How conversational AI can help the contact center handle unexpected spikes in traffic

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During unexpected times of crisis, a sector that is often hard hit by dramatic increases in traffic is the customer service industry. Whether it’s the spread of an infectious virus or periods of unforeseen system downtime, chances are that regardless if it’s a hospital, an insurance company or a city council, contact centers will be inundated with calls from people looking for information.

My team and I have been tracking the spikes in customer service traffic that the virtual agents across our client base have been experiencing as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 situation, and the results have been telling. The insurance sector has, as of today, seen the sharpest incline with average traffic increases of up to nearly 250% and climbing. While the public sector and financial services industry are similarly seeing steady increases as well.

Predicting these spikes in traffic is difficult and, when they do occur, managing them effectively can be extremely costly. It can often mean pulling staff from other departments to help carry the load, or onboarding large numbers of new employees at speed, many of whom may be unfamiliar with a company’s systems and products.

Another unforeseen side effect of some crisis situations is that a contact center could be required to work at reduced capacity or perhaps shut down entirely. This presents an even bigger challenge for keeping lines of communication open with customers. While the infrastructure for handling human customer support remotely is certainly available, it may not be possible to roll out quickly.

Technologies, such as conversational AI-powered virtual agents, can be used to alleviate the additional strain placed on contact centers when these sudden events occur, helping customers get the answers that they need with a minimum of friction.

It’s all about scale

When customers contact a company or public service during a crisis, they are all looking for the same thing – instant assistance and reassurance. The trouble is, if the contact center is busy, what could be a quick, informational two-minute call, turns into potentially hours of waiting on hold, time that could be critical to the caller.

With a virtual agent, organizations can impart important information about a topic with zero downtime. Customers can be pointed towards relevant resources on a company’s website, or directed towards critical services so that action can be taken immediately. Conversational AI has no upper limit on the amount of traffic it can handle either, so whether it’s 10 people or 10,000 getting in contact at once, a company can provide a consistent response, instantly without the need to staff up.

Available always

The trouble with unexpected events is that they rarely care about business hours. Most contact centers are typically open 9-5, and for a limited window on weekends. That can leave people stranded, particularly if they need to get in touch with a company outside of these times. A virtual agent doesn’t sleep or take breaks, which means it can field questions at all hours of the day or night.

Over 85 municipalities in Norway currently deploy a virtual agent called Kommune Kari to answer questions from citizens on everything from garbage collection to voting information. In a recent seven-day period, the virtual agent answered over 19,000 customer inquiries, 62% of which were specifically related to the coronavirus situation. Additionally, over 40% of these customer interactions occurred outside of the public office’s opening hours, further demonstrating the importance of a 24/7 digital presence.

Proactive assistance

A major advantage of conversational AI is that it can also be used proactively. This is particularly helpful in the event of an emergency, as it allows a company to address the needs of customers without them having to ask first. A virtual agent can greet users with a specialized message that acknowledges the situation, offering advice and potentially directing them towards more information or alternative solutions.

In March 2018, Norway’s primary electronic identification system, BankID, suffered from operational problems leaving customers unable to login to their accounts. During the outage, Sparebank 1 SR-Bank used its virtual agent Banki to proactively manage over 4,000 customer requests related to this event in a single day. An unprecedented number of interactions that, without the help of a virtual agent, would have otherwise put a tremendous strain on the bank’s contact center.

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