AI and the Contact Center: Understanding Opportunities and Challenges

AI is getting closer to going mainstream in contact centers. Plan carefully and consider the CX.

May 29, 2019

6 Min Read
Call Center AI, contact center artificial intelligence


Ross Sedgewick


Lisa Campbell

By Ross Sedgewick and Lisa Campbell, Unify

Channel-Partners-Insights-logo-300x109.pngFor most contact centers, artificial intelligence (AI) adoption is still in an embryonic stage. Companies like Google and Microsoft are in a race to become AI-first, so there is plenty to suggest this next leap in consumer engagement models will become commonplace quite soon. The slowest adopters will ultimately take the hardest hits to their bottom lines.

Yet contact center employees and the industry at large are apprehensive about the impact of AI on service levels and jobs. Current research in the United Kingdom by the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice indicates that as many as a third of all jobs may be lost to AI in the ensuing decade – with contact center work being among the most vulnerable to this development. Last year a study by the progressive think tank warned that jobs generating a third of annual pay in the UK were at risk of being automated. Without giving a timescale, it suggested that middle-income jobs such as call-center staff, secretaries and factory workers were likely to bear the brunt.

However, because of significant commercial gains and changes to customer engagement models, AI is poised to become far more mainstream in contact centers, producing both challenges and opportunities for organizations as a result

And, for modern-day contact centers, regulation is prevalent – significantly impacting the current market. Big data, data lakes and analytics are fed by consumers who are often data “pragmatists,” or unconcerned about sharing their data. GDPR regulation, along with recent controversies surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, means front-line agents will need to work harder to engender consumer trust, especially when capturing personal data. They will also need to have much greater awareness of how their organization intends to use data in case customers have questions about privacy.

Embracing AI Opportunities in Contact Centers

Given organizations’ increasing prioritization of employee engagement, we hope to see a more committed collective agent workforce moving forward. With the goal of prompting an increased average length of service, this may lead to more positive impacts on the customer experience because the brain trust of relationship context that remains can be leveraged by both the organization and the customer.

AI and data utilization present exciting opportunities for all contact center technology providers. AI encompasses an intricate weaving of emotional intelligence, machine learning, system of things and customer analytics. Given this wide scope, AI use cases within contact centers can be quite varied. A primary reason for using AI in the contact center is to quickly serve transactional, predictable interactions in the most accessible way, while reducing the requirement for costly (or unnecessary) human intervention.

When you delve into the inner workings of any contact center, customer communications can typically be categorized into types, many of which can use AI to deliver an automated response. Provided that a powerful tool exists that accesses the knowledge library or uses machine learning, AI can prove quicker and more effective than a human.

Considering studies where AI is currently outperforming doctors and lawyers, contact centers need to determine how AI and agents can work in harmony to manage all customers across all communication types in an effective way. This is accomplished by …

… developing “rules of dialogue” informed by cross-functional inputs, including customer experience mandates and outcomes, brand attributes, operational invest and HR, just to name a few. They define when the gates between the bots, the agents and the organization are opened or closed for the ideal customer journey

Challenges Surrounding AI in Contact Centers

AI has the power to transform consumer engagement. Even though there will always be a place for voice in the contact center, consumers are generally looking for a faster, more frictionless experience. AI, when deployed correctly, has the potential to deliver this.

Traditionally, a live agent’s voice is ideal in complex, escalated or empathy-intensive scenarios, or when the customer is not as accepting of technology or using internet tools.

Let’s consider the following example. If you are an insurer and your brand is defined by understanding customers and offering personalized service, any shift to AI – from a contact center perspective – will need to be managed carefully. The challenge here is that businesses need to ask themselves what they stand to lose if they effectively give up the “human touch.” If customer retention, advocacy and lifetime value are what risks being jeopardized, then a human-robot balance must be extensively mapped out.

Contact center managers and technology providers also need to consider how to facilitate the seamless exchange between a virtual agent and a live agent to manage the fallout of unsuccessful digital conversations. With this inevitability, there’s a need to deliver an omni-channel solution which can transfer between the virtual and living agent seamlessly (and possibly undetectably) so the customer experience is not disjointed.

The Future of AI in Contact Centers

Knowing when to use AI will be an ongoing iterative process that must be managed by the right individuals within an organization. Because AI should be regarded as a customer experience tool, it should represent a collaborative engagement between customer relationship management, operations and IT. Careful planning and sensitivity must be exercised to avoid jeopardizing the customer journey.

In the near to medium horizon, increased adoption of AI in customer interactions will be inevitable. As a result, we need to be careful to avoid a consumer backlash. As learning and implications are better understood across the discipline of customer engagement, AI has the potential to impact the number and type of human interactions in contact centers significantly over the next few years. In our view, current trends may see contact centers achieve at least one-third AI-based interactions by 2022 yet with a transformation component that will see the role of live agents change out of prescriptive, transactional activities to manage deeper customer journey activities in concert with AI.

Ross Sedgewick joined Unify in 2002 and handles content creation, messaging and insight development relating to the digital workplace. Ross is passionate about humanizing the intersection of people and technology and understanding how users engage and interact. Prior to joining Unify, Ross has held marketing, product, channel and sales leadership positions at IBM, Delano Technologies and Siemens Enterprise Communications. Follow Ross on LinkedIn.

Lisa Campbell joined Unify in 2013 and handles several positioning and messaging functions for Unify’s customer engagement solutions and orchestrated communication services. Lisa enjoys challenging market assumptions and boundaries to uncover disruptive ways to connect people, data and things. She’s also an active gamer, photographer and landscaper. Lisa’s expertise and appetite for marketing is demonstrated through nearly 25 years of working with industry-leading brands such as Siemens, Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, Nortel and Ford. Follow her on Twitter @LisaUnify or on LinkedIn.

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