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The Future Contact Center: Bots, AI Build On IVR

Automation in the contact center could maximize customer satisfaction while making agents as productive as possible.

August 7, 2017

5 Min Read
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Rick McFarland

By Rick McFarland, CEO, Voice4Net

Often hailed as the future of customer engagement, bots signal a new age of self-service proficiency. They free up human resources while delivering operational efficiency and driving high-quality customer service. But are bots truly new, and are they the magic bullets they’re being touted to be? Or are they more the next evolutionary step in the automated solutions we’ve been selling for years?

The underlying code that enables a bot to do its job has been a fundamental element of the contact center since some of the industry’s earliest systems. For decades, in fact, it was known as IVR. Now, as automated-response bots evolve and take on a larger role in the marketplace, the emphasis on “interactive” is increasing. it’s important that channel partners understand how to sell customer-engagement solutions in the current omnichannel environment to help B2C customers meet demand from tech-savvy consumers.

How Do We Define a Bot?

An internet bot is a software application that executes automated tasks (or scripts) over the internet. Whether you call them chatbots, smartbots or AI-bots, they deliver the ability to dynamically interact with customers based on user input. They typically perform simple, structurally repetitive functions with greater rapidity – and often, greater accuracy – than a human.

Automation in the contact center stems from intelligent routing and queuing systems that apply algorithms and logic to connect a customer with the most appropriate agent. These inputs are most frequently made through IVR, but when the system is able to identify the user – via login, Internet cookies or other unique information – modern platforms can fine-tune routing and queuing based on personal information and customer history. Even so, this level of automation relies primarily on a database of scripts and logical responses to common queries and keywords, much like IVR systems. Customers are able to receive faster and somewhat more personalized responses from internet bots, which deliver incremental improvement over IVR in terms of customer satisfaction.

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However, bots haven’t evolved to the point where they’re undetectable — at least, not yet. It’s still fairly easy for consumers to realize when they’re not interacting with a live human being, which may breed discontent. In fact, consumers have exhibited a certain distaste toward IVR systems, mainly because they’re considered impersonal. Early bot implementations have often met with similar customer fatigue as IVR systems, even if they perform more efficiently.

What About AI?

We define artificial Intelligence (AI) in the contact center as “machines that draw on multiple data sources, such as customer history, sentiment ratings and browsing history.” The software analyzes information to create a more complete profile of the customer, then uses this profile to intelligently automate and individualize processes — including customer conversations. The latest bots can even recognize …

… their limitations and escalate customers to a live agent when necessary. Other terms related to these AI applications include buzzwords such as “machine learning” and “AI-bots.”

These systems can deliver highly individualized service, conserving human resources while enhancing customer satisfaction. Let’s keep in mind that superior customer engagement is always the end goal of artificial intelligence and automation. Contact-center solutions must deliver satisfactory outcomes. A report from NewVoiceMedia reveals that an estimated $62 billion is lost by U.S. companies each year due to bad customer experiences.

Bots tend to be applied to non-voice channels such as chat and email, making them relevant to the omnichannel customer engagement experience that many contact centers hope to implement. While voice is still the primary means of communication in the contact center (up to 68 percent of interactions, according to data from Salesforce.com), text messaging is gaining momentum as a preferred medium for customer service. A great window of opportunity exists in applying advanced bot technology to text messaging in a contact-center environment. But the challenge for bots is clear: They need to transcend the typical IVR experience and evolve to a more conversational, specialized style of interaction. That will drive the self-service paradigm forward while maintaining the highest level of service for customers, the true goal of any contact-center solution.

As for artificial intelligence, or “learning” bots in the contact center, the industry hasn’t quite evolved to this level yet. However, with recent advances in speech analytics and AI in other areas of technology, the time may be near when we’ll see this technology in the contact-center market, facilitating even more personalized service through cost-effective, automated technologies.

Whether we define these models as breakthroughs or new incarnations of well-worn tools like IVR, it’s the task of integrators, resellers and dealers in the channel to stay up to date on contact-center advances and deliver these capabilities to customers.

Rick McFarland is president and chief executive officer of Dallas-based Voice4Net, a provider of customer interaction and voice communications solutions for businesses. Rick is responsible for the strategic direction, growth and overall success of the company. Prior to founding Voice4Net in 1996, he helped to pioneer one of the first IVR banking application solutions in the market.

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