If there is one issue guaranteed to polarise opinion it is the question of whether the buzzword for the future of customer service is personalisation or automation. It certainly galvanised conversation at a great event I attended in London this week with Kcom, our partner for our third ‘Future of Customer Service’ research report.

The debate has taken a new twist following a batch of recent headlines which illustrate that customers of today are already facing choices on products and services which are taking the concept of automation to a new level.

Just this month Ford demonstrated its prototype self-parking car - it’s not clear how the idea has gone down with motor insurers - but I for one quite like the idea of letting my car take the hassle out of getting into a tight parking space. It might seem futuristic but the technology is here already and Ford is the third, not the first big carmaker to unveil a prototype of this kind, underlining that what seems remarkable today may become common place tomorrow.

In the contact centre environment too we’re seeing a clear trend to automate - particularly for simple transactions like password reset requests, licence renewals or account balance enquiries. The rationale is that it delivers several benefits - it is cheaper, more efficient and it frees agents to perform more skillful and more valuable tasks and to emotionally engage with customers.

Naturally, the issue of whether personalisation or automation is the most appropriate route for service depends on context and successful strategies must approach the issue from a customer perspective.

Most customers will prefer a personalised service for a purchase which has an emotional or higher-value association or is more complex, whether it is help in creating a personalised photo album, advice on a new mortgage or a critical illness policy. On other occasions, customers just want a fast and efficient transaction and self-service is their number one choice, perhaps to pay for a parking slot via their mobile or to book a cinema ticket, and at these times human interaction is unnecessary.

There is a fresh focus too on liberating agents from the tyranny of scripted conversations - a real departure after years of devising the perfect script, containing the correct amount of information that can be conveyed in the shortest possible time to deliver the best possible result. Scripted calls of course can avoid mistakes, particularly in tightly-regulated industries that face costly litigation should agents omit a key word or phrase.

However, in these days of increasingly complex customer enquiries, agents frequently struggle to apply rigid rules and scripts to fluid and non-standard situations, particularly in the less structured context of webchat or Twitter - both of which are now part of the customer service mix.

The old way was to impress on agents that they must not deviate - now major companies such as Sky are running training programmes that exhort agents to ‘dare to be different.’

Two contrasting recent examples of agents who dared to be different by embarking on highly personal conversations with customers neatly illustrate why some businesses are conflicted over taking a leap into uncharted territory.

A witty exchange between agent Mike Mears from Netflix and a customer seeking help with a TV programme stuck on a loop went viral this month. The agent took on the persona of a Star Trek character, introducing himself on webchat as ‘Cpt. Mike of the good ship Netflix’ to the obvious delight of the customer who played along. Mears said Netflix encourages agents to be personable and just to be themselves. Click here to read more.

Netflix may be basking in a wave of positive PR but it was a different story for Cineworld when one of its agents got into a public spat with a customer via Twitter over ticket prices. He tweeted: “Our prices are what they are, if it doesn’t suit you then that’s what a free market is about. Now I do have a home to go to.” Click here to read more.

The only thing you can say on that exchange is ‘Ouch!‘ Surely there is a middle ground in the personalisation and automation debate between robotic responses and risking unleashing agents with a penchant for juvenile or just plain rude retorts? A smart strategic approach has the propensity to deliver more ‘Wow’ moments for customers than shocks.