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In a 2015 skit, Saturday Night Live depicts a customer service automation initiative gone wrong. The airline experiments with AI by introducing bionic flight attendants, depicted brilliantly by Scarlett Johansen and Vanessa Bayer, in the first-class cabin. Although initially wowed, the passengers’ mood quickly changes as the robots’ programmed services and responses fail to deliver. “Happy Halloween,” one robot wishes a bemused businessman despite it being the month of May (out-of-date content). The other mistakes a middle-aged woman as a scared child flying alone (faulty persona-identifying algorithm). Discontent ensues as the flight attendants start pelting everyone with hot towels (poor UE/UI studies and use cases). The Capitan, in an effort to reassure the passengers, unleashes praise upon the technology even if a software update is direly needed. At the end of the skit, for reasons known only by the machines’ programmers, one robot takes out the co-pilot and positions itself to fly the airplane.

As it happens, 2015 was a long time ago, and, in the real-world, advances in AI are looking much more promising. In NPR’s recent Planet Money newsletter, Greg Rosalsky reports on economists - led by Stanford University’s Erik Brynjolfsson - who studied a major company’s adoption of generative AI, Large Language Model, and chat and their impact on service rep engagement and customer experience.

Implemented a few years ago, the anonymous company’s 5,000 service reps communicate with their clients over chat and use a chatbot to answer questions and formulate customer messages. The researchers found that customer service reps were 14% more productive, happier, less stressed, faster, and less likely to quit. That is huge. In the customer service industry, 60% of reps quit each year. Customers also gave higher ratings to support staff and reported a better experience.

Some may see these results and muse about the end of human customer service reps. But this is not at all the key takeaway. The secret to this company’s successful AI-driven customer service initiative is in the details.

First, the chat was drawing upon a massive archive of years’ worth of customer/rep chat interactions. The chat’s success in providing accurate responses is based on the company’s own high performing reps. This insight is backed by findings. While the chat increased performance by 14% on average, there was little performance impact on the company’s high performers. The company knew how to exploit its customer service data to foster a positive experience.

Second, the chatbot freed reps to give more attention customer needs. The company saw an improvement in customer satisfaction, but this was orchestrated by the human rep. This company clearly invested heavily in AI but saw the chatbot as a tool for their existing workforce. Clearly such initiative was rolled out after careful consideration of customer needs.

Third, as we have seen, technology will continue to evolve. With advances in AI, chats will most likely become more effective in treating customer demands. The best companies will know how to leverage technology and adapt it to its current capabilities, assets, and target customers. This company under study did not just roll out hyped up technology but implemented it strategically.

What experience are you trying to achieve for your customer? What is your customer-facing teams’ role in delivering that experience? What aspects can be automated, and where does a human profile the best service? How can AI be used as a medium to exploit our data, knowledge, and capabilities? How can we implement digital to benefit both our employees and customers alike?

These results are amazing and worthy of praise. They point to the promise of AI, but such performance impact only comes for careful implementation.

The robot flight attendants are taking over the plane, and we laugh.

Sales can be a challenging and stressful profession, particularly in the B2B sector. Sales representatives often face rejection, customer issues, and pressure to meet targets. In the life sciences industry, representatives are expected to shift flawlessly to digital channels, cover wider territories, and juggle internal Zoom meetings and manager ride-alongs while visiting as many customers as possible. Despite the low morale, however, many reps love what they do.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book, Flow, suggests that a mental state of complete absorption in an activity, where time stands still, is the key to happiness and fulfillment. To achieve this state, we must be challenged by what we do, with challenges aligned with our skill set and interests, clear goals, time and space to concentrate, autonomy over meeting challenges, and feedback on progress.

At its core, sales is about moving people, and it is no accident that the most engaged reps have high emotional intelligence and are people-people. The ultimate feedback is the close, but in life sciences, the industry's impact on human lives also provides purpose and meaning.

However, there is a risk of undermining the motivational aspects of B2B sales as we shift to digital. Standardizing calls, imposing digital sales aides, and offering solely one-way communication in the form of performance reviews and weekly touchpoints may remove the personal touch so desperately needed in keeping reps engaged.

What is the culture of your sales organization? Do you foster flow?

Pina Bausch was a German expressionist dancer and choreographer known for inspiring her dancers to draw from their individual experiences and memories to shape their movements.

Image from Dulac Distribution

In Dancing Pina, a captivating, recent documentary by Florian Heinzen-Ziob and released in France by Dulac Distribution, two dance troupes in Dresden, Germany and Dakar, Senegal rehearse respectfully Iphigenie auf Tauris and Frühlingsopfer. Five of Bausch’s protégés instruct these young dancers to bring themselves to the composition, to embrace their imperfections, and celebrate their differences.

In Germany, a young woman - who was told throughout her early career that she was too tall to ever dance ballet professionally – is encouraged to be as tall as possible in her movements. Choreographer Malou Airaudo demands that she not cede a single millimeter of herself when she dances.

In Senegal, Josephine Ann Endicott instructs men and women from 19 different countries to embrace their past experiences not only from modern and African dance, but also from their personal lives to bring individual expression to the piece. On rehearsal day, Endicott acknowledges that the team learned the movements, but reprimands them for a composition that lacks character. It is now time forget about the choreography and just feel the movements as individuals and collectively the piece will shine.

Image from Dulac Distributions

The final performance on a Senegalese beach with the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop is a triumph. I sat through the film’s last 15 minutes spellbound.

I had a recent conversation with a B2B sales representative about what motivates them most in their work. They said their manager. Lately, I would say that this is not a common response. Sales people often mention the close with a customer or their belief in the product or service they are presenting as the key motivator. Intrigued, I asked to hear more. They told me that their manager during coaching sessions always starts with their individual strengths and builds the sales call strategy from there. The result is more confidence and high engagement. A personalized approach for a sales rep? I certainly would love to see more.

If you are in France, I highly encourage you to go see Dancing Pina, still in theatres!

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