From the Editor: Despite Popular Belief, Automation and Empathy can — and Should — Coexist

Staying in a hotel is quite a vulnerable experience. I learned this while working as a receptionist and concierge at the Marriott hotel in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina several years ago. Guests give up the familiarity, safety, and comfort of their own homes to stay in a hotel. They’re willing to relinquish control of their surroundings, but only so far as their expectations are met. 

In fact, star ratings can be seen as both a measure of luxury as well as how lofty guests should set their expectations. The Marriott I worked at was considered 4-stars, so guests had reasonably high expectations. As the face of the hotel, my primary job was to maintain and build trust with guests by helping them manage their expectations, by resolving problems when expectations weren’t met and by exceeding expectations where possible and practical. 

The ability to empathize with guests and their unique experiences with our brand was crucial for trust-building, especially when it was broken. That process included listening intently to customers’ problems, expressing understanding and compassion and looking for quick and effective solutions to their issues. However, I found that I didn’t have the time to work through that process with every guest that was experiencing a significant issue because I was spending large amounts of time on one repetitive task — checking guests into the hotel one at a time.

In 2019, customer service is being fundamentally transformed by automation. For hotels this means enabling guests to check-in from their mobile phones, where they can even get a mobile key that allows them to tap their phone to enter their room, eliminating the need to stop by the front desk. Once in their room, if they need anything, chat and messaging allows guests to connect with hotel staff to make special requests. Automation can also enable guests to self-serve more effectively through bots that can deliver answers to FAQs or provide pertinent information (like confirmation numbers)  immediately. This means that people are interacting with human representatives less and less. When they do need to get involved, automation can classify customer issues so that they’re routed to the right person the first time and collate relevant information so that they can deal with the customer’s issue quickly without them needing to repeat themselves.

Such automation tools would have been an incredible asset back in my hotel days. Imagine how much time I could have spent engaging in meaningful trust-building with guests if the check-in process had been automated; if only guests who had specific issues or requests would have felt the need to check-in in person. I could have spent the majority of my time focusing on ‘high-value’ customer issues. The ones where trust needed to be re-established or where there was an opportunity to build more trust and earn a customer’s ongoing loyalty. 

As more companies adopt automation, it may be tempting to believe that trust and empathy are no longer the foundations of excellent customer service and have been displaced by an increased focus on convenience. But make no mistake that offering convenience to customers through automation is really about showing that you empathize with their desire to save time — and as automation becomes the norm, wasting their time will be considered an egregious breach of trust. 

Automation is making empathy and trust even more fundamental to excellent customer service rather than less. Increasingly, front line customer service staff will need to come into work every day prepared to engage in the emotional labor that is inherent to customer service. This is because human intervention will no longer be a front-line response, but rather a point of escalation where customers will expect immediate resolution. And as customers get used to the increased attention, their expectations will only go up. 

As the new editor of the Helpshift blog, I am excited to be at the front lines of the incredible changes that are happening in customer service due to automation. And while many believe that automation will be a detriment to the quality of customer service, I see a different future — where automation empowers a future of customer service where there’s a surplus of time, so everyone can get the 5-star treatment.

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