Chatbots or real people? Study finds customers only care about ‘perceived humanness’

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Calling customer service can be an annoying experience, even when the operator is friendly. So, what happens when companies start turning the phones over to robots to solve your consumer questions? A new study finds people will still trust a “chatbot” to handle their call — as long as they perceive some “humanness” in the conversation.

Researchers from the University of Florida note that artificial intelligence and natural language processing systems are getting so good at interacting with people, callers often don’t know whether they’re speaking to a real person or a robot. Soon, companies will likely have to decide which calls human operators are still necessary to handle and which can go straight to an unpaid AI system.

With that in mind, study author Tom Kelleher and his team looked at what the consumers think of interacting with a non-human customer service rep. Researchers gathered over 170 people to chat with either bots or human agents from major companies including Express, Amazon, and Best Buy.

In bot we trust

Along with guessing if they were speaking to a robot or person, participants also rated the “humanness” of their exchanges. Results show 63 of the 172 volunteers couldn’t figure out if they spoke to a chatbot or real customer service agent.

Regardless of who customers spoke with, however, researchers say higher scores for perceived humanness led to more consumer trust in that particular company.

“If people felt like if it was human — either with really good AI or with a real person — then they felt like the organization was investing in the relationship. They’ll say, ‘Okay, this company is actually trying. They’ve put some time or resources into this, and therefore I trust the organization,’” Kelleher says in a university release.

Even a real person can lack ‘humanness’

Study authors add their findings show it’s more about the kind of language businesses use, rather than who answers the phone, which turns customers off. When companies avoid using the same old customer service jargon, scores for consumer trust, satisfaction, and commitment to the brand go up.

“An agent can be so scripted that people feel like they’re talking to a machine,” Kelleher explains.

As companies shift to AI, however, researchers say there are plenty of ethical issues to consider. Should businesses reveal that customers are not speaking to a real person? Should operators with an AI assistant tell customers that as well?

Moreover, are there areas of customer service that robots should stay clear of, like health care, where people may prefer to deal with another human being?

“If I’m just trying to get an insurance quote, I would almost rather put something into an app then have to make small talk about the weather. But later on, if my house floods, I’m going to want to talk to a real person,” Kelleher concludes. “As the metaverse evolves, understanding when to employ AI and when to employ real people will be an increasingly important business decision.”

The study is published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

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