Bots and AI continue their march toward call center obliteration

AI and chatbots still remain uncharted territory for a substantial segment of the Call Center industry. In 2018, businesses will continue their work to find the right balance between customized customer care and digital efficiency.

Robot Artificial Intelligence chat bot
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In early 2017, I asked CIOs and the IT industry to consider this question: Is the Call Center Era Over? In that year-old article I predicted big shifts away from the old call center models and toward a highly tech-driven contact center model. In the tradition of age-old call center best practices, I am issuing a report card on my own predictions and giving myself a 90% accuracy rate. What did I get right? Where did I come up short?

Without a doubt, the pendulum of service is swinging hard and fast toward sleek, streamlined, tech centric contact centers. It’s the service model of choice. However, a year after I wrote the article, the embrace of AI and chatbots still remains unchartered territory for a substantial segment of the call center industry as businesses work to find the right balance between customized customer care and digital efficiency. As 2018 begins, we revisit the rapidly transforming call center to look at what progress has been made, what’s ahead and how much longer the call center of old can endure in the age of all-out automation.

Bots must move from info providers to problem solvers

According to Gartner projections, up to 85% of customer interactions will be managed without human involvement by 2020. It might be hard to imagine that prediction coming to speedy fruition if you ever find yourself shouting “representative” into your phone to navigate to a customer service call. Could automation, bots and other AI-driven service technologies advance so much in just two years?

Investments and enthusiasm for automation and AI are reaching fever pitch across most every sector, but the key to success in customer service and contact centers will be whether businesses are able to take their chatbots to the next level. Will two years’ time be enough for businesses to develop and deliver bots that can go beyond providing information and into the realm of actually solving the customer’s need? For example, one key way to make bots more valuable and efficient is through text messaging conversations. Texting is cost effective, bots can handle simple text requests and more and more consumers prefer to text, according to this data from IBM. Chatbots have already taken over a fair amount of the information provision work of the call centers of old. Once businesses harness machine learning to develop problem-solving bots, the days of widespread “representative” requests will happily fade into call center history.

Bye-bye humans, hello humanizing

According to a BI Intelligence Customer Service Report, it takes 12 positive customer interactions to make up for just one bad one. That means the executives, technologists and academics who are transforming call centers into multifaceted and AI-enabled contact centers have to remember that there will always be a large human component to every contact center interaction. It’s a reminder that human emotion will shape contact center engagements no matter how many bots are involved. 

For that reason, we can expect there to be significant focus on humanizing the customer service experience in 2018. What does that mean? It means taking into account the fact that people want to be treated like the humans they are and not like a transaction. As e-commerce businesses are quickly learning, no matter how digital an experience is or how tech savvy customers are, people still crave personalized engagement. As customer service experts and business leaders look at ways to automate service interactions, they must also take time to determine where in the customer support journey human-to-human interaction is needed and where bots and other AI can handle the job.

It’s important to note that humanizing doesn’t necessarily mean putting a human on the job, but rather allowing for human behaviors in every touchpoint.  In last year’s article, I emphasized that the “care” in customer care can and must endure. That is the idea behind “humanizing the customer journey” and ensuring that care still has a primary key role in customer service. 

Understanding every touch point

The vast amount of customer data and analytics being gathered means organizations have the opportunity to understand each individual customer at a deeper level. For many businesses, every customer touchpoint is captured digitally. With smart data analytics and AI tools businesses can achieve a new standard of customer service, personalizing communication and support based on the customer’s engagement to date. By creating a more personally relevant experience for each customer, businesses can begin resolving potential service issues or needs before they occur. After all, the better you know your customer, the better you are able to anticipate their needs. With a comprehensive view of all touchpoints, contact centers will be able to identify opportunities to proactively address and/or eliminate reduce customer service issues.

Obliteration is right and wrong

AI, bots and analytics are obliterating the old call-centric customer service center model, but it’s not a story of destruction. This is another chapter in the annals of “rapid, transformative industry change.” For those on frontlines of the global call center the changes they see and experience this year will be constant. Traditional call centers with hundreds or thousands of reps will shrink by large numbers while the technologies that run those centers will grow. New roles in the optimization of the customer journey will develop and expand. 2018 will mark another step away from sweeping call center models and another giant leap forward toward greater automation, more robots and the complicated quest to achieve humanized engagement in a digital world.

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