HDI’s SPOCcast is your single point of contact podcast for service management and support insights. For Episode 21, I interviewed Julie Mohr about disruption, building a chatbot, and the need for knowledge management. Although I’m sure you will find these excerpts enlightening, do listen to the entire podcast when you can.
RA: At Service Management World, one of your breakout sessions is called Living in the Disruption Economy: Our Customers Are Screaming for Change and We’re Still Not Listening. How does disruption happen and why do you think some businesses are unable to see the writing on the wall when disruption is headed their way?
JM: You know, I think disruption has a place in almost any organization if people are willing and ready to seize that moment. I think this is an incredible time in our industry. We have an opportunity to kind of reinvent ourselves and look at things from a completely different perspective. But often it takes bringing a new company with a new idea into a vertical market where it challenges the preexisting norms of the way that we’ve always done business, and probably the most iconic one that I can think of off the top of my head is Uber and Lyft, and what it did to the taxi industry. Taxis have existed as the standard method of transportation in big cities when you’re traveling. You know, you find a local phone number, you wait for the taxi or you flag one down in the street if you live in or you’re visiting a bigger city where that’s accepted; but it was never a great experience, right? You always had the gruff driver, the one that never spoke to you, maybe a driver that was from a different culture, [ethnic] background, that you may not have been able to fully understand. You always had to know where you were, what phone number. And then there was the push for you to give money—cash—to the driver instead of using a credit card which is an established norm in society for decades now.
And along came two companies—obviously one pre-dated the other—that basically looked at that model and said, “We can reinvent the way that this works.” Technology is clearly a part of that, there’s no doubt that the app brings a lot of that innovation. But they also looked at that model and said, “Where are all of the friction points? What do we not like about the experience of using taxis?” and essentially, they just kind of flipped this model upside down, right? I don’t need to know where I am in a city anymore. The GPS on my phone—a technology we’ve had now for decades—it knows where I am; it can give that information to the driver so that I don’t have to know the precise address or location where I am.
I no longer have to exchange money, right? I can just pay via the app; the friction in the taxi model is completely gone. Almost always when I’m driving in an Uber or Lyft, I have a great conversation with the driver. They’re rated on their customer service, they’re given, you know, so many stars ranking, and you’ll know immediately when your driver is connected to you you’ll know whether or not they’ve got a high-ranking within the system so there’s a collaborative way in which were also being able to provide feedback. I don’t ever remember a taxi company ever asking me if I cared or liked or enjoyed my experience in a taxi car. So, when we look at the way that this is disrupted, there are some very common elements. One of the key factors in all of that is letting go of this preestablished norm. And you hear this all the time in organizations. They don’t come right out and say, “But this is the way that we’ve always done it.”
There’s this tremendous amount of resistance happening within the organization to put…the brakes on any of these clearly innovative ideas that people are coming up with. The gap between where they are and where that innovation lie[s] seems so significant. And to be honest we’ve had so many project failures and project overruns and less than positive results in delivering new innovative ideas; we shy away from something that’s so dramatically different.
Letting go of our ideas of the way that the business has to run, that’s one of the most difficult things that customers struggle with. The new and innovative technologies are there for the leveraging. They’re there to procure, to implement. That’s the least of our hurdles, really. You know and if I go back to Uber and Lyft, it was also not just letting go of the way the things had always been done, they came up with a very innovative business model in the way that they delivered that service that consciously eliminated so many of the barriers that you would experience within, you know, the traditional ways of getting that transportation.
Letting go of our ideas of the way that the business has to run, that’s one of the most difficult things that customers struggle with.
Another thing that it did—and this is also a very vital component of it—is that we actually as consumers of that service are part of it, right. They connected with us as a customer. They gave us “your first ride is free.” I remember the first time I took a Lyft, my driver was also the first time that they had done—I was their first passenger and they were my first driver, and we laughed. I don’t ever remember laughing with a taxi driver quite like that. But there’s a way that these services are also connecting with their customers. And that’s a very important part of it. There’s an amount of personalization. You feel like you’re contributing to the overall positive effect by ranking, by tipping; you’re able to provide feedback into the system that helps that company determine who are their best drivers and, you know, who might not necessarily make the grade.
You know, there’s sometimes with these new innovative approaches, there are difficulties in the way that services are delivered. A lot of cities put all kinds of regulations in place because one or two drivers, you know, did something inappropriate and they felt like it wasn’t regulated enough, you know. But I’ve been on plenty of taxi drives that I could’ve easily, you know, reported and said, “Hey, this was less than ideal circumstances.” I’m not talking light of those experiences, but to say that there’s no perfect delivery system, and that I think one of these keys of these disruptive models is they’ve been open to feedback and so they’ve modified their approach and changed because they know how important the customer is to that community.
So if I if I look at all of those things, right, letting go of pre-established norms, these new and innovative technologies, new business delivery models, customization, putting a customer at the front. That’s a lot of change, and so there’s good reasons why a lot of companies are kind of sitting there going you know how do we make that significant of a transformation. It’s not just simply applying a technology in the environment. It’s about our people. It’s about studying and understanding our customers and in a very in-depth way, putting ourselves literally like Uber and lift in the passenger seat.
What is it that we don’t like, and how can we get rid of it. And that type of change takes leadership, it takes collaboration, and it takes knowledge, right? Knowledge of who your customers are, what it is that they want from an outcome. You know your operational costs, where your expenditures are. You have to have good quantifiable information that helps to drive that strategy so that you can engage and truly disrupt.
RA: Let’s move inside the business for a second and say I’m working at a company that does the same thing the same way as 15, 20 years ago. How do I see disruption coming, and what should I be looking for, and what can I do?
JM: Well, I think we’re still in the same place that we’ve always been in information technology as a profession. That is, we’ve been facing rapid change forever—I mean, since it’s existed there’s just been this constant evolution of technology, more powerful, more compact, smaller devices that can do amazing things. So you can’t be in this profession and not say to yourself, “Hey I need to be thinking about the skill sets that I need, not today, but 2 to 5 years down the road,” so that you can always make sure that you’re ready for the next big thing that happens.
I sat on a panel just a couple weeks ago in the Bay Area, and we had this exact discussion around what does this mean for jobs and skill sets. And one of the panelists made the comment that level 1 is slowly dissipating. It’s not that we’re letting go of these people; we are moving and positioning them into more value-added work where they’re getting the education and the training they need to become level 2 or level 3 contributors within the organization.
What they saw is that the significant gap was, “Where do we go to get the experience that’s necessary at level 1: learning about the customers, learning the basics about customer service, understanding services and technology?” That introduction is a great place for a career to start. The problems that you face are not as complex; it may be repetitive, but it does give you the basis and the time to develop a skill set that gives you that level of professionalism that’s ready to move up. Where do we get that experience now if a lot of that repetitive work is automated, either using artificial intelligence or developing work flows that eliminate the need for humans to actually do that work.
So, I don’t think it’s that our jobs are significantly changing. I cannot remember a time in my career where I wasn’t always thinking about, “OK what’s coming next, and how can I expand my knowledge and new ways that will serve me two to three years down in my career?” As managers, it’s vital for us to be doing that for our staff at all times anyway. I’ve been working with a couple customers that have been putting their level 1 staff through PowerShell training, because they recognized that coding is a skill set that can be used to help eliminate a lot of the repetitive work that happens. And if you have staff that understand how to do that coding and have the right mindset for it, a lot of that repetitive work is identified when you’re at level 1, and if they then have the skill sets to code, even better—you’ve put the coders right at the place where they can identify those types of repetitive transactional work.
Just one more comment from that panel is it another woman said we did this 10 years ago. We knew and saw the writing on the wall that everything was turning to code and that it was important to transition our skill sets at that time in preparation for that inevitable outcome. And I look at that and I said that’s the leadership identifying hey we are headed towards disruption and I don’t want to be caught with the wrong people in the wrong skill sets. I want to make sure that my people are ready to engage in that strategy and keeping their skill sets moving in in the direction that will allow them to have the knowledge to support the type of disruption.
RA: Speaking of disruption, and speaking of forward-looking, and changes in level 1 specifically, we have chatbots popping up everywhere. Some are very effective, and some are kind of abysmal. They don’t give information back that’s particularly useful, they’re very limited in the number of questions they can answer, etc. Based on your experience, having built one—you built Sherlock, your knowledge bot—what does it take to make a good, effective, and helpful chatbot?
Well, let me back up for just a second and kind of discuss the reason why Sherlock came about. You know, there was just so much hype in the industry about chatbots, and you know how marketing is; some days you get these marketing things coming into Facebook, and one came in through Messenger (how they knew to send me a message I have no idea, but you know the intelligence of Facebook). It was about chatbots. So, I took this online course, like three hours, and one of things that came out of that mini course was that I could gain access to these systems and build one myself. The cost of entry was zero. The platform that I used was WordPress; the underlying chatbot and the artificial intelligence layer was provided free by Google. So, I think that is the first thing that organizations need to understand, is that the cost of entry to begin your experimentation and figure out what is this, and what does it mean to our organization is very, very low.
I wouldn’t be making investments as of yet. I would try to figure out, you know, what approach you want to take with chatbots because as you said some are successful and some are hopelessly not. So that’s how Sherlock came to be…I’m a consultant so…I’m not in an environment where I could see something like this implemented, so I said you know, “What is this like?” And one of the things that I immediately found out was that it’s pretty easy to set one of these up. In five minutes, I had a chatbot up and running.
The work is really around embedding the knowledge into the system. And the more existing knowledge that you have…one of the things I’m looking at right now is how easy is it to take KCS® knowledge and put it into a bot, ‘cause KCS knowledge is captured in the customer context. It seems like ripe for the pickings, because a chatbot needs to have a conversation like it would be talking with an actual customer. But it’s simply not that easy. There’s a big difference between building a table of rules, that if you ask this question, give this answer. If you ask this question, give this answer. If a question is unknown, and it has these three or four keywords, answer with this. That’s just embedding knowledge that you have today about your customers, how they ask questions, and what are the typical answers to that.
But if you look at a conversation, the unbelievable number of places that a conversation can go, that’s one of the reasons these chatbots do not work very well. There’s an example that I use in another presentation where a customer is using a chatbot and says, “I need to reset my password, but I don’t have my account number.” And the chatbot responds with, “Well, login and get your account number.” The inability to understand that you’ve hit this block, right, where, “Can’t get logged in ‘cause I don’t have my password, so I can’t get my account number.” Obviously, if you see this often enough as you’re following a chat history, you can build a conversation to help handle that.
So, one of the reasons I think that chatbots don’t perform well, is they’re launched way before the knowledge and the interactions are captured enough within the system for them to work effectively. So you get caught in these loops where it just doesn’t understand, and it’s kind of like asking Alexa a new question and it says, “Hmmm. I don’t know that one yet.” If enough people ask that question, eventually that’s going to be programmed into those rule tables, that if you ask that question, it’s going to answer.
The other part of this is that we keep calling this artificial intelligence. The rules-based system is just knowledge. It’s pairing up of keywords and phrases and saying, “Oh – if this comes up, put this answer out there.” The artificial intelligence is where new things are introduced, and the system can actually understand it without having been programmed to understand it. The more knowledge that’s put into the system, the more capable the system is for that artificial intelligence aspect of it.
About Julie Mohr
Julie is a dynamic, engaging change agent who brings authenticity, integrity, and passion to practitioners worldwide. Through her books, articles, speaking, consulting, and teaching, her purpose is to spark change in the world with thought-provoking dialog and interaction on topics of authentic leadership, business strategy, knowledge management, organizational culture, and innovation. Julie has a B.S. in computer science from The Ohio State University and an MaED from the University of Phoenix and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Management and Organizational Leadership in Information Systems & Technology from the University of Phoenix. She is an ITIL Expert, Certified Help Desk Director, and Certified Governance IT Professional. She is an HDI Business Associate and teaches training and certification classes for service and support professionals.
Roy Atkinson is one of the top influencers in the service and support industry. His blogs, presentations, research reports, white papers, keynotes, and webinars have gained him an international reputation. In his role as senior writer/analyst, he acts as HDI's in-house subject matter expert, bringing his years of experience to the community. He holds a master’s certificate in advanced management strategy from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business, and he is a certified HDI Support Center Manager. Follow him on Twitter @RoyAtkinson.