How automation is reshaping how businesses engage with customers

Applying artificial intelligence and robotics to the customer journey is setting the stage for long-term digital transformation.

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Infrastructure and operations leaders have traditionally targeted and implemented automation technologies to cut costs, but the new automation opportunity in the age of the customer is engagement: deploying technologies that will help customers receive better service automatically or better serve themselves. Working with marketing and business leaders, technologists are playing a critical and growing role in driving the testing, piloting, deployment, and measurement of automation technologies like AI, customer self-service solutions, and robotics.

Among digital predators — those companies seeking to redefine the rules of business by employing emerging technologies — automation is quickly becoming a core competency: As robots replace or work side by side with customer-facing employees, getting automation right in service of customer engagement becomes ever more critical. Forrester forecasts that by 2027, the US economy will lose 17% of jobs, but will also add 10% equivalent as part of the automation economy – leading to a net loss of 7% of jobs.

Customer service jobs – like salespeople of various sorts, call center employees, and the like – will be among the losing categories. A customer preference for self-service with play a role here in some contexts. Overall, sales roles, including cashiers, sales representatives for wholesale and manufacturing firms, retail salespersons, and real estate brokers and agents will be hard hit by kiosks and self-help services.

Opportunities lie within this changing employment environment. Automation can and should be deployed as a tool of customer obsession and innovation, not simply a cost-cutting mechanism. My new research on automation technologies for customer engagement analyzes how applying AI and robotics to the customer journey sets the stage for long-term digital transformation.

Automation can support customer engagement at every stage of the customer journey. For example, at the explore stage, companies can offer customers tools to help them evaluate options and develop preferences: Neiman Marcus’ magic mirror, provided by vendor MemoMi, allows customers to take a photo of themselves wearing the first outfit they try on and then compare a second outfit beside the first onscreen. Additionally, in this stage, Nina, Nuance Communications’ virtual assistant, engages in rich conversations with customers and can recommend products based on their preferences – yet you can apply automation technologies to boost customer engagement at any stage.

Sometimes automation can apply to multiple customer audiences. For example, Robin Technologies, a lawn care company has two sets of customers –landscapers and homeowners. Robin recognized that lawn mowing represents the least profitable portion of landscapers’ businesses and that this specific job task was ripe for disruptive innovation, so it partnered with Dialexa Labs to develop a robotic lawn mowing service. Robin’s automated approach allows homeowners to enjoy a higher level of lawn maintenance while suffering less aggravation, too: The robotic lawn mower resides permanently on the homeowner’s lawn, recharging itself at a base station. Ultimately both customer audiences are reaping benefits.

Not every company should invest in automation technologies for customer engagement. Digital predators or would-be digital predators are the appropriate audience for reinventing the future with customer-facing automation technologies. When deciding whether or how to pursue automation as a customer engagement enabler, businesses must take into account their automation maturity. By doing so, they can craft the right strategy, which will also vary by the type of automation technology they’re considering.

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