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High-Tech Demands High-Touch: Why Advances in AI Won’t Replace Live Agents

The fact that technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotic process automation (RPA) are taking over the contact center should come as no surprise to any customer service professional. The degree to which they have taken over and their disruptive potential does warrant attention, however.

Case in point: In 2011, research firm Gartner predicted that by 2020 humans would no longer manage 85% of all customer interactions with brands. “By 2020, the average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse,” the firm said. “With the rise of AI and conversational user interfaces, we are increasingly likely to interact with a bot (and not know it) than ever before.”

Currently, two schools of thought prevail regarding the impact technology will have on the contact center. The first is that AI and automation will replace or substantially reduce the need for human agents, while the second is that technology will augment the role of human agents, freeing them to handle more complex interactions.

Either way, the advancement of technology is inevitable because of the promise it holds to alleviate the challenges that contact centers face.

Benefits That Technological Advances Bring to the Contact Center

Emerging technologies like AI allow traditional call centers to free up resources, improve process and cost efficiencies, and relieve agents of the routine, repetitive tasks that contribute to attrition.

Take costs efficiencies, for example. When automation saves agents from handling low-value customer service interactions, fewer calls need to be routed their way. Those that are will consist of high-value, complex exchanges where a human is best positioned to serve the customer.

Not only will this benefit the customer, it will also make for happier, more productive agents, potentially reducing attrition. And, the more of these calls that computers handle, the more savings contact centers will see in human capital.

Data collection is another benefit to using AI. Though it is well-intentioned, agents in a rush to summarize the interaction can leave valuable data on the table, or worse, input wrong information into the CRM. With AI-inspired machine learning and natural language processing, that is much less likely to happen.

This principle also applies to reviewing calls for QA and process improvement, a rigorous, time-consuming task when left in human hands. Machine learning algorithms can evaluate calls quickly, assess their value, recognize trends, and make predictive analyses, improving processes and quality in real-time.

Where Agents Make the Difference

Think of the types of customer interactions contact centers have. If, for example, a customer just needs to know when a product was shipped, there is no need to speak with an agent. A bot can provide that information.

On the other hand, if a customer is trying to decide between two products, an AI solution could offer price and other information, but it takes a well-trained, knowledgeable agent to answer questions, validate the purchase decision, and advise the customer on the products’ use, effectively relieving buyer remorse.

This type of customer empathy and “tribal knowledge” are attributes that AI simply cannot replace, at least at this juncture.

The same is true of technical support. Expecting AI to help someone resolve a technically complex issue — one that typically requires tier-3 or tier-4 level support — is unimaginable. this requires a live agent who can empathize with the customer’s frustration, has the discernment to know when the person is fixated on an incorrect solution and refocus their attention, and patiently walk the customer through the necessary steps to solve the problem.

The emotional and intellectual properties of empathy, judgment, understanding, the ability to build camaraderie, show enthusiasm, and conversationally provide feedback — qualities that only humans possess — are what make the difference in customer interactions. AI may make transactions more efficient, but live agents add that personal touch.

Advice to Customer Service Industry Professionals

Customer service professionals may question whether it is in their best interest to outsource to a “one-stop-shop” that offers the advantages of both automation and human agents or work with multiple operators that specialize in one or the other.

Our advice is to map out the customer journey and look at every touch point, determining at each stage what information customers would want, what questions they might have, and the most appropriate way for them to contact the company.

By figuring out the types of questions you will be receiving, their level of complexity, the value of a given exchange, and the skill set needed to manage the communication well, you can select the points where AI and automation would service the customer best and where a customer service agent is necessary.

Once you have reviewed the customer journey and made decisions about touch points, then find a solution that fits every step. Where providing efficiencies is called for, an AI solution may be the appropriate choice. When delivering outstanding care is essential, outsource to a provider with a proven legacy of service excellence, even if that means working with multiple providers.

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While it may be inevitable that AI and automation will reduce the need for human agents, it cannot wholly replace reliance on them.

Digital systems are not yet capable of tackling complex tasks. Plus, consumers are creatures of habit and prefer to speak with a human rather than a bot. (That dynamic is changing as millennials become more of an economic force but holds true for now.)

What the introduction of technology will do is demand that agents be well-trained and highly-skilled to find answers faster, keep customers happier, and add value with each exchange.

Ultimately, the future of the contact center comes down to convenience and cost. Customers want an easy, hassle-free option that gives them answers quicker with less friction. Contact centers want to minimize expenses while keeping CSAT and NPS scores high. AI and automation can help address those concerns by handling routine queries while leaving the most important interactions to agents.

This blend of high-tech and high-touch could turn the contact center from a commodity cost center into a high-value profit center that manages both types of communications equally well.

Jason Sterns

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