Like flying cars and hoverboards, we were told chatbots would be everywhere by now. As voice still accounts for the majority of customer interactions Nick Ray, VP Products at Infinity CCS, separates the reality from the hype.
For the last five years technology vendors, enabled by both the industry and popular press, have been hyping up artificial intelligence and automation.
And in some areas of business it is indeed true that the algorithms are taking over. In sectors including financial services, online streaming, music distribution, retail and e-commerce, and logistics, AI is helping to make products and services better for customers and more profitable for sellers and providers.
Where automation is having less of an impact than expected is on business functions, and job roles, that feature human interactions. This includes the customer service and contact centre sector, despite the promise of chatbots and other self-service technologies.
To understand just why this is we need to be aware of the current limitations of automation; and to understand just what companies ought to do instead we need to know what customers want, what companies want, and just where those interests intersect.
Hype vs reality
Back in 2011 Gartner predicted that by 2020 up to 85% of customer interactions would be managed with no human involvement. They weren’t just talking about chatbots of course, but included online shopping, automated check outs, FAQs and other forms of self-service.
Even so, with just over a year to go until the turn of the decade, it still seems a bold forecast.
More recently, in February 2018, the same analysts made another prediction: that 25% of customer service operations would integrate virtual customer assistant (VCA) and chatbot technology by 2020. That would be up from just 2% in 2017.
There is no doubt that any number of companies are using VCAs and chatbots, and in some innovative ways. For example, Autodesk reportedly cut resolution times for tier 1 technical support enquiries from 38 hours to just 5 minutes using IBM’s Watson Conversation platform.
But the truth is that, for now, success stories like this are few and far between. While around half of organisation claim to have invested in VCA technology, to date only a small fraction have deployed programmes in any meaningful way that is integrated with the rest of the customer contact suite or at scale.
Gimmicks like being able to order a pizza in a chat-like interface on Messenger do not make for a customer experience revolution.
What’s the problem?
In areas such as product recommendations, data analytics, cybersecurity, and logistics among others AI is having a genuinely transformational effect. What these fields have in common is the availability of lots and lots of structured data, and machine intelligence is a lot better than human intelligence at doing deep analysis on this kind of information.
Human interactions are a completely different paradigm. Customer experience teams and contact centres have lots and lots of data, but beyond transactional data it’s mostly ad-hoc and unstructured, which means cataloguing it and making links between it to tease out trends and knowledge is much more difficult.
It is their current limited ability to work with unstructured data, and the remaining imperfections in speech recognition and natural language processing software, that holds VCAs and chatbots back from being able to truly understand the complexities of human interactions.
This is why chatbots, to date, are mostly used to give canned and pre-programmed replies when customers raise specific issues. Anything that goes beyond that remit gets escalated to a human representative.
As long as we don’t expect Westworld levels of realism from our bots, that is still extremely valuable, as the Autodesk example shows.
Meanwhile, there are huge gains to be had elsewhere
As chatbots get better and we use them more and more they are likely to become culturally accepted and even expected. For now, however, a Hubspot study found that 57% of people would rather get help from a real person than an AI.
Fortunately, digital customer experience is not all about chatbots. It’s about using digital technologies and channels to attract and service customers anywhere in the digital world as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Where chatbots, even given their current limitations, help with that they should be used. But the same gains can be made in other ways. As impressive as the Autodesk statistic is, how much of the improvement was due to chatbots being used, and how much was due to the switch in channels from voice and email to instant messaging and chat?
The point is that even with human representatives, resolution times are dramatically lower for chat, simply because the nature of that channel is to get an immediate resolution to the customer’s problem while they remain online.
Ironically AI tools like automated sentiment analysis and speech analytics – which help understand customers’ emotions and subsequent behaviour based on their tone of voice and language used – are now seeing heavy adoption in contact centres, and may have a greater impact on the bottom line than chatbots, at least in the short term.
Giving contact centre agents the right tools has the biggest impact
To deliver what customers want it is important that the appropriate technology system, business process, and customer transaction data are all immediately available to an agent (or automated system) at the right time during a customer interaction.
Most processes can be broken down into simple steps, which means that with the right software agents can be guided through these steps one at a time in a flexible manner. Instead of logging in to multiple systems all the information and input screens the agent needs are presented to them in a single user interface.
This type of robust workflow results in faster, more accurate customer interactions, less hold time, fewer call backs, and no need to transfer customers between different teams (unless your internal structure demands it – and if it does you should consider changing that where possible).
In our experience companies deploying workflow solutions in their contact centres on average see a 20% boost in productivity. Which is why we are even seeing this type of technology deployed in emergency command centres, i.e. 999 and 911 centres, where just improving call response by seconds can make the difference between life and death.
Nick Ray is VP Products at Infinity CCS
Infinity’s technology and services unlock your ability to win customers, retain them and maximise their satisfaction by empowering you to deliver exceptional customer experience across multiple channels, with ultimate efficiency.
All of our solutions have been built from the ground up for contact centres, and are based around our proprietary technology – the Infinity Platform – and support serviced delivered by customer management experts.
Infinity has over 20 years’ experience working with contact centres, and our Infinity Platform is deployed across more than 12,000 users in 13 countries.
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