Intelligent machines need to get a whole bunch smarter

Chris Ward
Editor
MyCustomer
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The BBC’s recent ‘Intelligent Machines’ week was thought-provoking in its attempts to shift away from the standard dystopian rhetoric that comes with the topic of robots and their future in society.

In fact, only sparingly did they mention that artificial intelligence would inevitably lead to an apocalypse set to wipe out the entire human race.

But while some of the content invariably diverted back to popular discussions relating to the evolution of driverless cars, robot doctors and the likelihood of us all being destroyed by T-800s, one particularly interesting article emerged during the series which honed in on which specific jobs were most likely to be automated in the near future.

The article cited Boston Consulting Group research, which predicts that by 2025, up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots, and a study from Oxford University has suggested that 35% of existing UK jobs are at risk of automation in the next 20 years.

And the bad news appears to lie with frontline sales and customer service staff in particular, with telephone salespeople, for instance, ranking at the very top of the list, with a 99% chance of automation.

Customer service occupations fair only slightly better, with a 91% likelihood of automation, and crucially, call and contact centre occupations ranking 109th of 366, with a 75% chance.

Automated contact centre? Not yet  

Ignoring the issues around the automation of telephone sales (victims of the Helms solar panel nuisance call scandal will pay testament to the fact that this is a far from perfect evolution), we have to ask – are contact centre roles really that easily automated?  

There’s no denying the rise of customer service, and in particular self-service technology, is making a huge difference in alleviating some of the strain on call and contact centre workers, and that certain forms of automation are being welcomed by both staff and customer alike; but replacing contact centre workers altogether? Recent industry studies suggest this is an unlikely scenario.

As Tim Deluca-Smith is global head of marketing for WDS, recently stated, “what many don’t realise is that a large percentage of customers find self-service tools frustrating”.  

“Having tried and failed to resolve an issue through a self-service tool, many customers find themselves having to call the contact centre. This is known as “fall-back” traffic. It can account for up to 20% of call volume coming into a contact centre and up to 10% of the total care budget.”

Of course, this form of self-service has risen to prominence in recent years, but the general consensus is, these will have to get a whole bunch smarter before they can ever fully replace human involvement.

I have had first-hand experience, in this respect, just recently, in calling a local (naming no names) council hotline with the aim of changing my direct debit details for my council tax payments. It was a process I didn’t feel comfortable going through via the council’s online system, so rang to find an automated call system taking me down various routes of action, with all but one futilely leading to being told to go online to complete my action followed by the system cutting me off.

When I did find the one route that could lead to speaking to a human being in the council’s call centre, I was told I could expect to wait 20 minutes before speaking to an advisor, but that the council ran a call-back system as an alternative. I took this option.

Exactly 20 minutes later, the council rang my mobile, much to my amazement. However, when I answered, I was met with an automated voice that informed me I would be connected shortly, followed by being placed on hold. For at least 2 minutes. At which point I gave up.

A lack of trust?

Is this the future of contact centres? The automation is yet to become smart enough to understand the basic premise of why people call in the first place – to speak to human beings. If we can’t trust the automation to streamline the process of getting to the point of speaking to a human, what chance of us trusting it to fully replace the human?

Contact centres know this – 21% state they don’t need self-service technology in the contact centre, while 27% say they can’t justify the investment.

And as Tim Deluca-Smith alluded to earlier, far more attention is being placed in delivering better automated systems of customer service support via the web rather than the phone, so the phones can be freed up and humans can effectively deal with the more important calls that are escalated.

BT’s customer experience futurologist, Dr Nicola Millard believes this change in approach will lead to contact centre staff becoming far more valuable ‘superagents’ in the next 20 years. Far from the cry of an imminent robot takeover.     

Ultimately, it’s the customer who decides. But as Ben Mott, client services director at Smith & Milton recently stated on MyCustomer.com: “People pick up the phone for the simple reason of wanting to speak to another human being”.  

About Chris Ward

Chris Ward

Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.

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