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SYFY WIRE Artificial Intelligence

Let robots deal with customer complaints, they’re better at it

What if robots could take over the ugly side of customer service?

By Elizabeth Rayne
Liz black prosthetic hand GETTY

Nothing about customer service is easy. You get impatient when you’re the customer and your questions seem to vaporize into thin air. If you’re the rep, you never know when you could get attacked by someone demanding to speak to your manager.

What if robots could take over the ugly side of things like defects, delays, cancellations, overcharges, and returns? Robotic reps with AI brains will not feel guilty if they can’t get the customer a higher discount, and the less human they look, the less negatively that customer will respond, as researcher Aaron Garvey of the University of Kentucky found out when he and his team switched out humans for robots when the response was negative — and vice versa.

Garvey, who led a study recently published in Journal of Marketing, found out customers were more likely to respond positively to a human customer service rep who had promising news and less likely to be upset when they found out about something negative via AI. The less human a bot looked, the better it was for tough situations. Turns out we can easily assume other humans may have something against us, or have found someone to take out their frustrations on.

“The negative situations we studied dealt primarily with unexpected price increases, such as taking a rideshare to a destination and then being charged double for the return trip,” Garvey told SYFY WIRE. “Consumers were much more accepting of it when dealing with an AI.”

If you’re dealing with a faceless, emotionless robot, he believes it should soften the blow of having your credit card declined or finding out those earrings you bought for your sister’s birthday next week are actually on backorder for another month. This could have positive mental health effects for the human reps and the customers. Reps wouldn’t have to dread facing someone who was already on the edge of breaking down, and customers wouldn’t have the thought of “Did they just do that to spite me?” gnawing at the backs of their minds.

Think about it. What if you really wanted an offer, but hadn’t checked your credit score in a while, and it came back to bite you? There are so many things we could be interpreting from the look on another human’s face while receiving information from their lips. A disappointed customer could misinterpret a rep who is trying to stay positive despite the situation, and instead think that an attempted smile is really a smirk. This can go beyond customer service to job performance feedback and more, but the ethics involved are still hazy.

“In those situations where AI could bypass customer resistance to negative offers, our work does reveal an ethical dilemma,” said Garvey. “A situation where bypassing resistance does not objectively harm the consumer seems less troubling.”

But wait. What if people caught on to the tendency for humans to answer positively in situations more likely to have a positive outcome, but that AI would pick up situations more likely to be negative? Could that potentially mean doom for profit? There is still some uncertainty there. Less customer pushback means a more positive experience for companies and customers, and more positive interactions. Still, Garvey admits there is a proverbial “blind spot” when you have an AI giving you a negative answer as opposed to a living, breathing human being.

Wouldn’t you rather deal with a robot that can’t feel anything if you were unexpectedly stuck in a negative situation? It obviously has nothing against you or anybody else. It won’t even judge your horrible credit score even if it has to tell you that you don’t qualify for whatever offer a better credit could get you.

“In situations where companies could profit from reducing consumer pushback to unexpectedly bad outcomes, improved consumer awareness could potentially have an impact,” Garvey said.

The irrational fear of robot armies invading the planet is out there, but potentially negative customer interactions might be one situation where we might want AI to to take over.