South African business leaders might be willing to invest in artificial intelligence to improve their business operations, but they are being held back by a crucial ingredient: technical skills.

A recent snap poll conducted by customer experience specialists nlightencx shows that budget is not an issue, but a skills vacuum is.

“We did a quick poll to gauge the temperature of the room with regards to deploying AI to improve the customer experience in South Africa, and the feedback was tepid at best,” says Nathalie Schooling, CEO of nlightencx. “I found it interesting that not one respondent indicated that budget was holding them back.

“By contrast, 60% pointed to the lack of technical skills and another 20% cited concern that the technology is still unproven.

“I guess it’s not totally surprising given the flight of skills from the country, but it’s also a cautionary tale for companies contemplating AI in their organisation. Especially so in the field of CX, because you cannot discount the human factor when dealing with customers.”

The push-back against AI in this context is clear to see in a recent SurveyMonkey study that showed that 90% say they prefer a human experience over an AI. This preference is because humans are better able to understand their needs, give more detailed explanations and give them more options to address their issues.

The study also showed that more than half (56%) have negative feelings about companies using AI as part of the customer experience.

“These results are hardly surprising, even if they don’t come from our local market. The human instinct to trust other humans is universal, and even more so in Africa where people, culture and language are integral to who we are,” Schooling says.

“The lesson from this study for South African businesses is that AI is anything but a quick fix or panacea that will magically repair their CX problems. I believe the correct AI tools can help to enhance the experience, but companies need to tread carefully rather than diving in headlong.”

While the message is clearly that AI is coming and South African businesses need to prepare for that, Schooling says it’s possible that the current hype will lead companies down the garden path.

“Having to win back customer trust in the event of an AI-fuelled CX calamity would be a very, very expensive lesson to learn. The watchword for the time being is ‘proceed with caution’. It’s easy to fall for the hype, but I urge business leaders to first fully understand the technology and invest in the resources and skills to properly leverage these opportunities.”

Schooling shares her advice on the tactics that executives and managers involved in CX roles can employ to avoid a customer revolt against the use of AI tools:

* In-depth understanding of customer needs – Businesses must delve deep into customer data and insights to identify the specific challenges and opportunities where AI can make a meaningful impact. This foundational step ensures that AI implementations are driven by genuine customer needs rather than the novelty of the technology itself.

* The human element – AI is only as effective as the people behind it. The development and management of AI solutions should be guided by skilled professionals who understand both the technical aspects of AI and the nuances of the customer experience. This human oversight ensures that AI complements human interactions, enriching the customer experience with a blend of efficiency and empathy.

* Managing customer perceptions – How customers perceive a brand’s use of AI can significantly influence their overall experience. Businesses must navigate this perception carefully, ensuring that their use of AI is viewed as innovative and customer-centric rather than impersonal or intrusive.

* Ethics and privacy – In the digital age, concerns about data privacy and ethical use of technology are at the forefront of customers’ minds. Businesses must commit to using AI in ways that respect customer privacy and adhere to ethical standards, fostering trust and confidence in their brand.