One unfortunate day in 2007, a software glitch grounded 17,000 planes at Los Angeles International Airport. The computer system used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the airport transmitted inaccurate data across the network, ultimately shutting down and leaving thousands of LAX passengers stranded until the system went back online.

That’s an extreme situation, but there’s a lesson in it for companies of all sizes — no matter how high quality the technology is that you’re using, it isn’t 100 percent foolproof.

If you’re using technology for routine functions, you need to attach an escape hatch. That reprieve should be a manual option, one that can maintain service and avoid disappointing or aggravating customers.

The Upside to Automation

Automation is a growing concern for employers and employees; people fear losing their jobs to machines, which some experts say is justified. But a McKinsey study reveals that a mere 5 percent of jobs will undergo total automation in the near future, while research from the Social Sciences Research Network suggests that, in our current economy, computers often create the same number of jobs they render obsolete.

Instead of waiting for robots to take over, companies must prepare their employees to take on new roles alongside their machine counterparts. Used correctly, technology can automate responses to routine and frequent customer questions; off-loading those queries to an automated tool can reduce the number of people needed on the back end.

Those who remain in those areas develop specialized skills, can handle more complex tasks, and spend the time necessary with each customer to deliver an amazing experience. It’s much easier to focus on training hundreds of highly skilled, capable people than to nurture the talents of 1,000 employees.

Just as important, automation also benefits customers. If their questions don’t fall into run-of-the-mill categories, they can rest easy knowing they’ll be transferred to knowledgeable representatives. Because these associates don’t waste time memorizing low-level information, they can dive headfirst into more complex needs and questions.

Of course, you must be attentive to customer reception. If people are accustomed to speaking with live representatives, they’re going to be irritated when they realize they now must go through an automated assistant. Still, most will adapt if you’re sensitive about how you implement the new tools.

Make sure you’re listening to customers as you test these new tools. Otherwise, you’re not going to save as much money as you’d expect because people will leave you when they can’t get the answers or support they need. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated a tool is if it doesn’t work for your audience.

Machines and Humans Working in Tandem

The key to automated success is understanding how the technology fits into your customer experience. In my view, automation works best for simple support questions. It offers convenience and immediacy. Thanks to the proliferation of e-commerce, people are already familiar with automated shopping processes that further simplify the customer experience by eliminating the need to call an 800-number just to ask basic questions.

The best use of this technology is mechanizing simple routines and then analyzing how many inquiries fall into those categories. The data you gather will allow you to redefine your workforce around your core needs, and then staff up in the areas that aren’t conducive to automated tools and that require judgment and compassion.

Before you shift to automation, however, you must create a carefully curated database that updates in real time. Your training team should work off this same database, and customers who elect to self-serve must also have access to this information set to ensure consistency across interactions.

Alaska Airlines offers a particularly cohesive customer experience. Its system tracks the information you search on the website, and the automated responses center around your demonstrated interests. If you’re booking a flight from San Francisco to Seattle and can’t locate the baggage fees, the system knows this. You’re not starting from square one when you ping the service; it knows where you’re stuck so it doesn’t waste your time.

A Need for New Skill Sets

Automation should streamline your support processes, but it also requires retraining of your front-line team, particularly on how to engage with the technology. Employees must understand where customers have been before they call an associate. They should know whether someone has tried to resolve a problem through the automated chat system and which queries they searched before opting to call. Representatives will feel much more confident helping customers if they know what they’re trying to achieve and where they’ve been before in speaking with the representative.

Good customer service depends on knowledgeable, capable associates, so make sure you’re nurturing talented individuals and giving them opportunities to excel. Ideally, automation enables workers to focus on the areas in which they shine. For instance, lawyers and paralegals now outsource the legal discovery process to computer systems, cutting back on the amount of time and money it takes to perform the job manually. Automation allows law firms to put their best and brightest on high-level tasks while computers take care of the routine work.

Rather than fear automation, businesses should embrace it. Chatbots and other automation technologies allow for more personalized and enriched customer experiences, and they facilitate the development of a more expert workforce. As long as you always maintain your emergency escape hatch, people and technology can work beautifully together.