Given the amount of media attention it’s been getting as of late, it’s quite possible you don’t need to hear any statistics quoted to know that artificial intelligence (AI) is having a huge impact on any company that utilizes call centers. Here’s one just to drive home that point: A recent report by MarketsandMarkets suggests that the global AI call center market will boom from $800 million this year to $2.8 billion by 2024. That’s the kind of growth that can’t be ignored.
However, much of the discussion about this particular use of AI is infused with sensationalism. It’s common to see forecasts on one end of the spectrum or the other, implying that either chatbots and virtual agents will lead to job losses, or that there’s a limit to what these technologies can do. The truth is that as the specific applications of AI in a contact center environment continue to develop, they could very well improve the overall experience for every caller, prove a boon to the bottom line of any business, and help make employees more productive, happy and efficient.
Let’s start with the idea that AI-powered virtual agents and real people can’t coexist in the call center. There is growing evidence that not only can they work together, they can thrive thanks to a division of labor. The idea is that AI can be the first responder, equipped with the answers to the most frequently asked questions based on the data a contact center compiles from previous customer interactions. For more complex queries that require an actual human touch — one where a live employee can provide empathy as well as understanding — the AI agent can hand off to a human, ensuring the caller gets the best of both worlds.
Another way to have AI and employee back each other up is currently being demonstrated by Sberbank of Russia. Sberbank’s AI is currently a passive third party to call center transactions, listening to conversations and applying natural language processing (NLP) techniques to what they hear. The hope is that the program will learn enough within the next few years to expand its role and actually suggest responses to the call center operator, allowing for fully human interactions to still be supported by the accuracy and speed of AI.
Many businesses, perhaps even the majority of them, will use chatbots or other AI agents to automate responses to the most common questions. Those same agents will be able to route calls to the right people if needed, with NLP vital to their proficiency in doing so accurately. And the interfaces of the past, which relied on menu-driven, interactive voice response (IVR) systems, will be replaced by more fluid, less structured alternatives made possible by the latest advances in artificial intelligence.
The whole idea of a contact center will also transform, turning into what some have dubbed an experience center. This is primarily because of the ever wider range of choices that people have to contact businesses; until recently, omnichannel customer service meant being able to help people by phone, email or website contact form, mobile app and in person. Now those same customers have access to voice-enabled assistants (think Amazon’s Alexa, to name just the most prominent example) and a variety of smart devices linked to the Internet of Things (IoT). Even cars are increasingly making use of eSIMs to keep their occupants connected at all times, meaning businesses need to be able to respond via all of these channels and provide the same level of service across the board.
That’s no easy feat, but the capabilities needed to pull it off are getting better all the time and will soon be within the reach of any company with the vision to put them to use. Whether they’re known as call centers or experience centers five years from now, hubs that handle incoming requests from potential and existing customers will continue to be at the forefront of customer service, using AI and talented people together to reach greater heights.