Jeffrey Rayport, co-author of Best Face Forward: Why Companies Must Improve Their Service Interfaces with Customers

Q. We've seen how automation and customer service have become intertwined during the past decade. How is technology-- like speech recognition-- playing an integral role on the "front line" of business, often serving as a customer's first contact point with a specific company?
A. In a way the phone is the first service channel that has come along where we are finding ways to fully automate the delivery of services and the expressions of a company's brand and their whole service proposition in customer-pleasing fashions.  We are not at a similar point, obviously, where a variety of robotic forms can serve the customers in restaurants, bank lobbies, or grocery stores other than with touch screen displays and flat panel devices and so forth, and those really aren't very personal. But by using speech recognition technology over the phone, especially when it is well implemented, companies can make the automated delivery of services very personal and very effective.  As illustrated by the appropriate use of speech recognition that combination - bringing down the cost of serving customers while at the same time pleasing those customers with better performance - should be the goal of every company. 

Q. In your book, Best Face Forward, you discuss how technology is "revolutionizing and humanizing" customer service. How can companies successfully combine the efficiency of technology with the personal touch humans provide to serve customers?
A. I think that is a great question.  Let me offer a couple of observations first. One is that there is no such thing as, in effect, a hard and fast rule that says machines or automation can't be personal. Nor is there a hard and fast rule that says that people are, by definition, very personal and human or otherwise. By that I mean that a bad implementation of a service interaction by a person can be impersonal and awkward to customers; and a bad implementation by a machine can be off-putting to customers. Of course we know that, in fact, humans have for hundreds of years delivered outstanding service where there are well-trained and capable people.  But finding and retaining those well-trained and capable employees is becoming increasingly difficult in many industries, both because these employees are in short supply and because they are increasingly expensive.  Increasingly - and this was stimulus for writing the book - we are in a situation where machines can perform service functions quite effectively and do it in a very personal way.  The main thing that lots of corporations don't remember when they implement speech recognition systems is that the fact that just because a machine speaks English doesn't mean that it is going to provide a satisfying experience any more than speaking to a 17-year-old clerk at McDonald's who doesn't want to be there - and incidentally speaks English - doesn't guarantee a satisfying service interaction. The bottom line is that if you have a keypad-driven interactive response system over a phone line designed in ways that confuse, frustrate, or annoy customers, then simply putting a speech overlay system on that doesn't improve things. It probably makes things worse because the speech recognition raises expectations of an effective and humane service interaction. If the system itself is not customer responsive then you have the worst of all worlds.

Q. Are some jobs better performed by humans, others by automation?
A. Absolutely. In the service sector today, especially for large scale mass market service providers like airlines, hotels, car rental firms, financial services companies, and so forth, a great deal of the work serving customers involves rote, mechanical, or repetitive activities that require drawing upon large stores of resident data under time pressure and with a need for pinpoint accuracy.  At the same time, there are still elements of the ways that they serve customers that require a nuanced or context-rich interaction.  This clear and rational division of labor describes generally a way of determining what machines and people can each do best.  There is a set of tasks that machines obviously perform very well and that humans have a very difficult time performing, even if those people are very smart, very capable and very well trained, like manipulating or accessing large amounts of data or taking in a great deal of customer-entered data. Then there is a whole other set of tasks that have to do with building relationships with customers, expressing emotions, dealing with exceptions, being proactive instead of reactive and otherwise, essentially establishing the basis for trust. All of that is effectively done largely by well-trained and capable human beings.  What is getting really interesting - and speech recognition is at the heart of it - is that the increasing sophistication of technology and the increasingly networked nature of that technology are causing the line between these two spheres to shift in dramatic ways, opening up opportunities to deploy increasingly effective technology to serve customers, while at the same time allowing people to concentrate on those areas where their contribution drives the greatest value.  

Q. Harvard Business School Publishing and Nuance teamed for the "Improving Customer Experiences" symposium and one of the themes was "winning customers with people and technology." We've seen research indicating people are growing more comfortable with using interactive voice automation/speech systems and speech, in general, has evolved tremendously during the past decade. What are some basics companies should remember - from a customer experience standpoint - in making automation/machines a part of customer service?
A.  Some of my colleagues on the Nuance panel - representing Alaska Airlines and Western Wireless - brought up some basics that are important to keep in mind as these technologies are implemented in service interfaces.  Simplicity is important.  We've all found ourselves caught in voicemail hell, with a seemingly endless maze of call transfers to perform simple tasks or get questions answered, and companies need to draw from the range of their experience with customers - those people in the company that know the customers best - to make sure that what a company has implemented doesn't make things worse than what you had before.  Both Steve Jarvis from Alaska Airlines and Hope Schoenbacher from Western Wireless made the obvious, but important point, that bad service experiences in their industry often came down to customers wanting an interface that was honest and wasn't rude.  And those goals are achievable - to the point that some of the extremely personable and sophisticated voice avatars in place now, whether it's Bell Canada's Emily or Amtrak's Julie, have real followings among customers, many of whom believe that they're actually talking to a real person.   With simplicity should come coordination among the various interfaces with customers.  We've learned that the vast majority of customers touch two or more of a company's interfaces when they go through a buying process.  And we've also learned that companies lose customers when the experience of moving from one interface to another proves frustrating.  How many times have we all reached an automated phone system that asks us to enter our credit card or account number, only to then encounter a call-center employee who asks the same exact question?  Putting machines and people to work at what each can do best means making that combination truly work together when the situation calls for it. 

Q. You have referenced, in your book, specific trends related to technology evolution and "a time of unique opportunity for establishing strategic advantage."  You also describe "the people rich workplace." What does this mean?
A. Bank of America is a perfect example of where there is automation - with kiosks, automated teller machines, and other self-service devices - but also great person-to-person customer service.  They have revamped their lobbies so that there are real people working proactively with customers. Seeking out those who may need additional assistance rather than waiting for them to stand in line.  It is this use of machines that helps create more jobs - jobs that are more interesting and interactive - for people, while automating the more mundane, repetitive duties.  While there are some companies out there that we would recommend go to fully automated service formats, the impetus is not centered on the money saved, but rather on what works best for the customer. 

Q. Many worry that automation is just another threat, similar to outsourcing, what would you say to that?
A. It is true that automation can be perceived as a threat, but it can also work to improve the jobs that are available and to free up time for the work at hand.  Giving more time back to a customer service agent, frees them up to work more closely with their customers.  Getting closer to customers will typically result in higher levels of customer satisfaction, greater loyalty or account retention, and improved financial returns.  Creating a context in which people have more time to be people on the job is what front-office automation - the automation of routine tasks that today keep most front-line service workers busy most of the time - is what this revolution in the service sector is all about.

Q. As you know, today's companies face a constant battle of keeping costs down while keeping customers happy and providing optimal customer service. Since providing optimal customer service is key in acquiring and retaining customers, will the challenge become easier for companies during the next few years - especially as technologies, such as speech, continue to evolve?
A. Simply put, no.  Business never gets easier.  Indeed, competition is rising constantly in every sector you can name.  More brands are competing for fewer customers, who themselves have less time, so the bar simply rises inexorably.  To compound that reality, technology is providing ways to improve outcomes for customers, thus raising their expectations, while addressing the needs of businesses in new ways.  Making intelligent use of the possibilities that front-office technology such as speech is creating in the service sector to tap new sources of productivity and differentiation is crucial.  That means looking for opportunities where companies can lower their costs of delivering a "unit" of service and/or of customer interaction, while increasing their value or performance for customers - in short, ways to improve efficiency of operations while increasing effectiveness in serving customers.  That's not only a productivity frontier; it's also a competitiveness frontier.  It's about using front-office technologies to drive cost improvements and top line growth.

Q. Although this will be published on the last day of the conference, is there anything else that you would like to add as you approach the start? 
A. We are the beginning of a new period in the annals of human experience with technology.  For the first time, we are encountering technologies - what we characterize as "smart devices" connected to "intelligent networks" - that are capable of performing higher order customer interaction or relationship management functions in business that, until now, have belonged exclusively to the province of human effort.  With machines capable of doing more than merely speeding up rote service tasks, we are seeing technology finally do for services what previous waves of automation technology achieved in agriculture, manufacturing, and back-office data processing.  It's an automation revolution that economists have long argued would never come to services, because of the human factor-dependency of service delivery.  Now, that's all changing.  We are on the brink of an era wherein machine intelligence is not merely building relationships with customers in limited contexts, such as online, but interacting with us throughout the physical worlds in which we work and live.  That's a big deal, and speech is the first "demonstration platform," if you will, of technology's efficacy in such new front-office roles.

Jeffrey F. Rayport is Chairman and Founder of Marketspace LLC, a subsidiary of Monitor Group. A faculty member at Harvard Business School for nearly a decade, Rayport focuses his research on new information technologies and their impact on companies' service and marketing strategies, particularly in information-intensive industries. As a consultant, Rayport has worked with executives and corporations around the world, specializing in the development of breakthrough service strategies for network-based businesses, particularly in high-tech, media, entertainment, and data services.

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