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

IBM Watson
AOL / Alamy

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.