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Watson and the Future of Customer Service

These are the words that strike terror into the heart of the frustrated consumer:
“Your wait time will be approximately 20 minutes.”

“The customer service center is now closed. Please call back on Monday.”

“You have pressed an unassigned number in our phone support system.”

“Your call is very important to us.”

Such automated customer service phrases have entered the lexicon in the past couple of decades and now serve as harbingers of dread.

Calling an automated phone response system is often the low point of a customer’s day. Making a selection just leads to another question and then another, and before they know it, 15 minutes are gone. This is especially significant since the advent of social media enables even a single dissatisfied customer to have a huge impact.

Sometimes talking to a “live human” isn’t much better. If you’ve ever called customer support after wrestling with a home theater installation for a few hours – cables splayed out on the floor, Styrofoam packaging everywhere – maybe your experience wasn’t so great. Maybe you even felt that you didn’t even know what question to ask or how to begin.

As much as people like to blame the customer service reps, it’s not their fault. Just imagine the dizzying selection of products and information that they have to contend with. In retail electronics, for example, a rep will need to need to have at his or her fingertips detailed information about many different TVs, DVD players, cables, Internet TV options, wall mounts — and how they all fit together. And they’ll have to understand what the customer is talking about, over the phone, and provide the correct answers fast. We’re a long way from the days when you simply plugged in a new TV and played around with the rabbit ears.

That’s why the Watson computing system that won on Jeopardy! recently is such great news for retailers and other operators of customer support lines. Watson represents a tremendous breakthrough in the ability of computers to understand the language humans use in everyday conversation. It can evaluate the equivalent of hundreds of millions of pages of material – books, reports, articles and so on. It is not stymied by intricate wordplay. It can reason and learn and answer really tough questions in three seconds or less.

Watson technology could eliminate the frustrating automated customer service experiences that waste countless hours, fraying nerves, damaging customer loyalty.

It could turn these excruciating encounters into positive experiences. In a retail setting, Watson would be tied into all of the company’s product and customer information and could answer the most difficult questions immediately: How do I connect the Blu-ray to the TV? What about the Internet? Do I use the white cables or the blue cables? How do I install the security software on my laptop? What’s wrong with my cellphone?

Freed from the demands of having to remember countless details, service reps – whether on the phone or in stores – could concentrate on building relationships with customers. They could become a store’s best ambassadors; more proactive, less reactive.

In a world of too much data and too little time, Watson could turn customer support into one of the most positive interactions a consumer has with a retailer, creating the kind of satisfaction that merchants dream of.

It could serve as a powerful new tool in a retailer’s ongoing battle to build the brand and increase sales.

Carolyn Heller Baird ( is the global CRM research leader for IBM’s Institute for Business Value.