Can it be true that by next year (2020) the average person will have more conversations with chatbots than with their partner? On one level it is a slightly disheartening prospect, but perhaps we don’t need more arguments about who takes the kids to school.
While the experts at Gartner who made this prediction probably know more about technology than relationships, there is no doubting the fast-evolving ability of artificial intelligence (AI) to understand and respond to normal, everyday conversation. This is likely why they also predict that 25 per cent of customer service and support operations will integrate virtual customer assistant (VCA) or chatbot technology across engagement channels by 2020, up from less than two per cent in 2017.
Millions of people are already accustomed to using AI-driven voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Google Home and the unveiling of Google Duplex last year introduced two-way conversations that some find “uncannily” realistic.
The same capability of AI to understand human conversation is one way this revolutionary technology is transforming customer experience. But it is only part of the story. AI uses the power of advanced algorithms to learn from masses of employee and customer behaviour data so it can apply rules that drive to a business’s desired outcomes, whether that is increasing revenues or answering queries faster and more satisfactorily, no matter which channel consumers use.
It not only maps out how companies should guide customers to the right outcome for the business, it can predict how and when to intervene to maximise the chances of that happening every time.
Moving customers towards the goal
Whatever the target, companies can use AI to keep customers moving in the right direction. Data analytics will uncover where consumers fail to become customers – where they drop off while browsing online, ditch a loaded website shopping basket or balk at supplying information for a loan. No matter whether consumers are using chat or voice bots or engaging with a contact centre employee via telephone, email, SMS or an asynchronous messaging platform like Apple Business Chat or WhatsApp, the technology can uncover the common points where they leave the desired path.
AI-driven customer experience applications can then actively shape the journey of individual customers, triggering the right interventions at the perfect moment. In simple terms, this could mean that when a customer removes an item from their basket on a retailer’s website, the solution offers a discount voucher on the product. But the solution could also intervene with an AI-powered bot that pops up to offer advice, resolution, the offer of a conversation with an agent, or a combination thereof.
AI can also be used to judge agent behaviour against outcomes. For example, AI can identify which staff are naturally better at selling, who excels at answering complex queries or dealing with angry callers. The knowledge and aptitude of the individual agents available and their likelihood to achieve certain results can be matched to customers, providing the best outcome while also fulfilling pre-determined business goals.
In sport retail, for example, consider what happens when a customer interested in hockey sticks calls in to ask a question about product differences. It may be better to keep that customer on hold for a few seconds longer so he or she can speak to an agent who is a hockey enthusiast. The less effective alternative is immediate transfer to someone who may well know the products but isn’t a fan able to converse knowledgably and empathise. This can make the difference between a sale or no sale.
AI is augmenting the power of each contact centre agent
Once an agent begins a conversation with a customer, AI can work in tandem, providing them with prompts, hints, tips and even special offers based on dynamic interpretation of what is needed. For example, as an agent works on a customer inquiry, an AI-powered virtual assistant can listen to and understand the conversation, research and analyse data from similar problems. The virtual assistant can identify a solution and pop it right onto the agent’s desktop so he or she can communicate it directly to the customer.
With this blended approach, resolution of queries is significantly faster, leading to much happier customers and higher rates of employee satisfaction. And, businesses can take things one step further, using machine learning to predict more ways for employees to serve the customer – including upselling additional products.
Empowering employees to work smarter with AI and automation
The applications of AI go far beyond automating the customer engagement to transform how employees work. More and more repetitive tasks can be automated with AI – and that means employees can spend their time on more meaningful and complex work that requires highly skilled human assistance and decision making. For example, contact centre planners and managers can spend hours working through scheduling changes related to sick leave, attrition, new hires and more. When AI is used to automate the process, schedules can be built in minutes rather than hours. AI can also be used to automate forecasting, evaluating hundreds, if not thousands, of potential forecasts before predicting the right one for the business in a matter of seconds.
AI will continue to drive up the quality of customer experience
As customer experience technology evolves, consumers will engage with organisations across different channels far more conveniently. A conversation will shift flawlessly from bot to human being and then to another bot. AI will make this experience feel seamless. When they need to switch channels, customers will be able pick up where they left off, without having to supply the same details again.
Regardless of channel, AI will ensure a win-win for both the customer AND the business. Not only will the customer have a great experience – the business will also benefit when they achieve target outcomes. Predictive capabilities and the ability to continuously teach itself from masses of diverse data, will enable AI to facilitate a new, much more intimate level of personalisation for each customer, employing real-time information about website, mobile and messaging activity, along with their longer-term transaction histories. As a result, companies will make interventions with greater impact, matching far more precisely what individual consumers want in the moment, whatever their means of engagement.
Customers will still require the human touch, blended with AI
Yet as transformative as AI is in customer experience, true empathy comes only from a human being. While AI is triggering a revolution, ushering in new levels of personalisation, efficiency and convenience, it is not a replacement for the human touch. We are unlikely to see the day when a fully automated customer experience solution can be wholly satisfactory, given the complexities of human behaviour and personality.
AI will transform customer experience like nothing before it, delighting consumers while also helping to deliver the outcomes businesses want. But the future will remain one that requires a blend of cutting-edge technological innovation and human sensitivity – of AI and skilled people.