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Customer Service in the Age of Automation

During the so called “Search Engine War,” many experts suggested the best search engine should have a “human component.” Well, those premonitions fairly well died with Jimmy Wale’s Wikia Search.  What has come of the “human” element where other Web mechanisms operate? Has the cloud, the technology, the algorithm really gained any more ground on replacing peeps? Some say; “not a smidgen.”

Despite all the pandering still going on promoting technology, human beings do the preponderance of crucial tasks in the digital world from IT to customer support (viable support that is). As for filtering search results – even refining them? Well, that is probably better left to the machines. But the machines clearly still need the humans, especially when dealing with other humans.

Whether you believe IT gurus like John Willis of Opscode, or celebrity tech folks like Robert Scoble from as far back as 2007, the “human” factor has not changed much at all. Facebook and Mahalo (especially not Mahalo) have yet to supplant Google in Search as Scoble suggested then. On the other hand, John Willis’ contention that automation has done little to replace humans is weighty too.

It seems every time technology presents and automated solution, at least one problem arises that only human beings are capable of solving. This is not just a perception either, and security issues are a good example.

Taking a look at Media Temple, one of the world’s most respected hosting solution companies, the last couple of years they have been visited by their share of hacking threats. The 2010 variant being fresh in the hearts and minds of their clients, the backlash is well documented.

Basically, Media Temples true 24/7 support lines were tasked with their WordPress clients on their grid servers clogging the phone lines. Whether the problem was the grid itself, or as MT suggested to some – the WordPress CMS, humans had to solve the problems. In this case, MT’s customers, many of them not skilled enough to clean the malware injected in the code of their sites, had to pay third party IT to keep their sites safe. This time consuming, money-gobbling, and in the end brand and reputations damaging instance, could have been avoided if MT’s servers were actively managed by humans instead of automated security safeguards.

I  looked about the web searching for hosting companies managed more by people than automation. This is sometimes called “actively managed” hosting, but in truth few companies actually offer what is termed “manual security” expertise and effectiveness. We found 100 hosting solutions mentioning “active” server management, but very few offering human powered security measures. One Luxembourg company called Stidia being one having just been launched. Another in the short list is DediPower Asia, but there are a handful of others. The distinction for the purposes of this article is basically real proactive technology solutions versus almost purely automated ones.

In the case of even a respected hosting service like Media Temple then, no matter how large the customer service staff is, by the time a problem reaches them it is often too late for the client. This is where the machines are not match for humans – at least not in handling unforeseen situations like call customer service Customer Service in the Age of Automationsystem hacks. And then there are the costs associated for preventative versus patches and curing. We need not get into this hornet’s nest, but suffice it to say many studies show economic equilibrium for a balance of humans and automation.

Our little Web hosting example is really the tip of the iceberg where the “digital humanity” question is concerned. Looking at an old standby Yahoo! reveals more hard facts about not only automation, but outsourcing as well. On the popular customer service site Customer Service Scorecard Yahoo!’s notoriously inept customer service ranked very near last among those listed. Interestingly, Google ranked even worse if that makes sense.

Let me conclude here with an fascinating example discovered out of the aforementioned customer scorecard site. Zappos, the highest rated business on that list, is at the top for one huge reason – human powered – real time support. As a test, I contacted them via their Live Help. Within 10 seconds a representative named Keir responded via chat. That human even went so far as to answer questions, in full transparency, after I announced myself as a reporter. Not only that, but Keir went so far as to tell me their location (USA) and about their commitment to real person customer care.

Automation, technology, the vast and unlimited potential of Internet value – these are all things we can look forward to. But obviously, trying to factor out human beings is foolhardy obviously. The best systems are obviously those where the proper balance is stuck. For Zappos and companies like them, this is a reality already. Companies, technical or otherwise, can learn a lot from rising stars in human interaction.

 Customer Service in the Age of Automation
Mihaela Lica Butler is senior partner at Pamil Visions PR and editor at Everything PR. She is a widely cited authority on search engine optimization and public relations issues (BBC News, Reuters, Al Jazeera and others), with an experience of over 10 years in online PR.

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3 thoughts on “Customer Service in the Age of Automation

  1. Thanks for writing this article and addressing automation for services. Everyone writes and talks about automation for services and automation of bid management or automation of keyword research etc., but most fail to connect it to the human element. In manufacturing the Japanese variation of the term 'automation' is Jidoka or 'autonomation' which simply means 'automation with the human touch'. Whether it's service or manufacturing its important to automate the things machines or software are really good at and leave the other parts for humans to deal with.

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