Client Centricity and Chatbots – Innovation or Anathema?

I never use chatbots unless I absolutely have to. At best, I find them useless, at worst a nuisance.

Recently, however, I was forced to use a chatbot which, at first, I found surprisingly useful and efficient. Until I didn‘t.

My relationship with that particular specimen, let’s call it Marvin, began when my evening flight from Frankfurt to Berlin was cancelled due to operational shortcomings in connection with weather happening as forecast. After having spent 1.5 hours in the parking position just to be told to offboard eventually,  I was initially quite impressed that, before I had even left the plane, Marvin pro-actively suggested a rescheduled flight and also promised to find me a hotel. Now, there was never a follow-up on that hotel  offer, which I did not mind, because friends were happy to let me crash. Also, I was not interested in the rescheduled flight offered for the next morning as it would not have brought me to Berlin on time. Thus, I tried to politely refuse Marvin‘s rescheduling offer.

This is where our relationship turned sour. Because Marvin would not accept „no“ for an answer. After some searching, I found an option for just claiming a refund. However, that link routed me straight be back to Marvin, who insisted on rescheduling me. After I stubbornly insisted on the refund, Marvin lost its temper and just went ahead and checked me in. Bammm, take that, bitch!

By then, it was close to midnight, it was cold and I was on my way to my final resting place for that night. So, in my utter desperation, I called the hotline. On the other end, a friendly lady based in Manila picked up the receiver, checked me out of that blasted flight and arranged for my refund within a few minutes. Marvin, mate, should you still be out there: No hard feelings! I hope, you did not get your algorithm in a twist about this. I know it was just  the way you were programmed.

Where the algorithm branches off

Which gets us right to the heart of the matter: The way that chatbot functioned gave me a pretty good idea of the true purpose and culture of the company that had it programmed: While I initially thought, Marvin’s purpose was to help me solve a problem fast and conveniently,  it turned out that its prime purpose was to help the company solve its problem fast and conveniently – i.e. not having to pay a refund . Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes, these problems and interests naturally overlap, as they did in the first step, when fast rescheduling was offered. After that, however, the algorithm obviously branched off in the direction of the company. One might say that this is a legitimate course of action. It sure is. But it is not “client-centric”.

How far do you want to go?

A company that feels  the calling of client-centricity might thus want to ask itself an honest question before venturing out on that exciting path: How far do we want to go?

Where does the  algorithm branch off? Perhaps at the point where Marvin lost it, i.e. where staying customer focused would have lost the carrier real money. Or, taking another classic use case,  where staying customer focused would mean dealing appropriately with angry clients instead of channeling them into the cost efficient death spiral of chatbots and unmanned hotline-loops. It’s a bit like in a romantic relationship: At what point do the flowers stop coming? Do you only give it your all until the question is popped and answered in the affirmative, or do you keep making an effort to keep things enjoyable for both partners in the long term? Does customer focus end when a purchase is made, or are complaints handled with the same attention and dedication? Is the primary use of chatbots  and any other tools and services, such as hotlines etc., about the convenience of the company in dealing with clients or is it about the convenience of the client in dealing with the company? It can be both in many cases, but sometimes it can’t. And the latter are the moments when your real attitude shows.

Do you have client-centricity in you?

Let’s assume you really want to go all in on customer-centricity. Then, the next question would be: Do you have this in you? Does your company have it in it to serve and do so joyfully, or would you much rather like to rule and dictate?  Is the energy in your organization geared towards service in every possible way? Does it flow towards  those beautiful employees who are your face to the clients? Are they properly skilled and supported? Do backoffice functions understand that the lovely colleagues in the front office are their clients, whom they must serve as joyfully as the sales team takes care of external clients? Are suppliers treated like they are a valued part of the “cosmos of serving” or is their life energy squeezed out of them?

When it comes to the design of any customer facing tools such as chatbots, a central question would be: who are the human beings behind these tools and how much of their personality and mindset is reflected in them?  How much do these beautiful people understand about the various contexts of use? How much do they know about the clientele using it? How much do they care about the client? Is “client centricity” something that features in their job description? Is it relevant for their pay or their job satisfaction?

Is your culture geared to it?

In the last analysis, these questions lead us straight to the culture or general atmosphere human beings operate in. What are the real priorities – i.e. the mantras that are hammered in monthly or weekly in calls or sales meetings – and what are the priorities flaunted in Sunday speeches? Do these match, or do they compete with or are even in conflict with one another? Does the general atmosphere in the company allow for the sales team to open up all their reception channels joyfully to their clients or is their attention distracted by fear inducers, such as “ambitious” sales targets? Where do clients really rank in the overall order of things? Are they really more important than efficiency, cost saving, profits,  ratings, league tables or the mood of the capital market? Does the company truly value the “people persons“ and their skills i.e. those employees who are the actual faces to the clients, or does it suggest to them that any old chatbot could do their jobs just as well?

Depending on how far a company is willing to go in its effort to extend Tender Love And Care to all their clients, for better or worse, it might be really client centric or still stuck in client targeting, which is the opposite of being client centric. While client centricity is a wholistic exercise of  two-way-communication across all stages, levels and touch-points of a client relationship, customer targeting is a one-way, data-driven highway used for getting stuff out. While customer targeting is about getting messages across, client centricity is about listening closely and responding appropriately. While client targeting is about optimizing AI to get customers handled efficiently, client centricity is about helping employees (aka True Intelligence) to be more perceptive of clients’ needs and wants, wherever they are in the company. Tools can have a place helping employees to do exactly that.

Like the beautiful lady in Manila, who understood the exhaustion and despair of a fellow human being and just used her skills and tech to help.

(c) Sabine Breit