This is the first part of a series of articles on customer service automation. Find the second article here: How to Implement the Right Customer Service Automation Solution for Your Company
The Automation and AI Revolution: Humans with AI vs. Humans Without AI
Harvard professor Karim Lakhani famously said: “AI is not going to replace humans, but humans with AI are going to replace humans without AI.”
This statement rings especially true in the realm of customer service. It’s like comparing Tony Stark with and without his Ironman suit – both are competent, but one is clearly supercharged and able to accomplish much more. Automation and AI are joined at the hip, as every automation solution in today’s market is incorporating AI into its DNA. Those who believe AI and its associated technologies are a bubble or a fad are burying their head in the sand and will face a significant challenge catching up.
Why Customer Service Automation Is Gaining Popularity
Customer service automation is about making support services more efficient and effective. Think of it as giving your customer service agents virtual Ironman suits. It frees up human agents for complex tasks, typically issues requiring one-on-one attention from the Customer Service Representatives (CSRs), while also providing customers with automated, quick responses and even enhanced self-service options.
Challenges Facing Today’s Customer Service Reps
In addition to the everyday activities CSRs face, changes in recent years have resulted in mounting on-the-job pressures from:
Elevated customer expectations: In an Amazon-dominated world, customers expect rapid responses, delivery options, real-time updates and other order details that the B2B world is still catching up on.
Productivity crisis: Achieving better productivity is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity, but not all organizations are equipped for this shift and the “do more with less” philosophy ends up crushing many of those responsible for day-to-day operations and interaction with customers and suppliers. This can result in amplified turnover rates in your customer service teams.
Supply chain pressures: Post-pandemic, customers have lost faith in the ability of suppliers to meet their stated delivery times. As a result, they check in more often to ensure the product will arrive as promised, which results in increased touchpoints and workloads.
P2P portal overload: The emergence of popular Procure-To-Pay solutions such as Ariba and Coupa have also added to the workload of distributors’ CSRs, as in most cases, the information required to complete transactions is much more extensive than their regular orders, sometimes doubling the effort needed to properly service an order.
Many of these new challenges can be lessened or even eliminated with the proper implementation of Automation and AI strategies.
Making the Case for Automation in a North American Distributor
Consider a hypothetical distributor with 600 employees. From my experience, a distributor typically dedicates between 15%-25% of their total headcount to customer service roles, inside sales and counter sales. When you calculate the total hours for these positions each year, you will see that even if automation provides a 10% reduction in time to handle routine tasks like quote preparation, order entry or order status expediting (which is reasonably possible), the company can free up over 25,000 hours annually.
That’s a lot of extra time for customer engagement and upselling. The key, of course, is identifying which tasks to automate, and which need a more human touch.
As shown by this example from a large solution provider, Automation Anywhere, a customer greatly reduced order entry time from 1 minute to 20 seconds per order, simply by using a software bot to handle the multiple screen/system logins and entries.
Let’s start by looking at a day in the life of a typical Customer Service Rep:
Although every distributor’s customer service team is different, the vast majority can break down their typical day into one of eight major activities. Identifying who performs these tasks in the organization, their average time to serve and other details is the key to an effective customer service automation strategy:
- Making product and service recommendations to customers
- Accepting RFQ (request for quotes) from customers
- Preparing and delivering quotations to customers
- Following up on quotations prepared for customers
- Accepting and entering customer purchase orders into ERP
- Confirming/changing customer POs with the correct price and expected delivery dates
- Inquiring on product availability/delivery (pre-order)
- Expediting order and product availability/delivery (post-order)
Much of the prep work before implementing automation will involve breaking down these tasks into automatable and non-automatable components.
Getting the Team Onboard with Automation and AI
Anyone who has ever implemented a technology project knows acceptance, adoption and usage ultimately determine the success of your project. Because many customer service teams are multi-generational, it may be a challenge to get buy-in from everyone.
While tech-savvy younger generations may welcome AI-based automation in their work lives, older team members may be reluctant to embrace it. Research data suggests that older workers are at a higher risk of AI-related job threats1, but generation doesn’t have to be destiny when it comes to customer service automation. With proper implementation and the onboarding of older workers, companies can reap the benefits of their experience combined with the tech.
The need for customer service automation in industrial distribution and wholesale is clear. This is not futuristic fantasy, but a practical step towards efficiency, much like strapping on an Ironman suit in the business world.
1 Dr Sajia Ferdous, June 14, 2023, Are Older Workers Ready for an AI Takeover at Work, The Oxford Institute of Population Aging.
Rick Pozniak is a distinguished authority in B2B automation, system integration and digital transformation, with a specialization in the North American wholesale/distribution and manufacturing sectors. With over three decades of experience, he has played a crucial role in optimizing customer and supplier channels through transactional, product data and customer service automation.
As the founder of Move78, a consulting and integration services company, he holds a pivotal position as a strategic intermediary. This role enables him to deliver impactful results for wholesalers, manufacturers and their solution providers, thus creating value for partners at both ends of technology implementations. Pozniak's firm also offers strategic guidance to organizations adapting to the uncertainty of AI, bridging the gap between business needs and technology implementation. Furthermore, they provide product development guidance to several strategic Solution Providers.