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Ideally, customers would never have questions or problems.

Products would never arrive broken or fail. Instructions would be clear. Credit card statements would never be inaccurate.

Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. A myriad of issues is inevitable with any product or service, and that’s why customer service exists: to address problems and get customers back on track.

Over the years, the methods for contacting customer service have been steadily changing. The telephone has remained a constant (if slowly diminishing) channel for service. Newer options like chat and social media have sprung up for one-to-one interactions. For customers who prefer to find an answer themselves, self-service has grown as a popular means of solving issues. Be it searching a knowledge base, chatting with a virtual agent or chatbot, or posting queries in an online community, customers have found these always-available channels convenient and often visit them first before contacting customer service directly.

Despite all these options, though, it’s still difficult and time-consuming to find answers. Customers wait in call or chat queues for live agents, explain their issue, and see if a solution is available. If they choose the self-service route, they must perform searches for solutions, hope the chatbot can provide an answer, or wait patiently for possible answers to their community-posted query. If it’s agreed that customer problems are unavoidable, that means customers’ work and wait for resolutions also isn’t going away. There has to be a better way.

As the year comes to a close and we enter a new decade, it’s a good time to imagine a better future for customer service. It’s one where customers don’t wait and the concept of a contact channel goes away. And it’s closer than we think.

Using the assistant we already have

This improved version of customer service starts with the tool so many people now rely on daily: the smartphone. It organizes names and calendars, and keeps us in touch with family, friends, and work colleagues. And when customers have problems, it’s probably what they use to call or chat with customer service (or use self-service).

Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant (or virtual assistants) are standard offerings on today’s smartphones. Early in their existence, they were more novelty than useful. Today, a user can ask them to perform many common tasks, such as sending text messages and searching the internet. Siri Shortcuts opens up a new world of possibilities: as common, manual tasks performed by the user, new spoken shortcut commands are suggested. Users can also create their own custom automations.

Now, picture asking Siri or Google Assistant to resolve a product or service issue or get a question answered on your behalf. Sound remarkable? In fact, everything is coming together to make this possible. In fact, Google has something like this today.

What’s at work

The work a virtual assistant does in analyzing people’s spoken words and determining intent is in and of itself incredible, despite its everyday availability. Turning that intent into action on the smartphone is also no small feat. The real challenge is taking the action beyond the device, and that’s where Google’s Duplex service is breaking new ground.

Google Assistant users can use Duplex to book restaurant reservations on their behalf. Assistant gathers the details–restaurant, diner count, date, and time–and passes it all to Duplex, which uses artificial intelligence and a mimicked human voice (most of the time) to call and make the reservation.

Behind the scenes, Duplex relies on voice recognition to parse and understand the person at the restaurant taking the reservation. From there, artificial intelligence interprets the responses, and a series of rules or workflow navigates the reservation-making process from start to finish. Though it has some problems, it offers a glimpse of an astonishing future of virtual assistants taking on many more tasks. And those tasks could include contacting customer service on our behalf to solve a problem.

It’s closer than we think

Though Duplex is still limited in its capabilities over a year after its unveiling, the concept of using virtual assistants has already been identified as the next evolution of self-service. As summed up in this Gartner article:

“Since customers won’t be able to keep up with the level of self-service required to manage their digital lives, they will delegate to their own bots to manage it for them. The customer self-service of the future is not just about the customers themselves, but both customers and their bots.”

Anthony Mullen, senior research director

“Their own bots” is referring to virtual assistants. In other words, it would be possible to ask Siri or Google Assistant to engage with customer service to challenge an incorrect credit card charge, change packages with a streaming service, or request warranty replacement on a broken product.

Gartner further predicts that by 2030, personal technologies like smartphones will be people’s primary interaction channel. Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2009) will represent the largest customer base at that point, and they have shown to be the most comfortable using technology to make their lives easier. This will drive the development and use of customer-directed automation technologies to obtain service and assistance.

Customer service transformed

Imagine starting your day tasking Siri or Google Assistant with the customer service calls you would otherwise be making during small breaks in the day–and that assumes you had sufficient time to get through to a live agent or could find the answer in self-service. Suppose by the end of the day (if not sooner!) your virtual assistant performed whatever tasks were necessary to resolve the issue.

Products and services will always have issues and 2020 won’t be the year we realize this huge leap forward in customer service. However, the pieces are coming together and the future state for customer service means significantly less effort and faster answers for customers.