Automation | Customer contact for the AI age

Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation continue to create immense opportunities for UK businesses. However, scepticism still persists around their ability to truly engage with customers. In today’s competitive landscape, customer experience remains as important as ever. Yet, in the contact centre industry, there is still uncertainty over how an automation solution can provide the kind of customer experience required without appearing cold or faceless.

Far from alienating employees and customers, automation can provide the personal touch that delivers lasting retention. Yet customers are not the only beneficiaries. When deployed carefully and collaboratively, automation can transform a contact centre operation for the business, the customer and the employee.


Dismantling the automation myth

The best, most personalised customer service is achieved when we understand customers’ preferences and concerns on an intimate level. Yet all too often, the customer contact sector falls at this hurdle. Being disappointed by bad customer service is an almost universal experience. Holding for hours on the phone only to find that the agent has no idea who you are or what your problem is has become an unfortunate refrain for the sector.

Too often, calling customer support is seen as a last resort. Customers view it as yet another barrier between them and the company they want to engage with. It is rarely the fault of the agent that this is the case. They simply lack the tools to perform to the best of their ability.

When viewed from both the customer and employee perspective, automation becomes an opportunity instead of a controversy. Sensationalist ideas about the ‘rise of the robots’ and the displacement of human workers have soured the public’s perception of automation. However, while robotics may prove a disruptive force in business, it is an unhelpful analogy for the contact centre environment. Automation is not a zero-sum game. It works best when it is designed not to replace workers, but to enhance their service.

When implemented correctly, automation helps employees understand more about an individual customer than they could alone. Collaboration between human agents and machines is the key to creating an experience that is easier, more personalised and pleasant for all.


The future is now

AI was once science fiction. Now, along with automation, it has gone mainstream. Virtual assistants are pervasive in our daily lives and even sit at our kitchen tables. Customer contact centres are similarly no strangers to automation, but as ever, the innovation is unevenly distributed.

The industry can be split into those who have fully embraced automation and those who are merely dipping their toes in. Neither approach is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Contact centres should automate at a pace that matches customer demand. However, in striving to provide the best customer service, it is important to see what is being achieved through automation.

When it comes to speed, accuracy and the ability to perform repetitive work consistently, machines cannot be beaten. This is why the use of chatbots is growing exponentially in customer contact centres.

At first glance, a complex conversation between two people seems a strange place for automation to contribute or add value. Machines are usually programmed to do a limited set of tasks, albeit very well, but we expect customers to be unpredictable. Yet the majority of queries that agents answer on a day-to-day basis are predictable and routine. Beyond answering these questions with a predetermined response, there is little or any real value that an agent can add to the interaction.

Chatbots, then, are well placed to automate low-level customer requests. They can process the overwhelming majority of customer queries quickly and effectively. The small proportion of queries that can’t be answered by chatbots are passed on to human agents. When chatbots are paired with machine learning, the more a customer interacts with these systems, the better they are understood and the more helpful the chatbot becomes.    

Chatbots liberate employees from mundane and often repetitive tasks where they can offer little extra value. Instead, they are freed up to focus on jobs that benefit more from their specialist knowledge or creative-thinking, such as more technical queries that require human oversight or decision-making.


Adding value behind the scenes

Automation is proving capable in front of house, customer-facing roles. However, it can serve an equally useful back-end function. Indeed, in the first wave of automation that swept this industry, machines made their home in the back office.

Though often neglected in contact centres, data management makes a prime target for AI. Contact centres gradually build up deep reservoirs of customer data, but agents have limited ability to make use of it. Knowledge is transferred slowly and imperfectly between humans. A customer who is well-known to one agent may be a stranger to another and receive less useful advice as a result.

Yet data transfer between machines is instantaneous. AI has the capability to analyse and process large amounts of customer data fast. A virtual customer profile can be created and exchanged quickly between systems, and between machines and humans. For the agent, AI helps them collect all the information they need about a customer when they need it, helping them provide an excellent experience, no matter the location or customer. 


Making machines part of the family

The best approach to integrating AI in an existing contact centre is measured and holistic. Many make the mistake of deploying a solution to see how it performs, without having a view of how it will impact employee workflow or the customer journey.

It is not right to throw in technology and hope for the best. Automation can have a transformative effect on an organisation, but it needs the right tools, data and back-end processes in place to be effective. Otherwise, automation can become a frustrating add-on and seen as another obstacle by staff and customers.

Nor is it correct to take a revolutionary approach to implementation. Stripping out old systems and employees to make way for untested AI can do more harm than good. Contact centres should instead make incremental changes over a period of time. Feedback should be sought throughout from agents and customers, and be iterated upon to improve the system and make it more accessible. In this way, automation becomes a gradual, cultural change that slowly but surely wins the support of its users.

Ultimately, humans and machines must work together to provide the optimal customer experience. When deployed correctly and used to enhance, not replace, the work of contact centre agents, everyone benefits. Employees are empowered to do their best work, reduce time on mundane tasks and understand the customer more quickly and better than ever before. Customers will enjoy a faster, smoother and more insightful customer journey. Soon, they will begin to treat the contact centre as the first port of call rather than the last resort.

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