IBM's Watson: Finally, a Customer Service Agent We Can Love

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For years, people have chafed at having to deal with automated customer-service phone systems, complaining that they'd rather speak with an actual human. Now one of the most famous robots in the world is getting into the call-center game -- and cranky consumers should be thrilled.

The robot in question is Watson, the IBM (IBM) creation that wowed audiences by appearing on "Jeopardy" and totally dominating a couple of the show's returning champions. Since then, the company has touted the computer's potential applications to other fields, including health care and investing.

On Tuesday the company announced the IBM Watson Client Engagement Advisor, which will use Watson's smarts to power customer-service interactions.

In a press release, IBM explains that the new product "is a first of a kind system designed to help customer-facing personnel assist consumers with deeper insights more quickly than previously possible." It goes on to note that it can either provide human customer service agents with data-driven solutions, or interact directly with consumers.

If you've ever found yourself cursing out an automated assistant, that latter application may have you thinking that this is just another way for companies to replace humans with machines and save a few bucks at the customer's expense. But Watson goes well beyond the simple systems currently in use, which use preprogrammed responses to direct your call to a human assistant. Remember what made Watson successful on Jeopardy: a combination of encyclopedic knowledge and the ability to understand regularly phrased questions.

An automated assistant might be programmed to listen for a key phrase -- "account activation" or "bill pay," for instance -- and direct you to the appropriate human. By contrast, Watson can carry on a conversation in normal human speech, so it might be able to understand you when you say, "I need to pay my bill, but I can't find my account number." And unlike a human representative, who might lack knowledge of a specific issue and need to transfer you to a colleague, Watson would boast the combined knowledge of every customer service associate in the company -- and then some.

Recently Discover has run a series of ads touting the fact that you get live, human representatives when you need customer service. "Well, that's good," says a customer in one commercial, upon discovering a human on the other end of the line. "Cause I don't have time for machines."

If it's the machine that schooled Ken Jennings in "Jeopardy," though, you might start to think otherwise.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
When Customer Service Goes Viral: The Good and the Bad
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IBM's Watson: Finally, a Customer Service Agent We Can Love

In an age of social media, a story about good or bad experience with customer service is no longer confined to you and your circle of friends. A particularly egregious misstep by a call-center employee – or, for that matter, an exceptional display of customer service – has the potential to quickly go viral on social networks, bringing good or bad publicity to companies overnight. Here are a few customer service exchanges that saw widespread exposure due to the power of the internet.

When Canadian musician Dave Carroll's pricey guitar was broken during a 2008 flight on United Airlines, he made a stink with airline employees and filed a claim with the airline. When United refused to pay up, he turned to the power of music, recording a protest song entitled "United Breaks Guitars." The video exploded in popularity on YouTube, where it's grabbed more than 12.5 million views and led to widespread media attention. United quickly changed its tune in the face of overwhelming negative publicity, and Carroll went on to co-found Gripevine, a company that helps customers use social media to get better customer service.


The Ritz-Carlton is famed for its customer service – one policy allows employees to spend up to $2,000 on a single customer to ensure satisfaction. And once in a while, going above and beyond goes viral. Consider the case of Joshie, a stuffed giraffe accidentally left behind by a guest's son upon checkout. Hotel staff found the stuffed animal, then took a series of pictures of Joshie enjoying his stay at the hotel to corroborate the father's story that the giraffe was simply taking an extended vacation.

The father later took to the Huffington Post to tell his story, which was subsequently shared thousands of times on Facebook and showed up in a popular Reddit thread about outstanding customer service.


Having a PR professional handling your customer service doesn't always go smoothly. When a PlayStation controller peripheral missed its planned launch date, one customer with a pre-order contacted the manufacturer's

marketing firm to see whether he would be able to get his product by Christmas. The resulting exchange with Ocean Marketing's Paul Christoforo devolved into insults and name-calling ("Grow up you look like a complete child bro," the rep writes at one point), and quickly spread on social networks and in the video game press. The manufacturer, N-Control, soon cut ties with the marketing firm and offered a $10 discount to everyone with a pre-order, salvaging its standing among gamers.
Photo: Ocean Marketing | N-Control

Sir Patrick Stewart, the acclaimed actor best known for his turn as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, just wanted Time Warner to come and hook up his cable. But after waiting 36 hours for the cable guy to show up, he fired off an angry tweet noting that the experience had caused him to "lose the will to live." Time Warner's Twitter customer service representatives quickly responded, but this particular customer's high-profile ensured that the dispute would go viral. More than 1,800 users retweeted the complaint, media outlets picked up the story, and even co-star LeVar Burton (visor-wearing engineer Geordi LaForge) chimed in to share his own gripes with the company. The lesson: Don't mess with the Enterprise.

Plenty of people find reasons to complain about shipping services during the holiday season. But it's not often that poor service is caught on film. That's what happened last Christmas season when a

security camera caught a FedEx employee tossing a package over the gate, smashing the computer monitor inside. The YouTube video went viral, and has racked up close to 9 million views to this point. FedEx was forced to respond, apologizing for the lousy service and promising to compensate the customer.

Social news site Reddit is known for occasionally making life miserable for companies behaving badly – observe, for instance, the role it played in leading a boycott against web registry GoDaddy for the company's support of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act. But some companies find their fortunes lifted by appearing on the site. One user, for instance, contacted Amazon customer service after the US Postal Service lost his package; even though Amazon wasn't at fault, it gave him a full refund of the $25 purchase. A screenshot of the exchange has more than 800,000 views – not a bad PR return for $25.

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