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The rise of the humans - the role of service agents in the era of AI

Eric Jorgensen Profile picture for user Eric Jorgensen December 19, 2023
Bots can't do your festive shopping for you, but can lighten the load when combined with human agents. Zendesk's Eric Jorgensen argues that service agents and AI in retail can boost the customer experience.

Christmas presents in a shopping cart AI online shopping concept © AZemdega -
(© AZemdega -

We’re in the midst of another Christmas shopping season, where consumers are looking for the best deals for gifts, but they don’t want to spend hours looking for them. The more presents shoppers have to buy, the more stressful the whole experience can be. That’s why they’re looking for tools that will give them a helping hand.

A recent survey commissioned by Zendesk investigated consumer trust of AI in retail. It found that nearly half (46%) of UK shoppers are likely to give up personal data to AI platforms, in order to find the perfect holiday purchase. This suggests AI can help alleviate the stress of gift shopping. Additionally, two fifths (38%) of those surveyed would trust AI to find the best price during the holiday shopping season.

Bots that can take on the strain of gift hunting, so that you can relax with an eggnog beside the fire sounds exciting. Better still, it’s a technology that’s gaining trust — and traction — among consumers. However, currently, people only trust AI to a point.

If we look at the entire customer journey, AI is an appealing technology for sourcing and buying gifts but if customers have questions about their order, they want to know that a human is available to have peace of mind. In fact, a third of people are concerned it would take longer to resolve an issue with AI than speaking directly to a human. And over half (56%) of online shoppers feel most comfortable using AI-powered tools to support online shopping when they know they can speak to a customer service agent if needed.

A good outlook for AI

Although there is healthy skepticism, generally speaking, consumers value the benefits of AI-powered support — the most common of which is speed of query resolution – which was mentioned by 38% of survey respondents. But they also want to have human agents on hand to intervene when the chatbots don’t get it right.

There’s an important lesson for the CX and retail industries: we shouldn’t look to create an either/or scenario when it comes to AI and human agents. Both have their place and will continue to have their place in the future. It’s important to identify what bots do best and lean into those areas. On comparable repetitive tasks such as providing order updates, a human will never be able to compete for speed with a bot. The best approach is to leverage AI so that it increases the speed and quality you are able to provide customers and have humans focus on complex issues and building the systems to make that happen.

Long live the service agent

The aim of retail organizations should not be to fully replace service agents because they will always offer value, particularly when it comes to showing empathy and responding to human emotions. But with AI tools able to deliver routine tasks at speed, we don’t need humans to do the same work but slower and with more margin for error.

Human agents should do two key tasks in the future. The first is to build trust. Trust is the ultimate currency of the future, and as we’ve seen from the data, people don’t inherently trust AI, but they do trust the people who work alongside AI. In the near future, humans should be visible, reachable, and be a calming presence in escalated situations. If shoppers know that human agents are available should they need them, they will be much more likely to use chatbots.

We’re not necessarily trying to get more people to focus on capabilities of AI tools, we’re hoping to build trust in the overall CX offering. AI is certainly part of the mix but ultimately the best customer experience is one where the entire solution can be trusted to respond with speed, accuracy, and compassion.

The second task for human agents of the future is to analyze, improve and grow. We’ll always need people to analyze the data that AI collates. The added value is in improvements that can be made from the insights we’re seeing. And although we’ll increasingly be prompted by AI, people will always like to connect with people, and humans will always play a key role in growing the business and increasing loyalty.

People and technology improve customer experiences

There’s no disputing the fact that we’ll see more and more use cases for AI in the retail space. And if fighting the crowds in the busy shopping malls in December doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, the online capabilities to pick presents and find low prices is a real boon. Looking forward, the combination of switched-on empathetic and analytical agents working alongside AI tools will make better experiences for customers.

Zendesk’s survey was conducted among 800 consumers in the UK in October 2023. 

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