Voice from the past
While we are happy to chat to friends and colleagues using messaging, text, social media and email, when it comes to contacting our bank, insurance company or healthcare provider, we’re often sent to the back of the phone queue. Customer service departments are still rooted in voice-centric service infrastructure, but this is about to change.
The advance of AI
Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI), spurred on by technology giants such as Alphabet, Amazon, and IBM, are making AI-based technology much more accessible to customer service departments in every sector.
A Gartner report, sponsored by Tealium: ‘100 data and analytics predictions for 2021‘ forecasts that ‘By 2019 more than 10% of IT hires in customer service will mostly write scripts for bot interactions’ and ‘By 2020, AI will disrupt the jobs of 1,000,000 phone-based customer support agents.’
Weathering the storm
Any organization with a large customer base can immediately benefit from employing AI to help their customer service departments to cope with large volumes of day-to-day inquiries. The technology can also assist with managing seasonal spikes, such as the UCAS Clearing system on A-level results day, or to support an insurance company’s customer service team following an extreme weather event.
However, while disruption is certainly on the way, it’s important to recognize that AI will supplement and complement customer support agents’ roles rather than replacing them entirely.
A more recent report, ‘AI Is Ready For Employees, Not Just Customers’ by Forrester analyst, Craig Le Clair, advocates using AI to automate repetitive tasks, but argues that certain services demand human skills, such as the ability to detect a customers’ emotional state and respond appropriately.
Le Clair writes, “Machines excel at background tasks such as navigation and search, not human tasks such as conversations. That’s why today’s AI is best directed at internal employee support rather than customer-facing bots.”
AI with a human touch
People increasingly crave personalized service and have less tolerance for repeating information when dealing with providers. Because of this, an AI system that can pull together information from previous interactions and respond accordingly can greatly assist organizations in retaining loyal customers.
When viewed in this context, AI becomes part of the team effort to support customers. Customer service agents are able to handle multiple queries simultaneously, while the automation of routine inquiries frees them to focus on more unusual, high value, or critical inquiries which require human creativity, empathy, and expertise.
Escape from routine
We are starting to see good examples of AI being used in this way in customer service departments in the insurance, charity and public sector, where high volumes of incoming inquiries can be handled more productively by arming customer support specialists with AI.
A recent case study from Aylesbury Valley District Council describes this scenario perfectly. One customer support agent describes how she is able to use a chatbot template to answer planning queries, even though this falls outside of her specialism. Using AI allows her to be more productive and also helps customers because they don’t need to be passed from pillar to post to get the answers that they need. A customer support officer reports that, despite being initially skeptical, he has been won over by the AI system, which allows him to handle multiple inquiries simultaneously.
The Digital Programme Director at Aylesbury Valley District Council comments that the AI system is continually improving as more people interact with it and responses are refined. “AI enables us to automate some of the basic standard responses, to free up our staff’s time, so they can focus on the areas where they need to spend more time helping our customers: our residents”.
Going beyond chat
Due to the open-sourcing of machine learning and natural language processing technology, AI has advanced to the point where bots can be implemented in a matter of days and improved over time. My own view is that current enterprise AI strategies need to rapidly evolve beyond chatbots handling inbound queries, to harnessing AI in the form of service bots, that perform specific tasks to support customer service teams across a whole range of inbound and proactive outbound processes, such as onboarding new customers; completing claims forms; managing complaints; handling renewals and reducing churn.
ServisBOT’s mission is to make AI easy, continuously smarter and more humanlike so that organizations can automate routine interactions and improve customer service experience through greater availability and more convenient problem resolution, making use of the same channels their customers use to communicate with their friends and family. However, skilled customer service professionals will be needed to handle sensitive interactions. By releasing them from repetitive tasks, talented customer service people are freed up to deal with unique inquiries, where they can really add value.
While Gartner predicts that customer service departments are currently hiring people to write scripts for bots, it is impossible to foresee every scenario, so for now, at least, skilled customer service professionals will always be required. To avoid frustrating customers and preserve brand, it’s important to ensure that bots are able to escalate inquiries to a human if AI is unable to satisfactorily answer a customer’s query. The subsequent response can then be used to further personalize and improve the AI system for future customers.