National Customer Service Week 2023: The future of AI

Can AI and customer service co-exist?


In support of Customer Service Week this year, we wanted to take the theme of the Future of AI and ask how it might help Customer Service within our business in the waste industry. Neil Pollard, Divisional Director, provides some thoughts on this interesting topic.  


As befits a topic about artificial intelligence I asked one of the leading AI tools of the moment, Chat GPT, for its “thoughts” on how AI can positively impact on customer service, and it came up with 4 ways:


  1. Efficiency
  2. Personalisation
  3. Data analysis
  4. Cost Savings

I’ve taken these responses and looked at how they could apply to our business:


Chatbot AI on screen


Efficiency: By being able to provide customers with basic level information on the tracking of orders for example, AI could free up our customer support team for more complex customer service requests. This basic tracking information could be available 24/7. Interestingly at Hills we already have the capability to provide customers with order and collection information through our customer portal. For us, its already possible to provide direct information to our customers showing basic information such as when their bin would be emptied, or skip delivered, improving the efficiency of our customer support staff.

Personalisation: By using AI to analyse our customer data, such as preferences and behaviours, AI could enable our business to offer tailored recommendations and solutions, leading to better customer experiences and increased loyalty. This could mean that when a customer calls in, our staff would be presented with AI generated information explaining that our customers may benefit from changing the frequency of the round, the number of lifts, or changes to bin size – as well as present the cost benefits on screen. At the moment our customer service team provide this level of information to the customers, but its manually calculated. An AI solution could save our customers valuable time on the phone and provide even better customer experiences.


Data Analysis: AI can process vast amounts of data to identify trends, customer sentiment, and potential issues. This information could help Hills make informed decisions to improve our products and services. You can imagine that understanding this information would help a complex business such as ours with better pricing options, the ability to bring issues hidden in data to the surface in a meaningful way, and importantly deliver financial forecasting. Perhaps with weather forecasting AI may help us with planning for bad weather and illness to better plan routes in advance to maintain efficiency, while avoiding potential route hazards that may frequently occur in bad weather.


Cost Savings: AI could also help reduce some operational costs by automating repetitive tasks and allow margins to be improved. This has the added benefit of being able to reallocate valued resources to other more important tasks and perhaps enabling us to pass savings onto customers.


So clearly there are some obvious business benefits, although integrating such solutions into existing technology infrastructure may not be straightforward and a cost / benefit analysis would be required to help determine a true business improvement, presumably done by human accountants!


It’s fair to say however that AI has some limitations in the following areas:


Empathy: “Human interactions involve emotional intelligence, which is crucial for building trust and rapport with customers. Empathy, understanding, and the ability to address emotional concerns are areas where humans excel.” (direct quote from Chat GPT)


Unpredictable Situations: Customer service sometimes involves unpredictable situations particularly with unhappy customers or where conversation is necessary to identify the real problem a customer has, let’s face it not all customers can explain their issues in a coherent and unemotional way. This is where the human element and the calming influence of customer services can really help. And our staff can provide real time problem-solving, something that most AI would find challenging to handle very well. Female customer support operator


Customer Preferences: Some customers simply prefer human interactions and find comfort in talking to a real person. In our experience building relationships with our customers is an important part of customer loyalty and retention of business. Ignoring this preference could lead to customer dissatisfaction and loss of business.


In my exploration of AI for Customer Service one important area was highlighted which is often overlooked, that of the ethical and social challenges of using AI, as we often get carried away with the whole concept of possibilities. “The use of AI in customer service raises ethical concerns such as data privacy, transparency, bias in AI algorithms, and job displacement. Striking the right balance between automation and human involvement is crucial to address these challenges.” Says chat GPT. That’s certainly one our business will take on board for any future AI projects we have.


So, can AI and Customer Service exist together?


Absolutely. AI can clearly take on some of the more repetitive tasks our customer service team currently undertake, while giving our customers easy access to straightforward questions.


Robot working in customer service


Importantly this allows our customer service staff to focus on what they do best, which is taking the time to listen to the customer, understand the task presented to them, and then to provide the best help and advice to the satisfaction of our customers. We want them to appreciate our service to the point at which they feel compelled to write a great Trustpilot review on their experiences!

I think the trick to AI and customer service co-existing is down to getting the right balance between the two, and its humans who will have to work this out - no doubt there will be some interesting case studies along the way!

About the author


Neil Pollard, Commercial Collections Director at Hills Waste Solutions 

Customers are at the centre of Neil's strategy for the success of the business. By providing great service and building a reputation for consistency, flexibility and competitive pricing Neil is taking the Hills brand to new markets.