How virtual agents & AI are alleviating the contact center

Contact centers are round-the-clock, performance-based operations – here's how AI is helping them weather the current disruption.
4 May 2020 | 23 Shares

Virtual agents have become a customer service staple. Source: Shutterstock

Whatever it is they’re selling, businesses today are under more pressure than ever to provide a five-star experience. Customer service is not a ‘nice-to-have’, it’s taken for granted by customers who have plenty of eager competitors at their disposal and a multitude of public forums to share their negative experiences.

In times of need, if customers can’t open a chatbot or pick up a phone to quickly get resolution to their issues, they’ll start shopping around – customer experience is now part of the package.

Meeting these real-time demands, then, is a deal-breaker, but there are also rewards. According to McKinsey, 70 percent of buying experiences are based on how the customer feels they are being treated, and if you do it right, they will stick around. It also costs 6-7 times more to attract a new customer than to retain an existing one, so investing here just makes good business sense. 

The customer service ‘war room’

All this makes the customer support function a vital chunk of the business, one that’s generally housed in a designated contact center – a central hub where often vast volumes of omnichannel customer communications are managed. 

It is a full-scale operation focused on collective efficiency – a ‘war room’ with banks of desks, phones and screens, where supervisors roam the aisles and “control the floor”. Large screens adorn the walls, showing real-time data such as customers’ average hold or handle time. These contact centers may still use old-premise systems and physical phones to take calls.

Contact centers are round-the-clock, performance-based operations; support staff may circulate on shift patterns, using the same desk and equipment as one another throughout the course of the day. Centers may also be based offshore, in different time zones, to accommodate 24-7 availability. 

When social distancing measures took hold across the world, then, the airtight, machine-like concept of the ‘traditional’ contact center was swiftly thrown to the wind. Physical call centers – where support staff’s work is essentially tethered to their desks – had to shutdown. To make matters yet more complex, businesses across industries received never-before-seen spikes in support requests, as panicked customers scrambled to cancel travel plans, file for unemployment or renegotiate payments – among a thousands of other complexities the current circumstances brought with them. 

In an update to customers, the CEO of UK telecom firm TalkTalk, Tristia Harrison, said the sudden and unexpected 30 percent surge in network usage caused by remote working and subsequent connectivity issues meant “240 head office colleagues” had to be retrained as customer service agents, with staff having to be reduced at designated contact centers because of social distancing requirements. 

And while some call centers were able to shift to work from home themselves, most could not due to technology limitations, regulations, or the fact that agents lack a private space to take phone calls from home. Those businesses with offshore call centers were also mired by the complexity of local lockdown laws and guidelines. 

Under more strain than ever

The upshot of all this is that many companies, in a time where their customers need support the most, are not able to meet demand, putting their business in further jeopardy at a time of significant market uncertainty. 

“I talked with travel related companies that will only deal with travel related calls within 72 hours from the trip, and food delivery companies that shut down part of their business since they could no longer serve it,” said Gadi Shamia, the co-founder and CEO of Replicant a conversational AI platform for customer service.

With the pandemic leading us to question the normal way of doing things across broad plains of business, the current situation is highlighting new approaches to customer service, and how technologies like AI can assist in ensuring that – for both today and future disruptions – the efficiency and effectiveness of customer service operations can continue unaffected. 

To underscore that statement, just weeks ago tech giant Google tweaked its own Contact Center AI – built for customers fielding thousands of customer enquiries each day – to specifically answer questions around the COVID-19 pandemic, and associated disruptions to users’ operations.

As government agencies, healthcare services and other sectors such as travel, financial services and retail, faced a deluge of requests for clarity over the impact of the outbreak, the AI-powered Rapid Response Virtual Agent allows organizations to deploy chatbots to answer questions across voice, social and chat around the clock.  

The release was aimed at those needing to adapt to the situation quickly; Google said the tool could be set up within a couple of weeks, or more quickly if using curated templates of FAQs and up-to-date guidance from health authorities. At a basic level, the Contact Center AI can provide answers to sector-specific questions like ‘should I wear a facemask’ for healthcare & life sciences groups, or ‘have your refund policies changed?’ in the travel industry. 

But more advanced integrations and conversational flows added over time, can allow ‘virtual agents’ to handle advanced interactions related to the business – customers can ask their bank about changing their individual credit limit, for example, or checking where their order is with a retailer. 

If users add complex conversational flows and backend integrations over time, the virtual agent can handle advanced interactions related to the specific company – those could be related to changing an individual’s credit limit with a bank, for example, or checking where an order is with a retailer.

On Friday (May 1), AI call center software firm ASAPP announced US$185 million amid a boom for such solutions owed to the combination of the pandemic pushing up call center volume at a time when companies must also streamline the function. 

The software doesn’t replace humans. It analyzes the most efficient member of the team, and provides other agents recommendations for responses in real-time based on those insights. Investors in the firm – which claims to employ 55 AI and machine learning engineers with PhDs – included the former CEO of CISCO, John Chambers, and the deal brought ASAPP’s value to $800 million, according to a Reuters’ source. 

Shamia told TechHQ that AI in the contact center is well-suited to handling many customer service requests due to their transactional nature. They can be automated without compromising on quality. “When a customer calls to cancel a flight, there is a very clear conversion funnel – the customer has a ticket and they want to come out of this call with a refund,” he explained. 

“The steps the agent takes are predefined and there is no room for judgment. This is a great call for conversational AI as it can answer the call with no wait time, run a shorter and more effective call than a human agent, and do it 10,000 times a day without getting fatigued.” 

But that’s not to say humans should be removed from contact centers. Support staff remain vital to handling certain requests which require more skillful navigation, but automation can alleviate them to provide a better-quality interaction. 

“By letting AI take on flight cancellations, agents can focus on more complex and emotional calls,” Shamia said. “The result of this partnership is lower wait time, less exhausted agents who can really focus on the caller, lower total cost and higher customer satisfaction. 

“It also allows companies to run 24/7, without forcing employees to work undesirable graveyard shifts.”

Contact center technology may gather pace during this period, as organizations realize how these platforms can transform preconceived ideas of the contact center, shifting from one where rows of headset-adorned support agents are benchmarked on call volumes and average call times, to a slightly ‘airier’ one where the focus is on the quality of customer interaction more than anything else. That said, the COVID-19 outbreak may only accelerate a trend that’s been in motion for years. 

“Companies have been automating parts of customer service for years using applications and web pages,” said Shamia. “Now they have another channel they can use, without changing their customer’s habits […]”

“This will create long term elasticity both in spending and availability, as AI voice agents can answer one call or 10,000 without planning or complex staffing.”