This article was originally published in Forbes.
It takes someone with very bold ideas to change an industry that has gone to sleep, and one could say that about the customer service industry. Honestly, how was your last customer service interaction? I bet you weren’t excited about contacting help.
Last Friday I had coffee with Abinash Tripathy the co-founder and now Chief Strategy Officer for San Francisco based start-up Helpshift. Helpshift is a mobile customer service platform making better app experiences for companies like Microsoft, Honeywell, Viacom and Zynga. The company has raised more than $38 million from companies including Salesforce, Microsoft, Cisco and Intel. Helpshift is doing interesting work — making companies better able to create tailored customer experiences for customers that are in an app.
This month the company has a brand new CEO at the helm — Linda Crawford — who spent nine years at Salesforce in senior level roles. My POV — in a world of many me-too tech companies, hiring a female CEO can set you apart in a bold and positive way.
The customer service industry is ripe for change. There is a lot of waste, customer effort and misery, and not enough thought about the experiences we create for customers. People generally hate contacting customer service. We often don’t know who are customers are, what they want, or how we can help them — until they spend a long time explaining themselves. But don’t we all have CRMs at this point?
So much of the customer service technology landscape we simply accept at face value, even though there are a lot of problems in this industry. In this interview Tripathy talks about the beauty of data, the failure of the crm industry, and why he thinks IBM’s Watson was a huge marketing failure.
Blake Morgan: Customer service is a $350 billion a year industry — you said it’s set to grow — either by adding butts in seats or better tech. If we choose better tech — what does that look like, ideally?
Abinash Tripathy: Yes, if we do not move customers from Email to a chat experience with built-in intelligent self service then as an industry we are doomed to escalating linear costs as more and more of humanity gets online with their smartphones and starts consuming digital services.
Over 50% of the enquiries in CS are related to common and frequent problems which can be answered via self-service. Self-Service flows have been separate from the communication channels used for CS except the phone where IVR was introduced to provide in-channel CS. In the digital channel like Email this has not been possible and hence companies have to provide an external self-service FAQ system and hope their customers use that channel instead of directly emailing them. Chat followed a similar path to email where self-service as a notion is external to the experience. With Chatbots, we simply bring self-service into the chat channel and allow for greater levels of customers helping themselves. This is an order of magnitude more scalable than trying to respond to all these customers with human agents.
Morgan: Why are apps here to stay?
Tripathy: Apps are here to stay because they provide a wide range of sensory experiences that humans love which includes visual, sound and as AR is introduced then the physical starts to blend into this powerful experience. With pure voice experiences like Amazon Echo or Siri a very limited experience can be delivered to customers that does not engage all their senses.
Morgan: You’ve talked about the Uber app and how animated it is — such as how you can see cars near you — compelling you — the user — to click for the transaction. What is it about the app experience that’s so compelling?
Tripathy: The app experience provides a nice experience layer on top of an array of sensors that are built into devices that we carry in our pocket. Imagine how boring Pokemon Go would be if it did not leverage the accelerometer, the GPS, and the camera to stitch together a nice multimedia experience for the user. To engage a user, we have to figure out how to engage all their senses into a compelling experience. Catering to only one sense limits the experience. Voice and speech based experiences will exist in the future but in very limited narrow use cases such as in a car or in a kitchen where someone is performing a primary task like cooking and yet wants to have access to the digital world.
Morgan: You’ve said social customer service is nonsense. Why?
Tripathy: Social customer service is not where brands can deliver compelling customer service. Those social channels were built with different goals in mind and cannot be used effectively for customer service. For example, with twitter the 140 character limit severely cripples what you can and cannot do. Snap was designed to share photos and videos. The main goal of customer service is to serve a customer as efficiently possible and to enable complex enterprise workflows behind the scenes to get a customers question answered. Social channels are limited for conducting effective CS.
Chatbots are very important to the future of CS. However, the way they were positioned by Facebook to the world was wrong. Chatbots built like IVRs where there is a pre-determined flow will work very effectively in CS today. AI and NLP based chatbots that have to understand a customer’s enquiry and respond like a human are several years out. AI has reached a point to maturity where we can recognize parts of speech but cannot understand speech to the level of accuracy that humans will consider a great experience.
Morgan: What’s the power in the app?
Tripathy: The app is a multimedia experience platform that engages the users visual, sound and with AR (perception of physical in digital worlds) to blend the real world with the digital world seamlessly by leveraging all the sensors built into devices. The app is extremely powerful in creating compelling experiences to engage and capture a user’s imagination.
The myth that apps will go away and be replaced by something else is a bunch of propaganda spread by companies that failed to leverage the massive economics in play. The app ecosystem will generate $50 billion in direct revenue and about $300 billion in indirect revenue by 2020 and the incentive models for this ecosystem where the publisher makes 70% of the revenue is unbeatable. Unless this type of economic incentive is available in any other channel that can replace the app experience it is just not going to happen.
Morgan: How do you define “awareness” and why is it important?
Tripathy: In the past, CS has sucked because the only information companies had about their customers is their past history and transactions as captured in CRMs (dumb digital filing cabinets of customer records). To make a customer service experience magical companies need to be aware of what their customer is up to in this moment. As apps become the system of engagement, companies need to leverage them to capture data streams of what the users are doing in these apps and use them to provide intelligent and proactive service.
Morgan: You said Watson is a huge marketing ploy, and it’s not successful — is this your view on AI tech, and the other vendors that sell AI related technology?
Tripathy: My view is AI is inevitable and the world will be fully autonomous eventually as we empower machines to think and act like humans like self-driving vehicles or robots in factories. However, it is very early and will take a lot of hard work and time where we start to see AI permeate our daily lives. There is a reason why over 80% of the smartphone users do not use AI assistants like Siri as these technologies are not accurate enough. This is a very hard problem to solve. Watson is more hype than reality and there is enough evidence of that now. There is some great tech in Watson but their marketing and PR team has failed to position it correctly.
Blake Morgan is a customer experience futurist, keynote speaker and the author of More Is More. Sign up for her weekly newsletter here.