Graham Ede
Graham Ede 12 July 2018

AI vs. Humans: where are contact centres headed?

Market disruption continues to be a relevant phenomenon, as companies fail to innovate to a sufficient level to stay afloat. In particular, household brands in the retail sector continue to suffer from the effects of online shopping and changing habits within their consumer base. In this turbulent landscape, a differentiator that brands should focus on is customer service.

This is not new advice, yet companies may finally be ready to sit up and take notice. In this article, we offer our perspective on Artificial Intelligence as a customer service tool, based on latest research and our experience as a customer contact solutions provider.

The debate around the role of AI in customer care continues to hot up with a range of bots and tools promising to provide a range of services that are often mi-represented as computers taking over the intelligent and professional customer care agent role entirely. Anyone in customer service, however, is well aware that this is not the case, rather using technology to enhance customer experience can be attractive but it is important to remember that the true return on investment (ROI) will come when technology works in conjunction with live agents working out of a contact centre. In some instances the lack of possibility to speak to a live agent not only leaves customers dissatisfied but actually causes them to defect. However, having access to a full range of communications channels (be it automated or human) to resolve their queries, encourages customers to stay loyal and increase their overall spend.

The development of bots and automated messaging is already changing how contact centres work and in fact it is these company departments that are most at risk of becoming obsolete in a world of artificial intelligence (AI). By 2035, AI technologies are projected to increase business productivity by up to 40% by automating repetitive tasks currently carried out by live agents. In the US alone, businesses are losing $62 billion per year due to poor customer service; AI technologies are not restricted to time zones or bank holidays etc. which can have a positive impact on customer satisfaction as queries can be resolved quicker.

An often debated topic at the moment is about the risks posed by technologies to jobs. Disruptive technologies are doing a good job of reshaping the way we work and has helped people become more efficient and productive in their jobs but it begs the question, are we still needed at work or can technology do the job for us? 

According to Gartner by 2020 85% of customer interactions will be managed without a live agent and Oracle have estimated that 8 out of 10 businesses have already implemented or are planning to adopt AI as a customer service solution by the same time. Automated methods – chatbots, artificial intelligence etc. – are extremely pertinent, and in the right context, are delivering excellent value. Yet rarely, if ever, does total automation fulfil customers’ requirements - it is usually at the most crucial tipping points in a customer experience (a complaint, a non-standard enquiry, an escalation of a query) that being able to reach a real person is most valued. According to information technology giant IBM, 80% of routine customer queries can be handled by chatbots, which frees up your agents to invest time in more quality work.

Contact centres are on the front line for most organisations and can really make or break a brand’s reputation. While aspects of AI and new technologies are emerging within the contact centre, the importance of trained and intuitive human beings cannot be underestimated.

Of course AI in contact centres can seamlessly give customers the right information they need at the right time by offering self-service options, thus eliminating the need for a contact centre agent. Secondly, AI can arm the customer service representatives with information to help them better serve the customer they are speaking to – for example, having a complete omni-channel view of their previous interactions within the business.

It is highly unlikely though that the bots will be replacing live agents in the contact centre any time soon. Particularly as studies have shown that 69%[1] of people will take their business elsewhere if they can’t get through to a real person. People tend to speak to a live agent as they can better understand their needs, can address multiple questions at once as well as deliver personalised offers and understand human emotions.

Being able to get through to a live agent cannot be under estimated and is just as important as having a choice of channels through which to reach a company. Most importantly, this is not simply a matter of customers being happier and more satisfied when they have channel choice including a live person – it actually affects their commercial behaviour, making them more likely to stay as a customer and to increase their business with the supplier.

This is not to say that automated customer management solutions need to be rejected as automation of standard customer queries and requirements is evidently showing its value in many consumer-facing businesses at the moment. However, in most customer journeys there usually comes a point where there is no substitute for talking to a real person especially when dealing with sensitive issues which might require a level of diplomacy. Live interaction at crucial stages of the customer journey especially when informed with all the relevant customer intelligence, can be the real make-or-break of the customer choosing to defect or to make repeat purchases.  


[1] Yonder Digital Group, 2017

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