No Image Available

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

I, Robot: do we really want automated customer service?


I once worked with a great young man called Brad, a genuinely nice guy who loved helping customers. One day, he came off a call with a customer and our Supervisor, very gently, said, “Brad, that was a great call but you really cannot refer to our customers as ‘dude’”. Brad just wanted to talk to customers naturally, like he would with anyone else. The question is, is it ‘appropriate’? Is it ‘professional’?

A recent encounter got me thinking again about the way we interact with customers. I visited a local store and found that one of the items I wanted was out of stock (alright, it was a stackable shoe rack if you really want to know). So I went to the service desk, placed my order for the in-stock item and enquired about the shoe rack. The clerk – actually, he was the Customer Service Manager – suddenly seemed to engage his customer empathy algorithm.

"Firstly sir I would like to offer my sincere apologies that this item is out of stock today." Huh? I thought. Is he talking to me?

"I will check our computer system to see if this item is available at any of our local stores. Please bear with me.” At this, robo-clerk trundled off to another machine to check availability. Then he promptly returned.

"I’m sorry to keep you waiting, sir." Huh? I thought again. He’d only been gone three nano-seconds.

"Unfortunately, this item is completely out of stock but is due in at the end of the month. I do apologise."
Minutes later, robo-clerk also happened to serve me the item that was in stock.
"I do hope everything is to your satisfaction today sir. Would you be interested in leaving some feedback on your customer experience here today?"

Now this interaction – if you can call it that – had a significant impact on me. Why was this young fellow talking to me in such a formal way? Did he really think this type of communication would make my experience better?

Dan Pink, best-selling business author and speaker writes:
“ business...we resort to a weird and inadvertent bilingualism. We speak human at home and “professionalese” at work. And that might be hurting our businesses more than we realise. Go back to that all-too-common phrase: “We apologise for any inconvenience this might have caused.” Would you say that to your daughter when you were late picking her up from football practice? To your neighbour when your dog trampled his flowerbed?”

Pink goes even further, and argues that “professionalese” is something we employ to keep people at a distance. We dress it up in the guise of appropriate business language, when in fact it’s a completely different language.

How would I expect robo-clerk to have spoken to me? Well, how about, “I’m sorry this is out of stock. What a pain! Tell you what I’m going to do. Let me check the other stores and see if they have it...[click click click], these stackable shoe racks must be popular! We’re all out till the end of the month. Let me write down the product code – just go online to our website and you can check anytime to see if it’s back in.”

In the movie I, Robot (see, it’s not just a clever title), Detective Del Spooner arrives at a crime scene and finds himself talking to an apparent suicide victim. Well, obviously not the victim – just a pre-recorded hologram. As he questions the hologram, he’s repeatedly told, “Sorry Detective, my responses are limited. You have to ask the right question.”

That pretty much sums up a lot of what passes for customer service. Set questions and set responses are programmed, creating a homogenous army of autobots, hell-bent on boring the life out of us.
At LSN, we truly believe in building relationships with our clients. By being honest, it means our clients are honest with us. They’ll tell us if we’ve annoyed them (which thankfully is rare, if ever). They’ll tell us if our proposals don’t hit the mark, or if we’ve misjudged their requirements. We can go out for dinner with many of them (as we did only recently) and we can talk business and personal in the same, unforced breath.

Pink elaborates:
"Like any valuable relationship, the ones we have in business hinge on trust. And trust depends on openness, respect and humanity. Yet we often resist taking that approach in our professional lives, even though we know it would be absurd to do anything else in our personal lives."

Have a think about the way your people engage with your customers. It’s not so much the words we use, but the honesty with which we use them.

Robots are great when it comes to a 3D smackdown on the streets of LA, but when I’m looking for a stackable shoe rack, give me a human anytime.

Jez Fernandez

No Image Available

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!