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Human customer service: how to harness AI to enhance customer relationships

Great customer experiences are about making personal connections. Discover why human customer service is important and how you can use AI to enhance it.

By Hannah Wren, Staff Writer

Last updated May 16, 2024

We’ve all experienced customer service that didn’t live up to our expectations. Unsatisfactory experiences are universal and negatively impact our lives – a bad customer experience (CX) can sour your mood or your whole day. Yet a good one can quickly turn it around. Whether it’s the friendly local barista or the head of a software company, positive experiences can spark enduring customer relationships for years to come.

That’s where human customer service comes in. Human customer service is about creating support experiences that are personalised, understanding and efficient to build trust and loyalty with your customer base. And thanks to ever-evolving technology, support teams can leverage AI to make customer connections that are more authentically human.

In this guide, learn why human customer service is important and how businesses are using AI to implement human-centric customer service management.

More in this guide:

What is human customer service?

Human customer service means fostering a human connection with every interaction. This involves harnessing intelligent tools and technology to create support experiences that are fast, personalised, empathetic and seamless. Your customer is always human, and whether their first touchpoint is a live agent or an AI agent, you should tailor each interaction to each customer’s needs. This kind of customer-oriented support helps foster brand loyalty.

In the past, businesses may have been cautious about AI’s role in making customer service more human. However, modern support teams are tapping into tools like AI agents and workflow automation to deliver the more informed experiences customers have come to expect.

“In the past, I was always quite nervous of bots because we want to deliver a personal service, but what I’ve seen in the past six months is that we can use AI to enhance the delivery of personal service.” Ian Hunt, Director of Operations and Customer Services, Liberty London

According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, 69% of organisations believe generative AI can humanise digital interactions. For example, AI-powered insights can help agents better understand what a customer is thinking and feeling, so they can swiftly and effectively resolve the issue.

A graphic states that 69% of organisations believe generative AI can help humanise digital interactions, according to the Zendesk CX Trends Report.

Why is human customer service important?

A graphic states that 57% of consumers would switch to a competitor due to a bad customer experience, according to the Zendesk CX Trends Report.

Human service is important because it can result in strong customer connections, increased retention and higher satisfaction. With good customer service experiences, you can impress upon your customers that you’re a business that puts people first, listens to their problems and understands their needs.

In our CX Trends Report, 45% of CX leaders indicate the impact of CX on customer loyalty as extremely high, while 42% say the impact of CX on business growth is extremely high. And it goes both ways: 57% of consumers would switch to a competitor due to a single bad customer experience.

Thanks to AI-assisted human customer service, businesses have more chances than ever to improve interactions and create great customer experiences. According to our CX Trends Report, 70% of CX leaders trust bots to navigate highly personalised customer journeys. As new technologies develop, the potential for AI agents to better understand customer needs will likely increase that number further.

5 ways to harness AI and automation for more human customer support

Harnessing AI to support your customer service strategy can lead to better service and support. Here are five ways AI complements and enhances human customer service.

An illustration of a woman with paper planes flying behind her accompanies a list of ways to harness AI for more human customer support.

1. Equip agents with AI-powered insights

AI helps customer service agents provide higher quality service faster by equipping them with key insights, such as ticket summaries, customer sentiment data and information about the intent of each request. Agents who know more about the customers they speak with can use that context to make informed decisions about their conversations. They can use these insights to become customer advocates, which is one of the top customer service objectives to strive for.

Liberty London, an iconic U.K. department store, uses AI to identify and label customer intent, sentiment and language to direct issues to the appropriate team member. With key customer insights in front of them, they can solve the request as quickly as possible.

“Liberty is all about delivering a personal service. I see AI enhancing that personal service because now our customers will be interacting with a human who’s being put in front of them at the right time with the right information,” says Hunt.

2. Understand what kinds of questions are better for AI agents

AI can use conversation data to flag questions that are best suited for an AI agent, so you know exactly what kinds of inquiries to automate.

You can configure AI agents to match your customer service voice for consistency, whether it’s more friendly, formal or playful. They can handle the repetitive questions that often take up agents' valuable time, freeing them to focus on high-value conversations. AI agents can also provide quick, accurate responses to various customer requests. Our CX Trends Report found that 51% of consumers prefer interacting with bots over humans for immediate assistance.

Grove Collaborative, a sustainability-focused e-commerce brand, uses AI chatbots to save agents time and deliver personalised customer service. As a result, the company has achieved and maintained a 95% customer satisfaction score (CSAT).

“The primary reason for embracing AI is we’d like to do as much as possible with limited resources to improve our operational efficiency,” says Aashley Malsbury, Community Happiness Systems Manager at Grove Collaborative.

3. Use AI to improve service quality

Customer service quality assurance (QA) has become a standard practice for businesses looking to deliver better support experiences. In fact, 76% of organisations agree that conversation reviews help increase customer satisfaction scores. QA can also help you spot opportunities to improve your product or service based on customer feedback.

You can get more out of your customer support quality assurance efforts if you use an AI-powered QA tool to help. AI can enable you to better understand your support data by pinpointing where your customers are frustrated. It can also make it easier for customers to leave feedback with AI-generated personalised conversation summaries.

Pipedrive, a CRM company, uses customer service QA to identify and analyse conversations with poor CSAT scores. Zendesk QA helps the team hone in on specific project-based scenarios they want to analyse in greater detail, like negative product feedback. This is one of the reasons why Pipedrive maintains a CSAT of 96%.

4. Make it easy to reach a human

Our CX Trends Report revealed that 75% of CX leaders believe the real value of AI lies in its ability to amplify human intelligence, not replace it. Using chatbots instead of humans can be efficient in many situations, but sometimes, you need human agents to address a complex or nuanced issue. In these scenarios, AI agents can pass the conversation with key context to a human agent.

Giving customers the option to speak with a human agent ensures they receive the assistance they need. Plus, it creates new opportunities to foster positive interactions and improve your CX.

Zendesk AI helps WhiteWall to work effectively and efficiently with only 10 support agents, successfully processing high ticket volumes of 6,000 to 12,000 requests per month worldwide while achieving high customer satisfaction (80% to 85% CSAT). Bots respond to as many enquiries as possible, and human agents handle the rest.

5. Opt for transparency

It is crucial to be open and honest with both your customers and your internal teams about using AI in customer service. A lack of transparency can lead to bad customer service if your customers want to know how their queries are being handled. Transparency builds trust with your customers and sets clear expectations for resolving customer tickets. When customers are aware they may interact with a combination of human and AI agents, it can also help you proactively manage expectations.

You should also be transparent with your customers to comply with regulations and standards covering the ethical use of AI. You must ensure you stand by strong customer data privacy standards and use that data responsibly. Giving customers the knowledge they need to make an informed decision about engaging with your business empowers them and strengthens trust.

“Having at least one person on the team whose primary responsibility is data protection is table stakes in 2024,” advises Brandon Tidd, Lead Zendesk Architect at 729 Solutions.

See how Zendesk AI can help you make customer connections that are more authentically human

Zendesk AI is designed for agents and their customers, putting human needs first for fast, personalised and empathetic experiences.

How to add an authentic human touch to your customer service

Authentic, personalised and detailed customer service is a badge of pride for any business.

With the right tools and mindset, you can offer human customer service to every person who interacts with your business. That way, each experience is lasting and memorable, encouraging that customer to stick around.

A bulleted list outlines four ways to offer human-centric customer service.

Embrace a customer-first mindset

Authentically delivering human customer service begins with adopting a customer-first mindset. Customers can tell when a company prioritises their needs. According to our CX Trends Report, 3 out of 4 customers will spend more with businesses that deliver a positive CX. This shows that if your customers know you care about them, you can begin to foster trust and loyalty.

Gathering feedback from customers themselves is a good place to start. Customer feedback highlights preferences, needs and pain points straight from the source.

There are several ways that you can leverage customer feedback to drive changes in your customer service approach:

Consider creating a Voice of the Customer programme to ensure customer feedback is shared and utilised across the organisation.

Engage in personalisation whenever possible

Another way to make customer service more human is to tailor customer experiences so they feel unique. Providing personalised customer service demonstrates that you recognise and value your customers’ needs and preferences. That’s true regardless of whether you’re connecting with them over live chat, the phone, social media or another support channel.

Integrating your customer service software with the rest of your business ecosystem creates a 360-degree customer view, giving agents the necessary insights to personalise conversations at scale. For example, agents can view:

  • Purchase history

  • Browsing behaviour

  • Demographic information

With more knowledge, agents can predict customer preferences and deliver recommendations that speak to each customer.

Train agents in important soft skills

You must train your agents in basic customer service skills. Soft skills are important for human customer service because they form the backbone of human connections.

Here are a few of the most common soft skills that help agents build relationships with customers:

  • Communication to convey information effectively
  • Empathy to understand and share customer feelings
  • Problem-solving to identify issues, evaluate options, and implement solutions
  • Adaptability to adjust to new situations and challenges
  • Teamwork to collaborate with others toward a common goal

Without soft skills, your agents would come off as robotic, impersonal and bland – which aren’t exactly the hallmarks of human-centric customer service.

Be proactive

Customers today want businesses to get ahead of issues before they even happen. In other words, they expect companies to be proactive.

Proactive businesses act without the customer needing to ask. This lowers customer effort and gives customers more reasons to believe you’re looking out for their best interests. For example, a financial services company might leverage AI for proactive fraud detection.

Frequently asked questions

Provide outstanding human customer service with Zendesk

Everyone knows the old cliché: the customer is always right. Here at Zendesk, we believe it’s more important to remind people that the customer is always human.

Zendesk gives you the scale, flexibility and efficiency of AI while keeping the focus firmly on your customers and employees – the people who motivate all that you do. It’s why our AI serves the agent and the customer, and our technology puts human needs first for a personalised omnichannel experience. Only Zendesk brings together all the ingredients for an unrivalled human-centred experience: AI agents, human agent assistance, workforce engagement management, quality assurance, connected workflow automation and more. See for yourself.