist to create a GREAT experience for the consumer. If that experience is NOT great, the bot MUST have a handoff capability to a human that raises the experience based on all known data to that point. If the handoff is poor, you’re left unsatisfied. Think about when you’ve filled out information and then got on a call and the person required the same information again. If however the person answers, “hello Mr. Lasnoski, I understand you’re looking for XYZ and the bot couldn’t help you! Let’s figure this out!”. Then, I’m much more supportive of the strategy.

We can make customer engagement platforms which are more efficient to operate and better to experience for our customers. We can meet their expectations while raising to delighting in their experience. Check out how we built the Smart Restart bot as an example and let’s move this experience forward! At least so I don’t have to stand in self-checkout lines anymore!

Nathan Lasnoski

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