Will robots replace humans in the contact centre?

by • April 10, 2017 • ArticlesComments (0)1736

Whilst many believe that it is important to maintain a human touch in customer service, there are undoubtedly ways in which technology and Artificial Intelligence can improve the way in which we serve customers. 

The historical premise has been that machines excel at repeating the same or very similar processes and that they are capable of doing that very consistently 24x7x365 without deviation or variation. Routine lower level tasks like looking up a bank statement, adding a meter reading, or managing an address change are the ‘bread and butter’ of these machines.

However, the signs are that artificial intelligence is beginning to extend its sphere of influence in the contact centre. The advance of speech recognition and real time speech analytics are helping to signpost a new age of customer service, where robots are starting to mimic or emulate human-like behaviour.

Many businesses are now using chatbots to kick-start customer conversations and, if the query is straightforward, to provide quick and easy answers without the need to involve humans at all. These bots often have sufficient knowledge to work out if they are going to be unable to deal with a particular query and in that event escalate it to a human agent with the knowledge to do so. In these kinds of areas of the contact centre and typical contact centre tasks, robots are already replacing people. However, they are not likely to take over full control in the foreseeable future. Where they continue to fall short today is on those occasions where there is some kind of an issue. Straight-through processes may work well for many operational tasks on 95% of occasions. But what happens when something goes wrong?

Manual check-in processes at airports, for example, may be consigned to history for many. These days, passengers can check in online with an app on their phones; use self-service kiosks at the airport and even print out their own boarding pass but what happens on the exceptional occasion where the terminal does not recognise them or their security clearance is not correct? Humans are good at assimilating variables, information and facts that may not have previously been seen in a particular pattern before – and crucially they are good at showing empathy. Computers, for the time being at least, are likely to continue to struggle with the unknown variables that these situations often throw up.

Of course, on these occasions it’s not just about understanding that a problem is best solved by a human, it’s just as much about knowing who within the organisation is best placed to solve it. That person will, over time, need to pull on an ever expending range of skills as the range of skillsets, competences and aptitudes required in a customer service role are growing all the time as more and more of the straight through processes are handled by automation.

We are already seeing these kinds of changes happening in contact centres today. Many of the straight-through processes and routine tasks have already been automated – at least by the most forward-thinking organisations. It’s a step change of course when you look at the wider economy.

The technology is typically not the issue. The functionality to automate these processes is already available across much of the business environment. The early adopters have assimilated it into mainstream operations, the next wave are halfway through their journey and the laggards have not yet started down the road. Instead the pace of change and the rate of adoption of these new systems and processes will largely be dictated by corporate culture. Often, it is the newer fresh-faced start-ups who are best placed to set the ball rolling. To take the utilities sector as an example, we now see greenfield digital by design start-ups coming into the market with no legacy systems or history of customers who are therefore able to engineer their process and customer service through a digital by design strategy which means they can serve customers efficiently and effectively and arguably at a cheaper price than the more established market players.

These new start-ups don’t have to be held back by the same business issues, concerns and challenges that have often hamstrung their rivals. Most established organisations with legacy infrastructure are wrestling with how to reengineer their people processes and policies in a way that’s respectful of the existing culture but realign people around these new goals.

Interactions that are both complex and heavily regulated will typically need an element of human intervention. An individual taking out a life insurance policy or a mortgage for the first time is a classic example of this. It’s a major decision likely to be set in stone for a number of years while also incurring large amounts of fees. While you can often initiate a starter process online you are unlikely to be able to finish it without the help and advice of a human adviser.

The other key area where a human touch will always be necessary is where interactions cannot be handled effectively by normal straight-through processes. Even with optimum planning and engineering of the customer journey in place, there will always be some customer engagements that are complex enough to require human intervention. It’s important that organisations not only recognise this but put sufficient skilled resources in place to manage it.

The final area is what McKinsey terms “moments of truth: those few interactions (for instance, a lost credit card, a cancelled flight, a damaged piece of clothing, or investment advice) when customers invest a high amount of emotional energy in the outcome.”  Customers may become agitated, stressed and even angry. In such scenarios, it is unlikely to be the correct decision to leave them to deal with a robot. Humans are much better at empathy. They can understand the customer’s worries and concerns, put themselves in a comparable situation and offer advice that is not just accurate and informed but reassuring and calm. Customers who receive such service at these ‘moments of truth’ are also ultimately likely to demonstrate much higher levels of long term loyalty to the business.

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