A Reality Check About AI in Contact Centers


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A few weeks ago Google announced the beta rollout for its new enterprise product: Contact Center AI. The announcement was met with a flurry of media activity, with many reporters citing statistics about increasing AI adoption. Google isn’t the only one; many companies are rolling out AI infused products related to customer service operations.

Upon reading these articles, I felt the need for us all to take a collective step back and really understand what’s happening with AI today in contact centers, as well as what will happen in the near future. In my role leading client success for Stella Connect, a product utilized by hundreds of contact centers, I routinely speak with brand executives regarding their customer service operations. In every single conversation, the brand is focused around two priorities: 1) delivering best-in-class service to customers when they reach out, and 2) achieving operational efficiency in delivering top service.

Now, there’s no question that using artificial intelligence can help address both of these priorities. But the claims that they will replace humans and completely take over contact centers are overblown. Instead, AI and humans must work together to achieve contact center excellence.

Chatbots and virtual customer assistants reduce agent burdens

Chatbots are becoming a familiar fixture in contact centers, and their adoption will only increase since they are capable of resolving 10-35% of customer inquiries. Many brands are employing virtual customer assistants (VCA), which are basically chatbots with a human-like face and personality to answer basic questions, assist with checkout, and follow up after the sale.

According to Gartner, less than 2% of customer service operations used chatbots or VCAs in 2017. By next year, however, that number will surge to 25%. The change is happening so quickly because organizations report a reduction of up to 70% in call, chat and/or email inquiries after implementing a VCA. They also report increased customer satisfaction and a savings of 33% per voice engagement.

With stats like these, it’s easy to see how chatbots and VCAs can alleviate contact center burdens, but it’s important to note that they are not replacing front-line teams. Imagine trying to speak to a chatbot to understand if a certain type of children’s vitamin is right. Or understanding the list of ingredients in a brand’s concealer. A chatbot can ask certain prompts, but these personalized questions are much better answered by a human agent that can offer nuanced details and easily answer follow ups.

Now imagine if one just needs to figure out how to reset a password. For this, a customer could easily connect to a VCA to handle their situation. The customer saves time by not having to wait on hold or listen to lengthy intros, and the customer service team benefits by letting the chatbot handle the easier inquiry so they can use their time for more complicated questions.

Humans are far more nimble

A benefit to AI in contact centers is that it allows for new processes to emerge. Since simple front-line inquiries can now be handled by chatbots and virtual assistants, brands can easily shift employees to other areas to tackle customer service excellence from another approach.

In one example of new contact center roles, Williams-Sonoma moved many front-line employees over to a service recovery role. The use of technologies like AI and real-time customer feedback portals meant the customer service team could focus on deeper issues, such as addressing customer complaints and even proactively contacting customers to make it right. This strategy has led to a 50 point improvement in the company’s NPS score.

These new processes would not have been possible were it not for AI and other technologies improving contact center operations. Humans, being far more nimble than artificial intelligence, can also quickly adapt to the new approach.

AI and human agents are both necessary to deliver excellent service

The bottom line is that humans and AI will have a symbiotic relationship in order to deliver the best customer service. No matter how much machine learning is pumped into a VCA, it still can’t mimic the emotion and empathy of a live agent. And on the flip side, humans can’t put in 24 hours a day the way a chatbot can. As new technologies continue to emerge in contact centers, there will be plenty of new opportunities for humans to address better customer service.


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