Airtel row: Emotional Intelligence over Artificial Intelligence

In India, telcos and financial institutions like Airtel, ICICI Bank and Wipro use specialized BPM (business process management) agencies to sort out issues of their customers.

By Manu Kaushik  
Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A disgruntled customer, a Twitter interaction, and the ensuing outrage! The social media was abuzz on Monday following a bizarre conversation between telecom operator Airtel and one of its annoyed customers. Airtel would regret the manner in which its social media representatives handled religiously-sensitive comments of a customer.

An Airtel DTH customer, named Pooja Singh, tagged the company's social media handle on Twitter raising complaint of a rude behaviour against one of its employees. One of the Airtel's customer care representatives, named Shoaib, assured her to look into the matter. The customer replied with concerns in dealing with this particular rep because he's a Muslim, and asked to assign her a Hindu rep. Instead of taking a tough stance against such a request, Airtel's social media team yielded to her demand and assigned Gaganjot to assist her.

An Airtel spokesperson says that Airtel do not differentiate between customers or its employees and partners on the basis of caste or religion. "If a customer contacts us again for an ongoing service issue then the first available service executive responds in the interest of time. We request everyone not to misinterpret and give it unnecessary religious colour. The said customer has been responded to."

For any consumer-centric company, the customer care team - at the call centre or behind the social media desk - plays a crucial role. Their biggest mandate, as one US-based back-office service provider told me recently, is customer retention - at any cost. The Airtel's social media reps did exactly just that even if it required compromising on the ethical business practice of not discriminating its customers/employees on the basis of their caste, race or religion.

Meanwhile, companies specializing in customer care are bringing in new tools, including automation and artificial intelligence (AI), to get a better grip on understanding their customers. In India, telcos and financial institutions like Airtel, ICICI Bank and Wipro use specialized BPM (business process management) agencies to sort out issues of their customers.

Based on machine learning, there are tools being built by BPM firms that predict the odds of losing a customer in case of dissatisfaction. These tools also suggest measures to retain the customers - by hook or by crook. Since retaining a customer is at the core of everything, basic business practices often take a back seat.

Whether there's an interaction involving an actual person, or the use of intelligent assistants (chatbots), the customer care teams needs to be sensitized about issues that can cause irreparable damage to the brand. By supporting ethical practices, businesses can strengthen the brand-customer relationships. There's no denying that AI is the future for the BPM industry; in the end, a brand's reputation can be built around sound practices.

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