By Ross Sedgewick and Lisa Campbell
Within most contact centers, artificial intelligence (AI) adoption remains in an embryonic stage. As companies like Google compete to become AI-first, there is plenty to suggest this next leap in consumer engagement models will soon become inevitable. Yet contact center employees and the industry at large are apprehensive about the impact of AI on service levels and jobs through the deployment of new digital automation capabilities.
Current research shows that as many as one-third of all jobs could be lost to AI in the next decade, with frontline contact center work being among the most vulnerable. However, because of strong commercial gains and changes to customer engagement models, AI is poised to become far more mainstream in customer contact centers.
More companies are rolling out AI-driven software bots to reduce live agent costs while collapsing wait times. (In theory, there is no queueing time to reach a software bot agent). As with prior generations of automation, such as interactive voice response (IVR), automated software bots have proven to provide good results in structured, repeatable, and simple customer interactions.
The Challenges with AI in Contact Centers
AI has the power to transform consumer engagement. While there will always be a place for voice in the modern contact center, consumers are looking for a faster, more frictionless experience. AI, when deployed effectively, can deliver this.
Traditionally, a live agent’s voice is ideal in complex, escalated, or empathy-intensive scenarios, or when the customer is not embracing technology or internet tools. For example, if you are an insurer and define your brand by understanding customers and offering personalized service, any shift to AI—from a contact center perspective—needs careful management.
Similar risks apply with first-generation implementations of AI-driven customer service bots, which mollify the situation through statements of empathy and generalized responses without grasping and resolving the specific customer issues. Ultimately the customer must escape and talk to a real person. Doing a superficial job with AI dialog construction and machine learning is worse for customer relations than having a caller wait a few extra minutes to access a live agent.
The challenge here is that businesses need to ask themselves what they stand to lose if they don’t deploy new AI technologies well, or if they effectively give up the human touch in favor of AI. Contact center managers and technology providers should also consider how to spur the seamless exchange between virtual agents and live agents to manage the fallout of unsuccessful digital conversations. With this inevitability, the need to deliver an omnichannel solution that can shift between the virtual and living agent becomes apparent, and the customer experience flows smoothly as a result.
Innovation Opportunities with AI in Contact Centers
AI and software bots have the potential to bring many interesting and innovative opportunities to the contact center. Here are some sample scenarios to envision:
- Rather than relying on agent skills, knowledge, and experience alone, an AI-driven bot can virtually listen to the customer interaction and silently guide the agent toward a resolution—including questioning and dialog prompts. This allows less experienced agents to do a better job while consuming less off-line dedicated training time.
- How many times have you struggled to clearly hear what a contact center agent is saying due to ambient noise? Annoying and disruptive background noises on both the customer and agent sides can be isolated and filtered out in real time by AI, allowing for a better customer and agent experience overall, as well as faster resolutions.
- Call recording is now commonplace. AI can enable real-time transcriptions of calls that are later searchable and more easily processed by analytics and reporting engines for business insights, as well as audited for legal compliance. These transcriptions can also be used to gather intelligence for future use to feed into AI dialog coaching and machine learning in terms of issue identification, effective questioning, and prompts.
- AI enables customer service software bots to be self-aware, such that a graceful handoff to a human agent can occur as needed for resolution—sometimes without the knowledge of the customer, as in the case of email, web, or text chat. This allows a more natural dialog leading to categorization and routing, as opposed to “press one for service” or selecting topics from preset drop-down menus.
- The value of agent retention and reduced employee turnover correlates with effective contact center operations and customer satisfaction. By introducing AI, highly valued live human agents can be more engaged and more challenged by novel, complex, and interesting customer situations, as opposed to repeatedly processing routine and predictable customer inquiries or requests that AI and software bots can now handle.
AI’s Future in Contact Centers
In the near-to-medium horizon, increased adoption of AI in customer interactions is inevitable. Current trends may see contact centers achieve at least one-third AI-based interactions by 2022, yet with a transformation component that will see the live agent role shift from prescriptive and transactional activities to managing deeper customer journey activities in tandem with AI.
Knowing when to use AI will remain an iterative process that must be managed by the right individuals within an organization. Given studies where AI is currently outperforming doctors and lawyers, contact centers need to determine how AI and agents can work in harmony to manage all customers’ situations across all communication media in effective and efficient ways.
Ross Sedgewick fulfills several expert marketing roles in technologies for the digital workplace, team collaboration/customer contact solutions, and virtual team engagement. He currently handles content creation, messaging, and insight development relating to the digital workplace at Atos’ unified communications and collaboration division (formerly Unify).
LisaCampbell fulfills several positioning, messaging, and value propositions functions for Atos’ customer engagement solutions and orchestrated communication services as well as global vision, strategy, and statements of direction for the full portfolio. Lisa is passionate about communication technology and its ability to amplify individual and organization outcomes.