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What Do Service Desk Professionals Really Think About Automation?

How long will it be until service desks are managed completely by artificial intelligence? Or will automation simply enhance the human service desk presence? To find out, Clearvision and the Service Desk Institute sought the views of those working in the industry.

The Service Desk Institute has released the results of its Clearvision-sponsored Analyst 2.0 survey, and the increasing role of automation and artificial intelligence has been put in the spotlight. 69% of survey respondents said they already use this kind of technology in their service, with management looking to expand it further in future.

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The survey results, which a wide range of service desk analysts responded to throughout June and July 2017, paint an intriguing picture. Before we look at these figures in more detail, let’s consider where automated technology currently is and where it might be headed.

Rise of the Machines

Robot using a laptop / kjpargeter / Freepik

The future of service desks?

One of the most frequently posited views is that automation and AI will replace people. With technology like virtual assistants becoming more common, it’s no wonder many people predict that jobs will ultimately go to machines instead of humans.

Not long ago, that might have seemed like far-fetched doom-mongering, but today it’s a much more realistic prospect. Just think about the myriad ways we already use automated systems to resolve problems, and it’s easy to see why some people think the service desk industry could be one of the first to go.

Contact, say, your bank, broadband provider or local council by phone, and you’ll normally have to go through a series of automated steps before you’re ever allowed anywhere near a real person.

You’ll also find automated virtual assistants popping up to greet you on websites, offering assistance in a live chat environment. Of course, being entirely text-based, it is possible you could be being greeted by a real person – but unless someone is literally sitting in front of a computer, waiting for you to visit that page, it’s probably safe to assume this tiny digital person is in fact an automated message.

What’s interesting is how frequently these virtual interactions eventually lead to real people. So when you take up the offer of live chat, you’re put in a chat room with someone from the service desk. And automated phone systems normally have an option to hold the line to talk to someone, which many of us do (often while being tortured by the same repeating loop of terrible, royalty-free hold music).

Yet many customer requests and problems can be resolved without any kind of human input at all. For example, you can book cinema tickets without ever speaking to any theatre employees, and you can arrange for engineers to fix your ailing internet connection, simply by filling in online forms.

That’s both impressive and scary at the same time. But there are limits to what these systems can achieve, and right now, people are ultimately still a necessity for service desk providers.

However, with automation processes improving and artificial intelligence making huge strides in recent years, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if humans might soon be replaced in service desk environments. Surprisingly, those working in the customer services industry are more optimistic.

Crunching the Numbers

Service desk headcount pie chart

As we said at the beginning of this article, 69% of analysts’ services already involve automation and self service, with management looking to push this even further.

That doesn’t sound like an encouraging result for service desk professionals, but when asked about headcount, the majority of respondents still said they actually expect it to increase in the next three to five years.

On the face of it, this appears contradictory. Surely the more automation there is, the less need there will be for service desk employees? Assuming they’re correct and that headcounts will continue to grow, why might this be the case?

Well, for a start, IT in general is growing worldwide. The needs of established organisations may gradually become greater and more complex, for example, while emerging markets offer bountiful riches of untapped potential. In short, automation and artificial intelligence might be creating downward pressure on headcounts, but not enough to offset the overall effects of worldwide IT growth.

If automation and AI do continue to improve at the pace they have been, it’s easy to let pessimism take hold and to suggest service desk professionals, like many workers, are doomed to be replaced – if not in the next five years, then perhaps in the next 20. Again, though, that’s speculation, and what we can see already is how automation can actually go hand in hand with traditional, manned service desk practices, suggesting a far brighter vision for the industry’s future.

The Human Touch

Service desk lady / pressfoto / Freepik

Real people remain an invaluable part of effective customer service.

When asked which areas of their service were automated, 41% of respondents said password resets, and 33% said account creation, management and termination. Only 1%, in contrast, pointed to troubleshooting.

From this, we can perhaps assume that automation is still no replacement for direct person-to-person interaction when it comes to problem solving, which requires a level of understanding and creativity that computers are unable to muster. So anything that gives people more time to do this kind of work, the better – and that’s where automation makes sense. By taking small, repetitive tasks like password resets away from service desk professionals, those same people can dedicate more time to direct customer support.

That’s particularly important, because for all the technological advancements coming to service desks, we can’t simply assume that customers will actually know how or want to use them. Only 43% of service desk professionals think users are becoming happier with self-service facilities; 29% are unsure and 28% gave a definite no.

Automating repetitive tasks can reduce the workload of
analysts, which frees up time and resources to allow for
more proactive and innovative activates, therefore increasing
productivity and service quality, as well as the overall
efficiency of the service desk.

This struggle to increase adoption could be the result of technological ability on the part of users – something that might become less true as the current tech-savvy generation mature.

But it might also be the case that people simply prefer talking to people, even when given the option of an automated alternative. That might explain why only 5% of service desks have implemented AI or virtual assistants, while the majority (64%) haven’t yet begun looking into these technologies.

If that’s the case, then it’s worth asking what it is that humans offer that AI can’t. What makes an effective service desk professional? Well, according to Analyst 2.0, customer service skills and empathy are by far the most important skills needed, with 55% pointing this out. Artificial intelligence has many benefits, but empathy is unlikely to become one of them for many decades – if ever. The survey results suggest technical skills will become more important in three to five years (67%), but empathy remains near the top of the list of required attributes (65%).

Clearly, the human factor is seen as an invaluable part of the service desk equation, and that’s good news for those in the industry – as well as the customers that rely on it. Software tools like JIRA Service Desk may offer ever more sophisticated and powerful automated processes, but these complement rather than replace humans.

Atlassian_JIRA_Service_Desk_Logo_Stacked

With features like auto-approval of tickets and auto-triage of email requests, JIRA Service Desk enables service desk professionals to spend more time working directly with customers.

Conclusion

Predicting the future is rarely a good idea, especially in a written format, which people can gleefully throw back at you when you turn out to be wrong – but we’re going to do it here anyway.

It seems probable that manned service desks will need fewer human operatives to function in future. It might take another 20 years to get to the point where AI takes the majority of customer requests, but we will eventually move in that direction.

But if empathy still matters to the people of tomorrow, then there’ll still be a place for good old-fashioned homo sapiens. When customers contact you to report a problem, they want to feel like you actually care – not something a machine can do, no matter how efficient it is. Maybe one day AI will be so good at faking empathy that customers won’t even know the difference. Maybe they’ll even, in their own way, be programmed to act with genuine empathy. That, though, is a whole other can of worms…

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Anthony is a writer, proofreader and technology enthusiast. He has an on-off (mostly off) relationship with Twitter, and an on-off (mostly on) relationship with ice cream.