How AI Can Enhance, Not Replace, Customer Experience

Q&A with Mao Gen Foo, Head of Southeast Asia at Qualtrics

Human connection remains key to customer satisfaction despite automation. Learn how AI can empower staff, personalize support, and strengthen relationships.

In a world of automated interactions, Mao Gen Foo, Head of Southeast Asia at Qualtrics, argues for the enduring power of human connection in customer experience (CX). This interview explores how AI can be leveraged to enhance, not replace, human interaction. We’ll delve into how AI empowers staff, personalizes support, and strengthens relationships — all while ensuring a human touch throughout the customer journey.

Foo emphasizes understanding customer preferences. While Singaporean consumers embrace technology, they value human connection. This means strategically deploying AI for tasks like billing or tech support while reserving human interaction for areas like travel bookings or appointments.

We’ll also explore the challenges of AI integration and inspiring case studies showcasing its transformative power in companies like Hilton and Motorola Solutions. Finally, Foo discusses the exciting future of AI and human interaction in CX, where clear roadmaps will lead to even more innovative applications for exceptional customer service.

Excerpts from the interview;

How can brands balance AI and human interaction to enhance customer experiences in today’s digital landscape?

In today’s AI world, human connection is the foundation of customer experience (CX) success. This might sound counterintuitive, given that consumers in Singapore are some of the most savvy and early adopters of new technologies, but they also place a premium on human connection.

For example, Qualtrics research shows that consumers’ biggest concern with AI is the loss of human connection during brand engagements and the fear that people might lose their jobs. A Centre for Experience Management study found that one of the most impactful ways to improve CX is to enable better human connection. 

To find the balance between AI-driven enhancements and human connection, organizations need to know how customers feel about AI and where and how they want to use it across the customer journey and during specific engagements. For example, to resolve a billing issue or get tech support, consumers in Singapore want to speak to another human. However, consumers prefer to self-serve when booking an airline ticket, arranging an appointment, or getting an order update.

This desire for human connection is why the most impactful AI strategies are focused on consumer preferences and enabling customer-facing employees with the insights, capabilities, and authority to meaningfully improve every experience at the moment, across every channel, and engagement that matters. These capabilities are how AI brings more humanity to business and delivers the connection customers and employees are looking for.

Do brands truly understand their customers’ needs and preferences? Is there still room for improvement in this area?

The best brands are focused on constantly improving and innovating the experiences they deliver to customers and employees. Encouragingly, recent findings from Qualtrics and SAP’s Centre for Experience Management found that customer experience is improving in Singapore, with loyalty and satisfaction both edging up compared to a year previously. However, the study also shows there’s always room for improvement. Customers’ needs, expectations, behaviors, and preferences continue to change — along with the world around them — and brands must be ready and able to respond to them.

One changing behavior is how customers give feedback, which, if left unresolved, will make it difficult for brands to understand customers’ needs and preferences truly. Over the last few years, the volume of consumers sharing feedback with a brand after a positive or negative experience has fallen. This isn’t to say customers have stopped giving feedback entirely. A great range of customer insights remain — across the contact center, online and social reviews, chats, and more — which is why, to build a complete, authentic picture of their customer, brands must ensure they can listen, understand, and act on a range of insights captured across channels using modern experience management technologies.

Also Read: AI Revolution: How Businesses are Leveraging it for Success

How can AI enhance brands’ listening capabilities and strengthen customer relationships?

AI is transforming every aspect of how organizations manage CX — from how they listen and capture insights to how and where they take action and use structured and unstructured feedback. For example, AI-powered natural language processing and conversation analytics help brands understand the emotion, intent, and effort behind every engagement across channels so they can identify and respond to points of friction or opportunities in their business in seconds; AI is helping free teams from tedious manual tasks — like data entry and analysis — so they can spend more time delivering value to customers; it categorizes feedback into relevant themes and makes it easy to benchmark, trend, and monitor over time; and it’s helping managers better understand and address the needs of the teams they lead to drive improved outcomes for customers and employees.

To help organizations capture this opportunity, Qualtrics is committed to investing $500 million in AI innovation over the next four years and has launched a number of innovations to help our customers drive greater business outcomes with CX. This includes AI agents helping customer-facing employees and managers analyze and respond to feedback in seconds, automatically summarising structured and unstructured feedback and surface insights to determine the best course of action, and personalizing follow-up real-time responses to glean deeper insights. These AI capabilities are purpose-built for CX and are embedded into the tools and systems organizations are already using, making it easier than ever for CX teams to rapidly and meaningfully deliver the superior, personal, and human connection customers seek.

How can AI be integrated into customer service to empower staff and enhance personalized support? Can you share examples or case studies where AI has improved customer service?

Every organization and department stands to benefit from AI’s ability to take action in the right way, to act quickly and decisively, and, more precisely, to automate critical actions and create more meaningful and relevant interactions. 

For example, with Qualtrics AI-enabled capabilities, Hilton is collecting and synthesizing feedback across the entire guest journey for its more than 7,600 global properties, including calls, chatbot interactions, email, and messaging during and after a guest’s stay, in-app, and from digital surveys. Guest insights inform every aspect of the company’s commercial strategy, and in 2023, Hilton served hundreds of millions of guests and achieved record financial results.

Using the digital solutions within Qualtrics, Motorola Solutions is optimizing its web and e-commerce experiences to drive stronger web traffic and conversion rates while improving its customers’ overall satisfaction. Another great example of how AI improves CX is seen at a leading supermarket chain, which significantly improved response clarity by personalizing follow-up responses.

Organizations using AI to personalize follow-up responses add more information 40% of the time when prompted. The new responses are more comprehensive and descriptive, covering a wider range of topics. Importantly, they do not impact dropout rates or increase the perceived burden among the respondents who requested to say more.

What potential challenges or obstacles do brands face when integrating AI into their customer service operations, and how can these be overcome?

Two of the most important aspects organizations must prioritize to unlock the value of AI are knowing how their customers and employees want to use and engage with the technology and remembering unique data to train the AI, which is the greatest differentiator for success. Ensuring these are key focuses will help accelerate the path to value because while AI brings huge expectations, on the one hand, there can still be a degree of uncertainty and confusion among the people using it. 

Similar to designing AI models tailored to consumer preferences, organizations need to do likewise for their employees. Our research shows that employees want AI to assist them in their jobs, not manage them. 

Unique data is the greatest differentiator in an AI world, and the models and programs will only ever be as good as the data they use to train and build them. Organizations must ensure they have the data, capabilities, and partners to drive success with AI. Models fully trained with the right data are specialized and more likely to have an impact because they better understand the program or task. They can respond faster with more accurate insights and recommendations.  

Also Read: A Cookie Crumbles: Digital Advertising’s Uncertain Leap

What trends or advancements do you foresee in converging AI and human interaction in customer experiences?

Most companies are still identifying how AI will help them unlock value; they are at varying stages of adoption and maturity and are just scratching the surface of what’s possible. Leaders are also trying to understand what is AI hype and what is AI product truth. We’ll increasingly see progress as AI roadmaps and metrics shape up in the coming months as more organizations understand and identify where AI will deliver the most value, and as government investments and frameworks have a growing influence.

One of the major differences between AI and other significant industry shifts is the speed at which it is advancing and being adopted. It’s a hugely exciting time, and the opportunity — and challenge — for organizations is knowing where it can have the biggest impact on their business, customers, and employees and keeping a sustained focus on their end goals.

There is a first-mover advantage in an AI world, and those already using AI — or about to imminently begin — have a head-start on the competition. Brands able to unlock purposeful AI within their experiences and services will be the leaders in their industry, be more agile, and deliver greater business efficiencies.