How generative AI fuels customer experience programmes

Generative AI could be a game-changer for CX if firms think use case and not tech. What do recent AI developments mean for customer experience programmes?

Generative artificial intelligence (AI) has burst into the public consciousness this year, thanks to the launch of ChatGPT in November 2022. In its first six months, it garnered more than 100 million users, while images generated from AI art tool DALL.E were viewed more than 4.2 billion times.

Companies are now beginning to figure out how they can integrate large language models and other generative AI (GenAI) tools into their marketing and customer retention strategies, relying on technology rather than humans to create images, videos, audio and text.

There are many examples of companies already rolling out GenAI tools to better connect with users. Spotify has released an AI DJ, which combines GenAI and human music editors to create personalised music recommendations and puts them into a playlist. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola’s Create Real Magic platform, developed with OpenAI, lets digital artists create original artwork using iconic Coca-Cola assets.

According to Insight Enterprises, 81% of companies have already established or implemented policies or strategies around GenAI, or are currently in the process of doing so. 

One of the areas where GenAI offers the most potential is customer experience (CX), the survey found. In the next three years, two-thirds of business leaders expect to adopt GenAI to enhance customer service.

It’s easy to see why so many firms are already exploring the technology. GenAI has the potential to fix the misalignment between what consumers want from their experience and what businesses are often focusing on, according to Simon Morris, area vice-president of solution consulting for the UK and Ireland at ServiceNow.

“Response times are incredibly important to today’s consumers, and many businesses have implemented chatbots to meet the demands for round-the-clock service,” he says. “But many consumers feel they are required to jump through hoops when dealing with a chatbot and be calculating when selecting the right words and responses to get the information or outcome they need.” 

Conversation flow

GenAI capabilities offer a solution to this problem, becoming an indispensable tool for the customer experience via a more intelligent and empathetic chatbot.

“This presents a great opportunity for businesses to train AI for more sophisticated customer support, and optimise chatbot functionality to simulate a more natural, conversational interaction,” says Morris. “By doing so, they can build positive relationships with customers while providing reliable support, and ultimately meet their needs more accurately.”

GenAI in chatbots can also help firms go beyond the average customer experience by predicting buying behaviours, or offering personalised content for birthdays or membership anniversaries.

“In today’s economy, personal touches will be a differentiator in helping businesses compete beyond pricing,” says Morris.

Adopting GenAI as part of a company’s CX strategy can also offer a better employee experience, providing staff with full context regarding customer enquiries, making it quicker to solve requests through surfacing the right information, and reducing repetitive work – all of which lead to a better customer experience. 

Zendesk’s Cristina Fonseca, vice-president of product and head of AI, explains: “Traditionally, AI and chatbots have helped to free up customer service teams from manual and repetitive work, allowing them to focus on more complex or value-adding work where only a human agent will do. Generative AI is used to not only do that, but to also make automated responses to customer enquiries smoother, faster and more helpful, while providing an extra layer of insight and context to agents to help them fulfil their job to even higher standards.”

For those companies wanting to offer a more human interaction for customers, digital avatars offer a self-service AI-enabled technology at the back-end, with a digital person on the front-end to chat to consumers. One example is NTT Data UK and Ireland’s it.human platform, which combines GenAI and life-like digital avatars to provide a more seamless and intuitive service, much closer to that given by a human than standard chatbots.

Digital avatar

The avatars are capable of replicating human gestures, micro-expressions and speech patterns, aimed at offering an empathetic and immersive experience. Through the use of advanced AI algorithms, they can react in real time to speech or text, analyse real-time data and understand customer requirements. According to Geoff Lloyd, director of retail at NTT Data UK and Ireland, this technology can augment and improve every stage of a customer’s journey, whether via digital receptionists, sales personnel or customer care agents.

“The potential use cases for this technology extend far beyond retail,” he says. “In tourism, for example, AI-powered digital avatars have the potential to enrich travel experiences by acting as personalised tour guides. Via their phones or other devices, travellers can interact with avatars that can access vast amounts of information about tourist destinations, providing recommendations and historical context.

“The it.human platform is a great showcase for the power and potential of generative AI. When paired with other technologies, it allows for the kind of automation that is not only efficient for a business, but offers users a compelling and satisfying experience.’’  

Retailer John Lewis is making use of Salesforce’s Einstein bot to answer simple questions quickly, and triage people and large language models (LLMs) to help improve search on its sites and recommend more relevant products to customers. However, it has yet to consider digital avatars.

“AI to generate an image or a picture or video – I haven’t got my head around how that’s going to help us yet,” says Barry Panayi, chief data and insight officer at John Lewis Partnership. “The real wins are with the artificial intelligence that sits behind the large language models, which are going to help us shortcut a lot of cleaning up of our product data and serving up the right results when people go onto our online channels. Although it might not be as glamorous as having some sort of avatar talking to a customer, that’s not something that is on our radar at the moment.”

Avoid AI for AI’s sake

As with any new and rapidly advancing technology, there is currently much hype around GenAI. This brings with it a danger that the current rush of interest could result in companies taking missteps and being left with unnecessary or inappropriate AI products. To avoid this happening, the onus should be on the technology developers themselves.

“It’s important that companies take the time from the outset to analyse how it can appropriately add meaningful value for their staff and their customers,” says Zendesk’s Fonseca.

“There is a huge opportunity with AI to transform how companies are communicating with their customers, and as a CX provider it is important for us to listen to what each company wants to achieve with it.”

For the Financial Services industry, for example, timeliness is imperative to avoid sanctions and fines in certain regions, but to also keep customers happy and satisfied.

“This is where sentiment detection and AI-powered intent can be used to categorise compliance-related tickets, then time-based automations can help prioritise and assign tickets to the right agent group,” she says. “This is just one example of AI being implemented in the right, nuanced way, to ensure a fit with the industry, CX staff and customers, meaning all are feeling the value of AI technologies for the better.”

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John Crossan, Freshworks’ vice-president and general manager for Europe, agrees that it’s up to industry leaders to help their customers use the new technology in the most efficient and appropriate way, and avoid wasted AI deployments.

“AI-powered chatbots are great at providing self-service options that can take the pressure off customer service agents, such as basic order or account changes and cancellations,” he says. “Because these are situations that tend to be high-volume in many companies, they often involve the need for speed, and also don’t tend to benefit from human engagement. What does a human add to the experience of changing the house number on a delivery address?”

However, more complex tasks still require human oversight to empathise with a customer’s unique, and perhaps emotional, issue.

“You can look at AI a bit like a junior teammate,” says Crossan. “They can make your life so much easier, but ultimately, they need guidance and oversight to ensure they are tackling the issues they are built to address, while leaving more complex issues to the human agent. In this sense, AI really is a teammate, not a tool.”

Heathrow airport is currently exploring GenAI and focusing on possible internal or external passenger-facing scenarios as the important piece, rather than what technology happens to be available.

“We’re investigating at the moment, but really thinking first and foremost what use case it would be most useful for from a service and passenger point of view,” says Peter Burns, director of marketing and digital at Heathrow. “From a business point of view, you’ve got to start there rather than starting with the technology.”

The human touch

Heathrow is currently handling 4,000 queries via Salesforce chatbots each month, and that number is continuing to grow. But this isn’t an indication the airport will be looking to downsize its contact centre staff any time soon.

“Looking at GenAI and how we apply it from an airport and a service point of view is how we give our colleagues more time to enable them to give better service,” says Burns. “It’s absolutely not how we can reduce the people that work in our contact centre: very much the opposite.”

Just as there are concerns about AI taking jobs away from humans, businesses also need to maintain a conscientious focus on the ethical and legal ramifications associated with the integration of AI in their practices. 

“As generative AI continues to advance, it is crucial to strike a balance between innovation and responsible deployment to mitigate potential risks and ensure technology benefits society as a whole,” says Clare Walsh, director of education at the Institute of Analytics.

The recently passed EU AI Act introduces legislation that emphasises risk-based approaches to the use of AI, including GenAI. While the act does not completely prohibit any specific technology, it imposes restrictions on certain algorithmic applications, particularly those involving subliminal manipulation and social scoring.

“The legislation highlights the need for caution when implementing generative AI systems to ensure they adhere to ethical standards and do not harm individuals or exploit vulnerabilities,” she says.

GenAI offers huge potential to enhance the customer experience through rapid response to queries, reducing repetitive tasks and personalised content. However, despite the current hype levels, companies need to approach the technology from the specific use cases relevant to their business rather than just rushing into GenAI investments.

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