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Last week, I was honoured to attend Parliament to share our latest research and evidence with the Communications and Digital Committee on its continuing inquiry into digital exclusion and the cost of living. Joined by representatives from Capita, Lloyds Bank, Manchester City Council, the Alan Turing Institute and Cambridge University, we provided input to consider how to mitigate the risks that online-only service provision poses to those who are digitally excluded.

This is a big topic, and a number of parties are rightly being asked to provide their input. Given the external environment, this subject has never been more critical and is proving challenging for consumers and organisations. How do we effectively serve all and provide effective choice whilst maintaining an acceptable cost base, managing productivity and avoiding increasing prices?

There is continuing misapprehension amongst some that the shift online and use of digital technologies is purely driven by a desire to drive costs out of a business. The truth is that most organisations are investing in these technologies to reflect consumer choice, not just to cut overheads. From our research, we know that easier access, speed and efficiency are all things that many consumers or customers particularly want to see.

However, the availability of channel should always be based on consumer choice, particularly in essential services. Around 73% of us as customers are very happy to interact digitally, if it works! But there is a small but significant minority (approximately 15%) who – for different reasons – struggle to do this. The challenge, therefore, is to give choice and serve customers in the way they want.

One challenge of providing choice is the complexity it puts on businesses to design their services to allow more granular product options to be efficiently tailored to the individual desires of consumers.

Large Language Model-based AIs like ChatGPT, and more recently Google’s Bard, are attracting much attention. Their ability to understand and respond naturally to requests is impressive. With people happy to use well-designed technology and businesses keen to offer choice, this will undoubtedly be deployed in ever more sophisticated ways. But it is also essential to think about those who cannot or choose not to engage with technology and ensure a clear business solution for them to avoid an even more polarised and marginalised society.

A blended approach towards service provision can provide opportunities for customers, business and the customer service professionals who serve us. The profession becomes more interesting and rewarding when the process or procedural aspects of any service delivery are being undertaken by the tech not the human. This can only be a positive long-term change for a profession that is finally coming of age but needs to work hard to shift perceptions amongst some outdated views held by some.

In the real world, incorrect or confusing inputs can send both chatbots into a spin, and sadly many customers with them. Interactions with vulnerable or digitally excluded audiences, need to be handled with skill, care and nuance.

Looking to the future, the number one thing organisations can do to harness the innovative technology now at our fingertips is to ensure that new services and approaches are properly designed and tested by the intended audience as well as thinking hard about the consequences and outcomes of using AI, ensuring the bear traps, worst-case scenarios and edge cases are adequately considered and mitigated.

As ever, we are here to help you navigate the new world. Please make use of our research, training and qualifications to help you do this. Think about your customer journeys – all the way through your organisation – and consider the needs and preferences of different personas (and real-life individuals) who want to engage with you.

Jo Causon

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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