IBM Research’s self-learning system Watson is being hyped as a game-changer for the way companies do business. But do you want a computer providing customer service?

This morning I received an email highlighting some of the ways retailers could use IBM’s advanced analytics technology – named Watson – to come up with answers to their business questions.

One example builds on the analytics that UK retailers are already beginning to utilise within their marketing and customer insight teams. Letting Watson trawl through various customer data elements could help a retailer to decide on the next piece of outbound contact it should have with a specific customer. This analysis could result in sending a particular customer a unique deal on a product, or the offer of a free service add-on when they make a particular purchase.

So far, so good.

But some of the other examples begin to raise questions about what value a retailer places in its staff. IBM suggests Watson could be responsible for deciding what happens when a customer returns a broken mobile phone to store. Should the retailer fix or replace the phone? Should it offer a newer phone to retain the customer’s business? What’s going to maximise the profit?

They are all good questions that retailer should undoubtedly be thinking about in such a situation. But it overlooks one crucial point.

Retailers are increasingly being told that customer service should provide an element of personal service. But if store staff have to defer to a computer – albeit a very clever one – before they can answer a customer’s question, just how personal will that service feel?