Got a query or complaint? Trying to contact customer service via a company website is almost impossible these days.

There appears a growing movement away from having a ‘contact us’ page, instead being replaced by ‘visit our FaceBook or Instagram page’ – even needing to sign up to a newsletter before being able to make contact.

Then there’s the annoying chat bot – which has no way of answering any query outside a narrowly-defined box.

A website should not only inform someone what the business or service is about, but also be a point of contact.

Are businesses automating themselves to the point of deterring customers?

The chat bot is not going away

Ofer Mintz, associate professor of marketing at the UTS Business School and author of The Post-Pandemic Business Playbook, says the use of AI chat bots is a trend that is going to continue, and if not managed correctly, could turn away customers.

Prof Mintz said that after the pandemic, the number of people who worked in customer service declined. This triggered an increase in AI chat bots taking over these roles.

“Customer service has gone down and those willing to work here became less available. For the past 20 years, call-centres were outsourced, notably to countries like India. Some companies had some backlash against this.”

A major issue turning companies away from using real people is the sheer volume of enquiries.

“Companies, like Google, FaceBook, Alibaba and Amazon have millions of people trying to reach them each day. Think about how many people they need to hire to answer calls? With staff numbers declining and nobody to hire, how do they keep up? They’ve scaled up, which means they had to automate,” adds Prof Mintz.

Another issue is the advancement and cost effectiveness of AI.

“While AI is not perfect; if it’s a basic customer enquiry, many issues can be solved. It becomes an easier way to solve customer’s issues when you don’t have talent, and it’s cheaper and quicker.”

The pandemic changed the workforce. Many went online, became more transactional, and led to a loss in human connection with a company.

That said, there is opportunity now for companies to make long term customers. Prof Mintz gives an example of a Queensland company, who trained its customer service staff to speak to its customers, who are young mothers.

“The company, Riff Raff & Co. worked hard to train their staff to talk in conversational tone and engage with mums of young kids. This was a main, unique selling point. It’s one of the main reasons their customers stay with them.”

On a larger scale, online consumer store, Alibaba, set about to improve the way their consumers interact with them. The company engaged a number of AI-based chat bots.

Alibaba AI-bots continuously monitor whether customers encounter obstacles and whether the AI based service can understand and resolve customers’ queries.

Whenever appropriate, the AI-bot automatically transfers customers to human-based service agents, who will then prompt and provide agents with the essential information to help continue the conversation without asking customers to repeatedly describe the problem.

Prof Mintz described how Alibaba is continuing to invest and improve its AI-bots through constant experimentation, but have learned along the way that human-based customer service engagements are critical and that AI cannot do everything.

“They’re dealing with two million customers or enquiries daily; they had to interact with their consumers in other ways than human.”

Sadly, Prof Mintz adds, firms often think of customer service staff as a lower-skilled, easily replaceable service.

“But over time, most firms have learned that customer service staff is critical and without them the firm’s relationships with its customers deteriorate. Without proper investment in staff, firms lose out long-term.”

Glenn Lockwood, founder and director of Clearwater, a digital marketing agency says companies who make communicating through websites difficult, risk losing potential new customers through poor user experience.

Failure to understand the reduction in lifetime value of existing customers, is suffering at the hands of payroll reduction.

“The ubiquitous deliberate practice of strategically burying contact details deep within websites, forcing users through multiple pages and expandable website elements or completely removing the ability altogether in many instances, is not the way to build a brand and retain customers,’ he says.

“The decision to remove human staff is dictated by a parochial view of an organisation’s financial reports, foolishly focusing on payroll; ignorant to the possibilities of increasing lifetime client value through improved customer service and accessibility.”

Use the right mix of human contact and AI

Lockwood said that chat bots must be optimised and never be “set and forget”. Organisations should learn the popular customer queries, refine the answers, and constantly work to improve the chat bot experience.

“Chat bots should offer the ‘talk to a real human’ or ‘email us directly now’ options early in the conversation. When a customer knows they have a ticket with ID logged, along with an accompanying email confirmation, the sting is rapidly taken out of a negative experience.”

If payroll reduction is an issue, then the use of a foreign call-centre is essential.

“Having anyone pick up the phone – local or not – is an experience that is more palatable than furiously smashing one’s keyboard in order to please a poorly-configured chat bot.”

Lockwood’s advice to reduce drop off and bounce rates is to have a well-optimised chat bot that is constantly being improved, along with an expansive self-help or FAQ section with detailed, easy to read articles accompanied by videos or animated explanatory gifs.

“This library of self-help articles and FAQs should be constantly improved with new articles added as unique questions are asked by customers.

“Every time a unique question comes in, create an article answering this question so customer service staff are never double-handling questions.”