Corporate curiosity in the scope for automating key flanks of the workforce is only growing, with a 21 February BBC report highlighting Cora: NatWest’s new, virtual bank teller, who is currently at prototype stage. Taking the form of a kind of toned-down, high-street Max Headroom, Cora has an approachable, human face created with computer graphics and is designed to help customers through a range of simple queries, such as cancelling and replacing lost credit cards.

A NatWest spokesman has explained that Cora is incorporated with artificial intelligence that enables her to learn from any hiccups in her interactions with human beings. He added: “Testing to date has suggested customers that have avoided digital services in the past may be more inclined to interact with digital humans like Cora.”

Importantly, Cora is part of a wider march: just two days before the BBC report emerged, tech-industry market-research gurus Gartner forecast that 25% of the world’s customer service departments will deploy virtual assistants by 2020. But could the ‘hands-off’ nature of software such as Cora – who is shown in the BBC report to have trouble with some types of questions and voices – lead managers to take their eye off the customer-service ball?

A recent Forbes opinion piece warns: “Customer service is a leadership issue … Unfortunately, [it] isn’t always thought of this way. It’s more often looked at as a ‘lower-level’ concern, wholly dependent on, and entirely the domain of, the frontline customer service agents upon whose performance service ultimately rests.”

In a similar vein, the Harvard Business Review highlighted parts of the customer service experience that should never be automated, pointing out that service can be emotional, yet technology cannot – and that we still prefer people to solve our problems. Are leaders who are thinking of automating their firms’ customer service tasks just looking for an easy ride?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The person who is closer to the customer is the person who knows the most. And how infrequently do we understand that? Outsourcing your customer interface is often a poor decision.

“In particular, I’m thinking of the variably experiences that people have with delivery drivers. You can have great customer service over the phone from the primary vendor. You can buy a quality product, you can be treated well – and then, if it’s delivered by people who don’t work for the organisation, who are not part of the same culture and don’t subscribe to its values, then that initial swell of goodwill can just break down.”

Cooper explains: “at that point where customer service is delivered, we want something that is efficient, gives us solid information and doesn’t keep redirecting us over and over again – eg, ‘Press four for this and five for that’ on automated phone lines. We like to hear a person on the other end of the phone, and we overwhelmingly appreciate a human touch. When there’s a need for empathy and sympathy, how can AI reproduce that?”

She notes: “I attended a conference on these types of technologies in Iceland last year, and I was particularly keen to ask some of the AI experts in attendance when we are going to have a robot that detects an emotional response, and can respond in an appropriate way to keep the conversation going on a level that isn’t wholly reliant upon factual information. One professor I spoke to said that we are still a long way from that.

“So, organisations who are considering implementing these tools need to be very careful and discerning about which parts of the customer service experience are typically fast, efficient and rote – and are therefore safe to automate – and which ones depend upon a more sustained, empathic, human interaction. Much as we highlighted in a recent blog that executives’ savvy on cybersecurity matters leaves much to be desired, it is only to be expected that, when it comes to automating key business functions, organisations will make mistakes. If Siri offers occasionally peculiar advice, then her cousins are likely to follow suit.”

Cooper adds: “a man by the name of Roger Jones – who came up through the trade union movement and eventually joined the faculty at Cranfield School of Management – developed a model called the Four Orders of Administration. Jones conjectured that in ‘first-order administration’, anything to do with the customer is vital – and the more removed you get from the customer, the less use you are to the organisation. By the time you get to the fourth order, he added, you’re really adding nothing whatsoever to the customer experience. The sting? That fourth order encompasses the C-team.

“So, the essential message is: move away from your customers at your peril.”

For further thoughts on managing customer relationships, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of Cora captured from this NatWest promotional video