One of my favorite cultural explorations of “AI anxiety” is actually a Twilight Zone episode from 1964. The Brain Center at Whipple’s examines the automation of the manufacturing industry. Though it aired nearly 60 years ago, the episode’s themes — the irresponsible adoption of technology by an overzealous manager, workforce reductions, and the perceived obsolescence of mankind — are all things that we’re still grappling with today.
These fears are especially strong for folks who work in customer support. Just about every help desk — including Help Scout — is beginning to introduce AI features that promise to save money and reduce conversation volume. While this may be an exciting development for the Mr. Whipples of the world, those who have dedicated their careers to providing helpful, empathetic, human support may not, understandably, be as enthusiastic.
If you happen to be part of the latter group, anxious about the future of AI in support and your place within it, we want you to know that we see you.
This post will address AI anxiety in customer support and share some ideas on what you can do right now to feel more comfortable in the face of change.
Anticipatory anxiety: Feeling nervous about the future of AI
Anticipatory anxiety is when you experience fear surrounding something that may (or may not) happen to you in the future. While it can be brought on by a number of things, anticipatory anxiety is sometimes triggered by a new life circumstance — like the current focus on AI technology in the workforce.
Anticipatory anxiety can show up in a lot of different ways, some of which you may not even recognize as an anxiety response. Passing on opportunities to better understand AI technology or not taking advantage of AI tools already available within your tech stack might just be due to a lack of time in your workday to learn, but it could also be a coping mechanism. Avoidance behaviors are a common coping strategy, but they aren’t helpful or healthy. Neither sticking your head in the sand nor excessively worrying about AI will stop it from arriving in your support team’s inbox.
So what should you do?
First, take a deep breath and pause. Understand that despite all of the AI unknowns, one thing is for certain: People will always be the backbone of good customer support teams. While roles and responsibilities may shift, if you want a career in support, there is a place for you on those teams.
Next, it might make sense to look for better ways to respond to the anxiety you’re feeling around AI and its impact on your work. We’re now going to shift our focus to ways you can reduce anticipatory anxiety, including being more present, challenging assumptions, and focusing on things in your work life that are in your control.
Note: If you’re feeling very apprehensive about work, the future, or anything else you may be experiencing, we recommend talking to a professional in the mental health field. They can work with you to determine the best way to manage your anxiety.
The current state of AI in customer service
To focus on the present, we need to leave the doom and gloom headlines behind and concentrate on what is happening right now in our industry. Learning more about the technology, the benefits it provides to customer service professionals, and where AI still falls short will help you form a more realistic idea of AI’s impact on the field and challenge some of the assumptions that may be fueling your anxiety.
How AI is used in customer support
The main type of AI that is being used to enhance customer service systems is generative AI. Generative AI, the technology recently popularized by the release of tools like ChatGPT, uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Machine Learning (ML) to create new content — writing, images, music, etc. — based on information gathered from large data sets.
Many of the new AI support products coming onto the scene focus on generative AI writing tools like chatbots or drafting features that can use information from prior customer contacts and customer-facing knowledge bases to quickly generate accurate, human-like responses to customer queries.
Other AI features that you may encounter are tools that can automate tasks like ticket tagging and routing, handle sentiment analysis, suggest related resources, perform data collection, link with reporting tools, and translate text from one language to another.
This is just a basic rundown of the tech that is powering the shifts in customer service. If you want to dig a little deeper into the tech, check out our article on conversational AI for customer service.
If you’re wondering what these features look like in real life, these posts on AI-powered support tools can give you a better idea of what is out there:
The benefits of adopting AI technology as a customer service worker
While technological advances in the workplace can be scary, they can also make our lives easier and our work stronger — and they don’t always equate to a loss of jobs.
For instance, in the Twilight Zone episode mentioned earlier, Mr. Whipple installed several machines like a key card scanner and a dictaphone in his office. While the ideas seemed radical in the 1960s — machines poised to eradicate the security guard and secretary — in 2024, they’re just everyday conveniences.
And as for the jobs, those roles may look different today than they did in 1964, but they’re not obsolete.
There’s a good chance that the same will be true for customer support workers. Here are just a few ways that AI could start helping you in your support role today:
Help with hard cases: Sometimes even the best support pro can get overwhelmed when a complicated case lands in the queue. AI can help jump-start your research by suggesting relevant internal knowledge base articles and surfacing older cases that involve similar issues.
Reduced pressure: Often support teams are reduced to numbers and KPIs, forcing agents to focus on quantity over quality. AI drafting tools can take some of the pressure off, creating initial reply drafts that can then be edited and personalized allowing you to respond both quickly and accurately.
Time to specialize: So often in support (or any field, really) we think about all of the things we’d like to do if there were more hours in the work day. AI-powered help desk features can help you get through the queue more quickly, leaving time to focus on more complex (and interesting!) tasks like curating knowledge base articles, developing process improvements, or finding more creative ways to enhance customer experience.
If you’d like to read more about some of the upsides to using AI in customer service these resources might be of interest:
Understanding the limitations of AI
Just as important as knowing AI’s strengths is knowing where it falls short. As the employees at the factory attempted to explain to Mr. Whipple, there are simply aspects of being human that are irreplaceable by technology.
The depth of knowledge, compassion, and skill that customer service teams bring to work every day is something that can’t be manufactured. People will always be needed when cases require:
Empathy: While NLP can certainly help AI chatbots and virtual agents detect a customer’s sentiment, AI doesn’t know what it feels like for an experience to go the wrong way or for a product to not work as expected. People do, and they are better at resolving complicated issues and advocating for customers to get the best care.
Critical thinking: Tools built on generative AI base their answers on the data they’ve been trained on — knowledge bases, previous support tickets, product documentation, etc. — but what about when something happens for the first time? Making decisions and judgment calls, especially when something is out of the norm, is a job for humans.
Problem solving: Similar to critical thinking, if the AI hasn’t seen a problem before, it’s not going to know how to resolve it. When someone reaches out with a complicated issue, companies are going to need the expertise of an experienced support team to troubleshoot and resolve the issue.
Ethics: Computers aren’t necessarily up to speed on morality. Humans know when something might be right for the business but is wrong overall, and they can help keep a business (and the AI it employs) honest.
Being human: Not all customers will want to talk with a chatbot or get help via self-service. Some folks are always going to want to talk to a person, and being human is something that only humans can do.
If you're interested in hearing more about what it feels like to work with AI tools — both the good and the bad — this post from Chrissy Chavez of the Help Scout support team is a good read:
Manifesting a positive outcome through career crafting
Another way to ease anxiety about AI is to focus on things in your work life that you can control. While you may not have much input when it comes to how AI is implemented at your current company, you absolutely have control over how you let it shape your career.
Shakeups are likely coming to a support queue near you, but they’re not here yet. Now is a good time to start thinking about what you want your career path to look like and to consider changes that you can make today to start moving yourself toward your goals.
In general, you’ll have four directions you can choose from. You can:
Move UP into a management role.
Move IN and become an AI specialist.
Move AHEAD as an individual contributor within the support field.
Move OUT of customer support into another field where your service background would be an asset.
Take some time to think about which option might be right for you. If you want to gain a better understanding of what each path might look like, our post on navigating a career in support might be helpful.
What if you don’t know what you want to do?
If you’re not sure which path is for you, that’s OK! Though there are some folks out there who are great at picturing the future, others often just take opportunities as they come.
Still, it might be worth spending some time reflecting on the topic. Do you like the work you’ve been doing? If not, what kind of tasks do you enjoy? Help Scout’s Mat Patterson has put together a set of questions like these that might help give you some ideas.
Where you work makes a difference
Most companies that are already replacing their support teams entirely with AI are run by leadership that didn’t value their support organization (or the people within it) to begin with.
Though some may eventually learn the value of human ingenuity, you don’t need to wait around if your company is already showing signs of not appreciating your work or the care that you provide their customers.
What may be most important when it comes to finding the right job fit in the age of AI is not what your job is, but where it is. Companies that focus on people will be more likely to approach the implementation of AI with thoughtfulness and be willing to support you as your role and career path continue to evolve.
In other words, don’t work for a Mr. Whipple.
If you’re an individual contributor gearing up for a job search, check out our Customer Service Interview Builder.
It contains free resources like sample job descriptions for popular support roles as well as a bank of interview questions that can help you prepare. Plus, the effective interviewing guide for managers can help you recognize the behavior of a good hiring manager.
Remember, interviews are a two-way street!
The conversation is just beginning
We’re just at the start of the changes that customer support (and many other industries) will see due to the advancement of AI, and really, that is the biggest driver of anxiety. We don’t yet know for sure which jobs may be lost or how AI technology will shape the roles that remain.
Besides learning more about the tech and considering how you may want to shape your career path going forward, one of the best ways to temper any apprehension that you may be feeling is to talk about it.