Self checkout is one way machines have replaced customer service. (thekirbster/flickr CC BY 2.0)

Man vs. machine: That’s the debate going on in almost every industry, particularly in regard to customer service.

To put it in perspective, CNBC recently reported that 25 percent of all U.S. jobs are at high risk from automation, because 70 percent or more of their duties could be completed by machines.

Think about restaurants where tablets are used to take orders instead of waiters, Amazon’s grocery stores where no cashier is needed, and beyond. Online, the trend is the same, which many companies employing chat bots to solve your inquiries instead of an actual human being.

But at the same time, automation has a long way to go. Frustration levels often remain high when we are forced to interact with machines and bots only.

When is automation better?

There are many scenarios where a machine can do the job fine on its own in regard to customer service. These situations involve basic, routine processes where the questions and answers involved are most often the same.

Ordering anything we want online is usually a breeze. We rarely call a travel agent to purchase airline tickets anymore. And many times when we think we are speaking to a human online, we are actually talking to a bot and just don’t know it because they are doing everything just as well as a human.

In the IT realm, basic problems like password resets can easily be solved without any human involvement. Automation can also be a critical element of systems that prioritize level of importance of customer inquiries.

Humans still needed

Those working in customer service industries who are worried about the future may relax knowing that automation is not always the answer.

While chat bots can do a lot, and can be programmed to think more like humans, they will never offer the full range of support a human can provide. They will never be able to form a human bond, which can be necessary to resolve an issue.

Also, when a customer decides to go off-script, a bot’s effectiveness suffers. In these scenarios, a situation that a human could solve very quickly may not be solved, and the best bots will signal at that point for a human to get involved.

In my business, I focus heavily on streamlining the customer experience, and I use automation where it will help boost customer experience and satisfaction.

But I also recognize that it’s critical for a properly trained help desk staff to be on hand for times when those automated systems aren’t enough, as not having this option could lead to unhappy customers. I appreciate the automation, but can never forget what my staff brings to the table in terms of service.

Man working with machine

It’s understandable that many people are fearful about what’s to come as automation becomes more advanced, and those are legitimate concerns that must be addressed on a large scale as we educate future generations for jobs of the future.

But in the short term, the best solution for customer service is an appropriate combination of automating more routine tasks, and human beings using the skills machines don’t have to complete the remaining customer interactions.

Machines and bots will play a large role in our future as automation grows, but I don’t see them pushing human workers in the service industry completely out of the picture anytime soon.

Kelly Siegel is CEO of National Technology Management in Bingham Farms. NTM can be reached at 248-658-0829; Siegel can be reached by email at