Are machines really the call-centres of the future?

Robot hand

Artificial Intelligence is not yet a reality. But very smart computers are. They’re poised to take over all sorts of routine, repetitive tasks. After all, a robot doesn’t make mistakes, it can’t get tired and slack off, it won’t lack motivation, and it doesn’t hurt that it can’t lie or steal or cheat either.

Look at the call centre for example. Very smart ‘robots’ are automating more and more processes, and the business case is growing strong. Many already use interactive voice response (IVR), where callers type or speak to a machine before being routed to the most appropriate free customer care agent. But now it looks like it’s going to go even further than that.

Agents spend all their time in front of a PC screen relaying information to people over the phone anyway, so why not shorten the chain of communication and give callers direct access to the computer?

IT company IPsoft has been working on doing just that. Last year it unveiled “Amelia”, which it claims is an AI call centre agent created to work alongside humans and “shoulder the burden of tedious, often laborious tasks.” Amelia is hailed as an example of cognitive computing – able to learn from information she interacts with, rather than having to be fully pre-programmed. When Amelia is faced with a query she doesn’t understand, she searches the internet for answers. If she can’t solve a problem herself, Amelia will pass it on to a human colleague, and learn from the response.

So is this what the future will look like? Are call centre agents a dying breed?

I am not convinced that they are.

There can never be a substitute for human-to-human communication, even if it’s only to vent frustrations or seek empathy. Sure, mundane tasks will be automated (and they should be) but that means that a greater percentage of the work that agents do will be harder. The role of the call centre and its agents will evolve.

In a world of decreasing margins and increasing competition, customer service will continue to be an important differentiator. It’s all about the customer experience. You can spend hundreds of thousands on advertising and branding, but if customer service is poor, people won’t come back – and they’ll likely share their frustrations with everyone they know via social media.

Equipping your agents to offer sterling customer service while increasing productivity and reducing costs is a difficult balancing act, but it’s where I see the true value of technology coming into play.

A new era of customer service, driven by technology but delivered by people

Many customers, especially the younger ones, prefer self-service and online interaction to dealing with a person over the phone. They’ll only call for help when they have exhausted all other options. Which means that when they do call, they’re already frustrated and the issue they’re trying to solve is probably quite complicated.

Customer care agents will need to develop excellent ‘soft’ skills, like the ability to understand and empathise with frustrated callers, as well as in-depth ‘hard’ skills – the technical know-how to deal with a higher proportion of complex problems.

If this is the way customer care is going – and I believe it is – contact centre managers will have to find new ways to measure success. It can no longer be just about how many calls are answered and resolved, and how quickly.

What happens to the callers who can’t be helped? Or whose queries were not dealt with satisfactorily? Do your agents’ scripts make these situations better or worse? Often, the more scripted, or robotic, agents sound, the more annoyed customers get. Oh yes, the line between technology and humanity is a very fine one.

The successful contact centre of the future will hire agents who are understanding and empathetic, and give them technology that is intuitive, easy to use and measurable. It will incentivise agents to turn angry customers into brand advocates. Ultimately, it will let people do what they are good at and leave the rest to technology.

Image: Dancing Lemur via Flickr.



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