The Rise of the Machine Customer: The Next Emerging Market for CX

Written by Mani Makkar on Aug 18, 2022

Staying abreast of all things CX is something we take seriously at Netomi, and the rise of the machine customer is a phenomenon that is shaping the future. This sounds futuristic, bringing to mind images of assembly lines and TV shows such as Westworld. To clarify, the customers themselves are not machines, rather, machine customers, such as virtual personal assistants or smart products, will perform customer service activities on behalf of their human customers for lower customer effort.

To highlight the growing prominence, and power, of machines doing much of the heavy lifting: today, there are more than 7 billion smart devices worldwide, while, in the U.S. alone, Amazon’s Alexa has gained more than 80,000 skills.

Let’s look at some examples of truly proactive customer support, delivered by machines.

HP Instant Ink monitors ink and toner levels, then orders cartridges from HP before the printer runs out of ink. Ink cartridges are proactively shipped before the customer runs out. Effortlessly, the customer is not involved in the entire transaction.

Google Duplex makes calls on behalf of customers in a natural-sounding human voice, the technology is directed towards completing “real world” specific tasks over the phone, such as scheduling appointments. For instance, if a customer asks ‘Hey Google, can you book a haircut appointment,’ Google will phone the salon, speak to the agent and book the appointment.

The Evolution of the Machine Customer

There are three phases in the evolution of the machine customer:

With the bound customer, there is a clearly defined set of rules that exist before the machine customer begins to make any decisions. In this case, the customer is taking the lead, such as asking a machine to order more milk when they run out, on their behalf. This is happening today (consider all of the grocery lists created with Alexa and Siri’s assistance)!

The adaptable customer will make optimized selections among competing products, based on rules. In this phase, there is a shared lead between humans and machines, that is, neither takes the decision unilaterally. For instance, after gathering details about a customer’s financial situation and future goals through an online survey, robo-advisors such as Betterment use this data to offer the customer advice and automatically invest for them. Gartner is predicting this phase to become a reality by 2026.

The autonomous customer infers customer needs, based on rules, context and preference, even when they haven’t been explicitly stated by the customer. In this case, the machine itself has its own needs. Taking concepts from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and applying it to machines, the machine’s self-actualization needs, which sit at the top of the pyramid hierarchy, relate to the amount of positive change it can bring to the life of the customer. For instance, this could involve informing them that they should adopt healthier eating habits so as to lower their risk for obesity. In this case, the ‘thing’ (machine) both leads the interaction and execution. This is the level of autonomous customers that companies are trying to manufacture, and, by 2025, Gartner predicts that 37% of customers will try using a virtual assistant to interact with customer service.

What Does the Rise of the Machine Customer Mean for CX?

In this new machine customer era, business models, along with customer experience itself, must be rethought. Whereas previously, customers would phone, email, or send a message to support teams, the machine customer is now preemptively or proactively doing this task, in what becomes an effortless experience for the customer. Imagine, as a human, not taking any action at all, or even not knowing about an issue before it is seamlessly resolved?

Original source: Gartner

However, there is a distance that will come between CX teams and customers, and one that results in a conundrum for CX leaders – at which point in the journey will they need to loop in human customers? While a human touch is essential for CX teams, with the presence of machine customers this will become increasingly difficult to maintain, making room for a potential disconnect to occur. That is, you can ‘wine and dine’ your way to loyalty with a human customer, but with a machine, this is not so easy to do. There are situations in which the human customer will be impacted and they will need to be involved, for instance, due to manufacturing delays, their car will not be ready for several days. This is where the concept of having a ‘human-in-the-loop’ becomes key – ensure that the human customer is always kept in the loop. Rather than having a human-centric CX, which relies on developing a customer understanding through voice of the customer insights, there is now the voice of the human plus the ‘thing’ to account for.

As CX leaders, we have to consider:

  • Which tasks will machine customers actually perform? This could encompass, for instance, waiting in queues, repurchasing items, making appointments, and disputing charges. Do customers want to re-order paper towels each time they are running low, or have a machine automatically do this?
  • How do we recognize when a machine customer is contacting us, versus a human customer? We might not be able to tell the difference.
  • With requests coming through various channels, such as chat and email, is our organization equipped to handle these machine customers (bot-to-bot interactions)? As many of us design and construct our AI solutions with human users in mind, how will these machine customers interact with our chatbots and navigate these experiences?

Summing it Up

It is a whole new, machine-driven world out there. The rise of the machine customer is shaping the CX landscape, and, for CX leaders, a new mindset is required when crafting customer experiences.