Commentary on AI and automation in customer service tends to overlook the crucial role of the frontline manager. There seem to be two general viewpoints. The first is the organisational outlook. How will new technology support efficiency and reduce costs? The second is the agent’s point of view. What does the use of robotic process automation or AI mean for people’s jobs? The impact on the manager is often forgotten but is a vital consideration.

In a rare foray into the world of the customer service manager, CNBC published an interesting piece after an interview with a senior executive at IBM, Rob Thomas. The article covered a number of topics. But one of the most pertinent points was, “AI is not going to replace managers but managers that use AI will replace those that do not.”

Another angle on AI and automation

IBM is a leader in AI customer service software. Its ‘Watson Assistant’ solution is used around the world by banks like NatWest and large tech companies like Cisco. Naturally, much of the focus on its projects are on the fine balance between company benefits and the impact on individual agents.

To put this into context, an earlier article from CNBC highlighted World Economic Forum (WEF) research states machine and automation are set to eliminate 85 million jobs by 2025. Yet the same ‘Future of Jobs Report 2020’ noted the WEF forecast 97 million jobs to be created. In England, a 2019 report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said 1.5 million people could have their jobs replaced by technology and it went on to highlight that 55% of customer service jobs were ‘at risk’.

These articles, reports and statistics point to one thing: the dual-sided debate about the impact of AI and automation in customer service. Yet the point the IBM executive was making was that the customer service manager is central to all of this. Managers that are able to rely on AI and automation to free up their time will prosper. Managers forced to continue spending hours of every day compiling call logs, sales reports and countless other sources of customer service metrics are less likely to be successful.

How AI and automation can empower the manager

The customer service manager sits in between the individual agents and the organisation. They are the people tasked with getting the balance right – keeping employees engaged and happy while helping the business be more efficient. Crucially, a manager’s role is about giving people a sense of purpose and coaching people to become better customer service representatives.

AI and automation will enhance this role:

  • It can bring multiple data sources together and deliver intuitive visualisations and insights into patterns of performance. All of which will save valuable time for managers not having to spend most of their days pulling data from various sources and then crunching numbers in a spreadsheet. Managers can be pointed to a specific source of good or bad service, enabling them to take action sooner on sources of poor service, and to quickly leverage learning points from sources of good service.
  • It can help customer service professionals provide better customer interactions with suggested next-best-actions for example, allowing managers more time to spend on coaching the tasks that are not so easy to automate.
  • And with the time saved by the managers, they can focus on their primary tasks: instilling a sense of purpose, understanding what’s working and what isn’t and coaching people to be better agents and be more productive.

Applying AI and automation in the right way

Providing the technology to empower managers is clearly a valuable use case for AI and automation. It also crosses the divide between the two usual viewpoints. Armed with the insights from AI, managers can provide senior leadership with a much clearer picture of what is going on within the organisation. With automation freeing up more hours in the day, managers can support individuals within their teams to become better agents and deliver better customer service.

An April 2021 article in Computer Weekly highlights a number of successful AI and automation implementations. It also analysed some of the issues associated with deploying these technologies as though they are a ‘silver bullet’. The article explains that the rush to deploy AI and automation can prevent businesses from seeing the positive impact and even undermine customer service. It goes on to say, “To reap the benefits of AI and automation, you must identify the right place and role in your customer service journey.”

Given the organisational and employee benefits, using AI and automation to actively support and empower your frontline managers seems like a good place to start.