7 Tips to Avoid the Uncanny Valley of Customer Service

Did you ever get really angry with a company? Chances are, you didn't get angry about the issue itself, but about the inhumane process through which it was addressed.

There are few things more frustrating than being at the mercy of a bureaucratic machine, going through rules and procedures that don't make sense, with service reps that don't seem out to help you.

I read an article by Rafe Sagarin that hit the sweet spot: "Customer Service Needs to be Either More or Less Robotic". He makes an analogy with the uncanny valley of robotics, which captures all that’s wrong with today’s state of customer support.

In the uncanny valley of robotics, people like and accept robots as long as they clearly look like robots. Think Wall-E, R2D2, etc.

But as soon as they start to look a lot like humans, but not quite, they freak us out. Think the humanoid Sophia below at the SXSW conference. We stay freaked out up until the point that they’re indistinguishable from humans. Think TV series Real Humans or Westworld.

gif of Wall-E
Wall-E: cute.
gif of the humanoid robot at the SXSW convention
Sophia from Hanson Robotics: freaky.

Sagarin then compares this freaky valley of robotics to present day issues in customer service. People don’t have problems with ‘lifeless service’ like FAQ forms – the equivalent of the industrial robot. Nor do they have problems with real-time conversations with empowered employees.

infographic of the uncanny valley of robotics
The uncanny valley of robotics, free interpretation.

What does cause resentment, however, is dealing with frontline employees who can only follow procedures – even if those procedures don’t make any sense. Likewise, they resent waiting in queue for minutes on end; or hearing the same standard sentences over and over again.

Customer service enters the uncanny valley when it’s delivered by humans without humanity.

So how to get out of this uncanny valley of customer service? Here are some tips – some do’s and don’ts – to make your customer service more human and personal.

1
Empower your employees

You might have heard this one before. Customer service is highly variable by nature. Frances X. Frei lists at least 5 types of service variability:

  • Arrival
  • Request
  • Capability
  • Effort
  • Subjective preference

Rules and policies are the organizational knee-jerk response to uncertainty. They create feelings of control for management, but can be extremely debilitating for frontline employees and customers.

When a corner-case issue pops up, the employees’ first response will be to consult the rulebook. When the specific situation isn’t covered, they’ll have no choice but to escalate the issue to their managers, who might have to do the same.

The result: a frustrating customer experience that takes much more time, money, and resources than necessary. Your employees have become an extension of a rigid machine. They’ve lost their humanity in dealing with the customer.

infographic of the uncanny valley of customer service
The uncanny valley of customer service, free interpretation.

Now contrast that to an empowered employee with the powers of common sense and authority to solve the customer issue. No escalations, no delays, no frustrations.

Sagarin compares two of his service experiences; one with Dell, the other with Apple. Both times he was experiencing a corner case issue, falling just outside of the respective return and warranty policy. But while Dell stuck to their rigid – and in this case wholly unfair – policy, the Apple employee was empowered to bend the rules.

Guess which laptop brand he’s still using now?

Empowering your employees isn’t easy, though. I recommend reading our previous post on customer service philosophy, and Inc’s 8 Tips on Empowering Employees.

2
Be identity transparent

My internet provider always signs its emails with:

“Kind regards, Telfort Customer Service”

They do address me with my name. Likewise, some weeks ago I couldn’t start a support chat with my bank ING without first providing my name. But the support rep I was connected to didn’t return the favor; it just said “ING service”.

These are clear cases from the uncanny valley of customer service. An information asymmetry that’s alien to any normal human interaction.

Whether it’s in writing or voice, a name should be part of any service interaction. Similarly, it's weird to have a chat when the other side's profile image isn't the picture of the person.

3
Use friendly, down to earth language

I’ve mentioned a few bad examples. To not sound like a total grouch, I’d like to kick this point off with a company that nailed it: Buffer. Below an excerpt from an email they sent me two weeks ago:

screenshot of buffer email

This email covers a potentially sensitive topic, but the tone of voice succeeds in making the interaction entirely non-threatening. It starts off on a positive note, followed by a personal introduction, and is written in an easy, friendly style. It feels like an email you’d receive from a befriended colleague. It feels human.

Why is this style so hard to find these days?

It’s too big of a topic to dive into too deeply, but Sam Ford wrote a powerful piece about it: “Rediscovering Your Company’s Humanity”.

Professional training has distanced us from fundamental principles of human communication

Sam Ford

He argues that a company is made up out of different personalities through its different departments, each with their own goals, metrics, and ways of looking at the customer. What’s more, those communicating with the customer have often never belonged to that group, making empathy difficult.

I see the pompous emails that companies send us as an expression of insecurity. The actual senders don't know you, they only know they want to appear professional. The results are awkwardly stiff emails that feel cold and inhumane.

4
Avoid customer service cliché’s

This flows from the above, but deserves its own section. Under the guise of professionalism, many service replies include standard sentences that you only hear in service contexts. Service cliché’s, if you will.

Some examples:

  • “Thanks for your visit, please come again”
  • “It’s our policy to…”

These lack any sincerity, how could you take them seriously?

The first rule in The Economist’s Style Guide on writing states: “Never use a Metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” A customer communication style guide should include a similar rule. Such lazy sentences show that you don’t care.

5
Focus on the context

Sam Ford correctly notes that customers tend to consider companies as individuals, and ignore the fact that they’re actually made up out of many moving parts.

This reality of customers not interacting with one person, but with many people, makes that they often have to restate their situation or issue.

If you manage to live up to the customer expectation of being a coherent entity, however, your service will appear human. This means that whenever a customer returns, the context is always clear: Her buying history, past issues, indicated wishes, etc.

This takes plenty of effort in areas like system integration and information flow structures, but it’s worth it. It’s what omnichannel marketing is all about.

One channel that’s especially promising for this is messaging, that thing you’re doing with your friends via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Companies are now starting to use it for customer service, and it has the benefit of having the entire conversation history — the context — in one flow.

6
Avoid Waiting Queues

A simplistic tip perhaps, but the experience of a waiting queue is definitely inhumane. Have you ever waited in a structured line just to talk to a friend? Everybody hates waiting queues; we've just come to accept them as a necessary evil.

The more you minimize waiting, though, the more humane your company will feel. Impossible without escalating costs? That’s true, if you rely on phone support only. But if you adopt newer technologies, you can strongly reduce the pressure on your hotlines.

One example is live chat software for websites, like Userlike. One live chat agent can chat with up to 10 website visitors simultaneously – although we advise a cap of 6. This radically increases efficiency, especially in combination with intelligent use of predefined answers.

screenshot of Userlike live chat
With live chat, 1 service agent can chat with up to 10 customers at the same time.

Other examples are intelligent FAQ’s, messenger support, chatbots, etc. All these offer instant support without escalating your service efficiency.

7
Keep your chatbots bot-like

Chatbots are receiving plenty of media attention and are expected to play a major role in customer service. One company that’s been using a chatbot for support for quite some years is IKEA.

If you ever visited their website, you might be familiar with chatbot Anna. Anna has recently been taken to the robot cemetery, but she’s answered online questions for over 10 years.

screenshot of Anna, IKEA's chatbot
Anna, the IKEA chatbot, has welcomed web visitors for over 10 years.

Anna is, however, a perfect specimen from the uncanny valley of customer service. Has she been successful? I guess so. But I'd argue that she’s been successful despite, not due to, her configuration.

The problem with Anna was that she was neither clearly robot or human. Her name, image, and texts were ambiguous. When you chatted with her for the first time, you might have thought you were chatting with a human – or at least with an intelligent online assistant.

But as David Meerman Scott pointed out, her limited answers were disappointing, and she was actually nothing more than an online greeter. She was neither human nor robot, the chatbot equivalent of Japanese humanoids.

Compare Ikea’s Anna to one of her most successful colleagues: Slackbot. Slackbot is an unambiguous chatbot belonging to Slack, the popular tool for internal communication. Its wording, name, and looks send a unified message: I'm a chatbot.

screenshot of Slackbot conversation
Slackbot isn't smart. But at least he doesn't pretend to be.

Although Slackbot can be useful, he’s very clear about his lack of intelligence. He sets the right expectations, and he doesn’t freak us out. Because of that, Slackbot is on the right side of the uncanny valley.