As global services executives adjust to meet new demands and markets, they are more enthusiastic than ever about leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) in their business processes. But Chip Wagner, the CEO of ISG Automation, warns that many companies are falling for the early hype of RPA (Robotic Process Automation), with its intoxicating promises of ease of implementation and speed to scale.
If executed well, an RPA Center of Excellence (CoE) helps embed automation effectively into an organization. However, Wagner argues that companies will live to regret embracing automation unless they dedicate time to critical analysis and strategy.
“They have learned through early missteps that it is hard to scale,” Wagner said. “Building a COE is difficult, and… organizational change management is a crucial lubricant to grease the wheels of adoption and acceptance of a fundamentally new way of working.”
Furthermore, he said, RPA is just the first step in an intelligent automation journey. “AI, the ultimate aspiration of many, is many strides down the continuum from basic RPA. One cannot rush into AI; you evolve to AI as you implement ICR/OCR, NLP/NLG, chatbots, and cognitive tools,” Wagner advised.
According to ISG, customer demand is shifting radically and these new metrics should dictate AI adoption. According to analysts from the company, there is a growing customer demand for:
- Improved customer satisfaction: enhancing the client experience and elevating the employee experience
- Streamlined mission critical processes
- Improved quality and reduced errors
- Increased efficiencies and throughput
- Improve revenue growth trajectory
- People enablement: Improve through new roles and upskilling
- People engagement: moving away from transactional low skill work
“The biggest fumble would be trying to leap over all the early intelligent automation tools in the hope of getting to AI that will magically unlock some huge treasure trove of impact,” Chip Wagner said. “No good wine before its time applies here. AI will be a very powerful tool in the toolbox. But having early successes with RPA and a few other cognitive tools is a more measured way to proceed.”
Wagner also advised executives to “get some help on this journey” as “it is not as easy as the tool suppliers would like you to think it is.”
ISG suggests that enterprises should explore the following considerations when planning AI adoption:
- Technology: How to set up and manage digital workforce technology as the enabler for the digital workforce.
- Target Operating Model: How to set up, deploy and manage the digital workforce.
- Organizational Change: The new normal of work. The collaboration of the human and digital workforce. New roles created as part of the digital workforce.
- Enterprise Strategy: How the digital workforce strategy forms an integral part of the corporate strategy.
Prepared for Change
Company leaders have long had to wrestle with issues around AI potentially triggering job losses. But experts such as Dr. Larry Ponemon, chairman and founder of the Ponemon Institute, have dismissed the concerns over job loss. Ponemon argues that automation does not eliminate any jobs, but instead offers opportunities for upskilling.
As customer service organizations deploy more AI in their operations, the day-to-day work of a contact center agent changes, said Ian Jacobs, Principal Analyst with Forrester Research.
“AI and automation will increasingly tackle simple, repetitive tasks” he said. “Agents will therefore need different skills to handle the more complex requests that remain.”
This has proven to be something of a pitfall with AI adoption – because AI changes the nature of work that humans need to do.
“AI needs to be deployed to augment and assist those agents,” Jacobs said. “This is a spiral that escalates — the better a brand gets at AI, the more it needs to create tools to assist the agents it has left.”
Jacobs said that brands should be looking to deploy both customer-facing and agent-facing AI and automation at the same time.
“The agent-facing tools also need to help with the emotional component of service interactions,” said Jacobs. “Think about it this way—pretty soon, almost every human contact center interaction will be the result of a failed self-service interaction. This means that customers will have a latent sense of frustration just itching to come out if an agent sets a foot even slightly wrong. AI can have a role in focusing an agent’s attention on the empathy and human connection required to short-circuit this potential frustration.”
AI tools that monitor customer conversations can provide agents with behavioral cues such as: “let the customer finish their thought,” or “speak more slowly.” AI tools can therefore help agents resolve issues more quickly and completely.
Jacobs said that AI adoption will change the landscape for BPOs and will have a direct impact on other considerations such as location, type of work handled and pricing approaches.
“BPOs can no longer just pitch labor arbitrage benefits from an offshore site,” Jacobs warned. Instead they will need to manage “whatever challenges the universe throws at them.” This means that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution any longer.”
Jacobs said that more automation may mean a different pricing model: “More offshore work may demand more digital channels and greater automation. Each engagement needs to be customized based on all these factors.”
Jacobs said that clients are increasingly receptive to automation – a shift that should encourage leaders who are excited by change. Pitches to customers that “used to regularly fail,” are now “starting to land,” Jacobs asserted.
“Just look at chatbots and conversational AI. BPOs have been making the case for several years that they are a natural fit to solve brands’ conversational service needs, but success has been fleeting at best,” Jacobs said. “But times have certainly changed and we now have customers who want their outsourcing partner to stand up simple chatbots in a few days.”
According to an ISG study, chatbots are moving into a more dominant role in the customer service industry, with service buyers increasingly accepting self-service.
Jacobs said that such deployments will likely expand. He expects simple, FAQ-style chatbots to grow into conversational support and possibly even full-on process automation plays.
“When it seems like all brands are scrambling to get chatbots up and running, the market has clearly expanded,” the analyst said. “BPOs are finally poised to get a chunk of that work.”