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Another week on, and the world continues to be fraught with ongoing trust issues in Institutions and general uncertainty, with inflation running at a 30-year high. There seems to be an innumerable catalogue of challenges that we are tasked to navigate, whether that be a cost-of-living crisis and rising inflation, the long-term impact of Covid, or geopolitical uncertainty. Given all that is happening, we may be forgiven for craving the familiar – seeking reliability, simplicity and greater human reassurance. The rise of AI tends to divide opinion, with some harkening back to a depiction from a science fiction film of robots taking over the world. These fears are only compounded by the very real fears of data breaches and hacking – with consumer trust in organisations’ use of our personal data at rock bottom. The reality, however, could be very different. If used appropriately, AI can significantly enhance an organisations’ service offerings – providing a truly personalised customer experience.

However, we are a long way from achieving this end – as technological advancements struggle to keep up with the power of human connection. As we continue to ‘test and learn’ in a bid to unlock the myriad of potential benefits AI could bring, the onus lies on organisations to reassure their customers and remove any apprehension that they may feel toward sharing their personal footprint. Only through mutual understanding and trust will we be able to reap the benefits of these technological advancements in the service experience.

It is important to draw a better distinction between what we mean as digital applications, and what and how AI is and will be used for. Most of us are clear that digital customer experience refers to the online interactions a customer has with a given organisation. This may start with a company’s website but could also span mobile apps, chatbots, social media, and any other channels where the touchpoint is virtual. Digital platforms have proven very effective in streamlining the customer journey, cutting out human interaction and potential errors when appropriate, such as the process of troubleshooting your broadband router. While these interactions can often simplify a customer’s experience, there remains a distinct limit. AI, on the other hand, ‘promises’ far more for customers and organisations alike. AI-enabled businesses could develop a greater understanding of their customers than ever before – by bringing together multiple data and information sets to comprehend, act, build on and potentially learn – in effect becoming ‘more human.’ With knowledge at this level of detail, organisations can design much more responsive, intelligent solutions and deliver more personalised services tailored to personal customer needs and preferences.

The additional complexity triggered by AI inevitably brings difficulties. At present, technology still lacks the necessary sophistication to completely replace the need for human interaction, with many still falling victim to ‘computer says no’ moments.

Simply denoting something as ‘smart’ does not make it so. For a product or service to be truly intelligent, it must create a seamless, end-to-end experience, it must be curious, helpful, and clever. For this to be possible, data must be gathered, analysed and utilised productively. Whilst many organisations claim to be able to utilise big data, this is rarely the case. There is a difference between using data and simply having lots of it. Despite technological advancements, the issue at its core remains the same: organisations need to know their customers. Inevitably, this comes down to the care that the organisation takes and the relationships that they can build with their customers.

Significant concerns remain around the employment of AI and the associated ‘data ethics’. Notions of privacy and data protection have featured prominently in the news for several years now, with many now aware of the broader impacts data can have on society. Consequently, people are far more conscious of where and how their data is being used, and by whom. Though people have become increasingly tech-literate and aware of regulations, such as GDPR, the movement toward big data and AI creates new challenges, and stories of organisations tracking and selling people’s data only stoke the fires of mistrust. There are also further concerns about whether algorithms are actually independent, or whether they remain as prone to discrimination as the people that are programming them. This presents a profound moral concern, in which the rationality of data and information is incorrectly perceived as objectivity. These are complex issues, but organisations must address them to build the level of consumer trust required to utilise AI successfully.

Despite these challenges, the outlook for AI is not all doom and gloom. I believe that we are on the precipice of something truly amazing. I see huge potential for AI to improve the existing service provided to customers – as well as to develop entirely new services and business models driven by AI to reach new realms previously thought impossible. It is also an opportunity for organisations to be open – meet customers halfway and create truly symbiotic working relationships. AI can make these interactions between consumers and products more meaningful and, crucially, more useful to both the customer and the organisation.

AI does not exist to replace human interactions. Instead, it must compliment your wider service strategy. To benefit from the advantages that AI has to offer, organisations must become more transparent regarding their motives, demonstrating credibility and trustworthiness. If customers suspect duplicity, they will inevitably become more suspicious and less forthcoming with their data. It is the responsibility of organisations to reassure their customers that they can be trusted and, at the end of the day, that they are both pulling in the same direction: wanting better service for customers.

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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