Will Customer Service Chatbots Ruin the Contact Center?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineBots, sometimes called chatbots, are applications used to automate responses to social media and online inquiries. The purpose of bots is to speed answers to customer information requests. And they do this automatically. They’re programs, after all. They can do in seconds what it might take a person minutes to handle, or even longer if the message gets stuck in a lengthy queue.

Chatbots respond quickly, expedite communication, and relieve customer service staff from handling basic inquiries. What does this mean to contact centers and their staff? Could chatbots signal the end of the contact center as we know it? Could chatbots signal the end of the contact center as we know it? Click To Tweet

Although it’s easy to imagine these chatbot programs one day taking over a contact center and sending all the agents home because they have no work left to do, this is unlikely. Go back through the history of the call center industry; every year or two we see some new technology coming along that carries the threat of devastating the call center. So far it’s never happened.

Although emerging technologies have served to change how the call center operates, in most cases these innovations have opened new opportunities to serve customers and provide more work for agents. Historically, these technologies have not been disruptive but enabling.

Bots are not a threat to contact center agents but a tool that can aid in communication, assist contact center agents, and speed answers to customers. Just as web self-service and FAQ sections on websites help customers resolve problems, so too will self-learning bots. And though online self-service was heralded as the end of contact centers, this proved false, with frustrated users demanding to talk with people to resolve their most difficult problems. Bots will have the same effect.

However, as the saying goes, “To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer.” Bots could accomplish this too. They are, after all, self-learning. What if they learn the wrong thing? What if they reach an errant conclusion and then perpetuate it, spreading their misinformation to thousands of people?

Who will suffer the fallout? The contact center will, as agents field calls, emails, and text messages from confused customers who were led astray by erroneous bots. Who’s going to fix the mess? Contact center agents, that’s who: real people solving big problems caused by well-meaning technology that’s run amuck. This possibility, though likely, will only happen in isolated cases.

Yet there’s a bigger issue at stake. Unlike a typical computer application that can only do what it was programmed to do, bots have an element of artificial intelligence built into them. They can grow, they can evolve, and they can change. They could take over! Though this may sound like an intriguing plot for a sci-fi thriller, it’s a possibility, even if far-fetched. But if bots take over and turn customer service into a nightmare, it will be the contact center agents who come to the rescue and save us all!

My attempts at humor aside, bots present more opportunities than threats. We need to implement them to better serve our customers. Let the bots do the easy things—just like we expect from self-service, FAQs, and interactive voice response—so that contact center agents can focus their attention on the more challenging inquiries. In this way, bots will take some of the drudgery out of routine contact center chores and defer to real people for the really interesting work.

In all likelihood, chatbots will not ruin the contact center industry. They will empower it to become more.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of  Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.