While we are still adapting on a global scale to the effects of COVID-19, we are seeing its impact in real-time, across every sector. These last two years have been a time of extraordinary unknowns for businesses and customers, but as 2021 draws to a close, one thing is clear: it has also been a process of unprecedented digital transformation and intelligent insight, especially for contact centers.
Adam is Strategic Partner Director (EMEA & AUS) at Vonage.
2020 was a clear turning point for the industry – people were told to stay home, which meant that calls to customer service centers skyrocketed. According to one survey, inbound traffic to automated call assistants rose by 40% in the two months between February and April 2020 alone.
Integrating new technologies to improve service and operations has been central to contact center success for decades – from call routing solutions to interactive voice response. Now this trend must continue as call centers urgently need to embrace AI and digitization.
The benefits of digitisation & AI
Shifting away from in-person service means that virtual assistance needs to be more complex, to better handle requests from service changes, from billing to complaints. AI is no longer simply a means to triaging customer service – now it is being used to help human agents gain informed insights, leading to customer interactions that are more personalized and efficient. In fact, a recent global study by the IBM Institute for Business Value found that 97% of communications service providers (CSPs) using virtual agent technology for customer care reported a positive impact on customer satisfaction.
There are numerous inherent qualities to AI that make it beneficial for contact centers. For one, AI agents can be available 24/7 meaning that callers are not bound by the working hours of human agents. If your customer needs help at 3am, they have no desire to wait – they expect to find self-help centers, FAQ sections, and online support. Digital contact centers can be robust, offering a variety of ways to solve problems, while being available every day, at every hour to deal with customer needs.
Beyond this, AI systems gather knowledge over time. They neither need as much attention or training as human counterparts, and they can be relied upon to remember all the information they receive. This also means that, with AI systems handling parts of the process, employee training time – and costs – can be reduced. Instead of training your staff to handle basic inquiries, more time can be spent honing more specific and niche skills like handling emotional callers or solving unique issues.
Bringing in AI also means streamlining processes and reducing time spent by human agents analyzing data and calls – this can now be done in real-time, with routine tasks that can sometimes suffer from human oversight being handled faultlessly by these systems.
Why customers demand it
Ultimately, it’s customer demand that will be driving this transformation for contact centers. Customers are increasingly behaving in an omnichannel way but frequently having to make do with only multichannel support. The rapid growth of new inbound, outbound, and self-service channels means that there is a risk that opportunities are lost, and customers are falling through the cracks between communication channels.
Or they are forced to start all over again, at the back of the queue, repeating themselves every time they switch between channels. In a digital world, there needs to be consistency across all channels. This simply isn’t possible for contact centers without the implementation of digital tools. While this approach may seem a luxury to some now, soon it will be necessary to maintain customers.
Another important aspect is time. Even pre-COVID, the industry was reaching a tipping point, with more and more customers seeking out digital touchpoints rather than voice calls. There is a very simple reason for this - speed. It’s not that customers prefer not to talk to a live agent – it’s that they believe it will take less time if they do it digitally. And they are right: while on the phone, live agents can only service one customer at a time. This is not the case digitally, where natural pauses and gaps in conversation mean that they can chat to 3-4 customers at once. When working alongside a robust AI, even more customers can be serviced.
In a digital contact center, software and AI can detect a customer’s issue by recognizing keywords and immediately either route them to the right agent to handle their issue or simply link them to an online resource. Reducing customer friction is the shortcut to improving customer experience, and many customers would rather find out how to resolve their issues by themselves. Reducing the steps to customers accessing the right information for their requirements also means empowering those customers to help themselves.
Why it’s better for the workplace
Customers being empowered to help themselves also leads to happier agents. It cuts down on the number of repetitive tasks that people must be responsible for, such as booking appointments, taking orders, or answering the same few questions repeatedly. Because of this, they are able to be more engaged in those interactions that truly require human intervention. Digitizing the contact center means that businesses can find the right balance, allowing their workers to tackle higher value, more complex and more rewarding tasks, while letting their digital systems deal with everything else.
Yet AI is not going to replace human agents any time soon. Firstly, AI systems cannot maintain themselves. And even if AI can be used to solve problems, it cannot replicate empathy or levity – two things that can be very important when dealing with upset customers. Remember as well that when a customer is talking to a live agent, they are also talking to an ambassador for your brand – someone who can represent your brand on a human level. AI cannot – and may never – be able to serve as a substitute for that, and as such, will never be able to represent the personality of your brand.
Rather than as a way of replacing human agents, contact centers need to see AI and digitization as a means to augment their workforces and their offerings, becoming more productive through supporting their live agents to do their jobs better and more efficiently.
Meanwhile, customers will be seeing more of their needs met remotely, limiting direct contact, to the benefit of everyone while the pandemic still not quite over. Going digital means improving processes and saving money, providing reliable means of supporting your workers to better service the needs of your customers.
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Adam is Strategic Partner Director (EMEA & AUS) at Vonage.