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By Jo Causon, CEO, The Institute of Customer Service

From artificially intelligent digital assistants to smart heating systems, washing machines and fridges, smart technology is multiplying and changing how we live. There’s no doubt there are huge positives from the emergence of artificial intelligence. The potential is almost endless. It’s unimaginable where smart technology may take us in the years to come. This is not so much because smart technology can perform low-level transactions for us, though this is certainly a benefit.

The real potential is that it can drive greater connectivity and improve the ease of doing business with organisations. As technology knows no boundaries, it will reduce segmentation and silos, especially if businesses link up with each other in partnerships to offer new smart services (as they must). But what are the implications for the customer experience agenda? The technology is becoming ever more intuitive, anticipating what we may need or be interested in based on our previous behaviour. This is service as it should be, making relevant suggestions and giving us prompts that smooth the way in our time-pressured lives. What’s not to like?

Some people would say nothing in response to such a question. However, yes, there is always a however! There are some issues and questions that organisations will need to think carefully about. These really boil down to how far we will let the technology go in terms of making decisions. What if my smart health monitoring device takes a blood sugar reading and finds it is high, and then bleeps at me when I try to take a chocolate bar out of my smart fridge? Or if it finds I still have traces of alcohol in my system from the previous night and sends a message to my smart car, which then won’t start for me?

In other words, what if the technology begins to decide that it knows better than me, is smarter than me, and tells me what I can or can’t do? How will consumers react then? There are privacy and data-sharing issues too. Should insurers be allowed to access the data collected, for example? Whose decision is that? We are already seeing car insurers use telematics to analyse driving habits and set premiums, great when your premium goes down, not so good if it goes up! Will we be in control of the technology, or will technology be in control of us? This is what organisations need to think about as they consider how smart technology can be used in their business to improve the customer experience.

I think there are several guiding principles. Firstly, be very careful about technology that is smarter than us and tells us what to do. Secondly, be wary of anything that is too much like ‘Big Brother’, giving recommendations that are based on what feels like too intimate a knowledge of our behaviour. Thirdly, don’t confuse intuitive technology with an understanding of human behaviour and emotions: there is a limit to what the technology can do.

Another principle has to be that security is everything. The cyber threat is an ever-present and will only rise as the Internet of Things ensures more and more devices are connected. Invest in robust cyber security, test your systems, monitor constantly. And if an incident happens, communicate promptly and honestly with your customers.

Appreciation has grown, I think, that cyber incidents do happen, but customers won’t tolerate being misinformed or not informed at all. At its best, smart technology will transform the customer experience and, by taking care of the transactional queries, enable service to focus on what it should be about, emotional intelligence, empathy, problem-solving and building sustainable relationships. But another guiding principle, that perhaps sums it all up, has to be: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

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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