In 2017 a Harvard Business Report observed that ‘as a species we crave and value human interaction’ and that as brands prioritise the digital experience, they often overlook a simple fact: communicating by voice is faster, easier, and more effective than typing messages back and forth. This is still as true today as it was then.
Whilst this observation is still prevalent in today’s society, it isn’t physically possible for human operators to sustain. The latest AI powered customer service solutions, as we’ve seen from Google’s AI Contact Centre technology in partnership with Mitel, have come a long way from the traditional chatbots, designed to accommodate the balance between customers’ needs for human interaction and instant gratification. Harnessing a combination of artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, Google has taken the Virtual Agent (VA) to another level, to accelerate and automate enquiries using speech technologies, while helping customers with solutions and options for the information they need, at speed.
In an increasingly competitive marketplace, many retailers, such as Marks & Spencer and Uniqlo have embraced AI solutions in a bid to provide intelligent customer service. In 2018 Uniqlo launched Uniqlo IQ, a machine learning-powered “digital concierge” service that uses voice recognition and artificial intelligence to give customers personalised recommendation, while M&S has deployed artificial intelligence in its call centres in a bid to modernise its infrastructure and become a digital first retailer.
Olive recently published a study - The AI influence on customer experience & the rise of the remote contact centre which found that 59% of UK retailers, driven by consumer demand and changing shopping habits, have invested in AI enabled Virtual Call Centre Agents, to radically transform their customer service and productivity. 56% said that customer queries were resolved at greater speeds and over 1 in 3 reported savings of £100,000 or more a year.
Consumers driving adoption
It’s well documented that by 2020 it is predicted that customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. And customers now prefer to self-serve when possible; Forrester concluded that more than 70% of customers prefer to resolve issues by themselves, this was echoed by Olive’s study, which found that 82% of consumers prefer the speed and 38% the convenience of using virtual customer service agents.
Dr Tim Dennison Director of Retail Intelligence at Ipsos Retail Performance says “We’re all part of a ‘now’ society, in which consumers expect a personalised, instant and frictionless experience in which we buy on demand at our convenience. Retail is constantly pursuing new initiatives to push the envelope, from grocery deliveries within the hour to chatbot technology opening up a smarter, rapid-response communication channel between consumer and retailer. We cannot underestimate the future importance of AI to improving customer service and experience, particularly for fielding on-line shopping queries.
“To deliver service excellence, business processes need to be aligned with the customer journey and any structural constraints that diminish the customer experience removed. It’s not solely about technology though. Valuing and empowering staff is key to getting this right.”
AI empowers your workers
A key purpose of AI adoption is to empower and support the human agent, adding another layer of intelligence to the customer experience, which live operators can use to enhance their interactions with consumers.
The AI empowered virtual agent plays the transactional role in the relationship with the customer, handling general enquiries like placing orders, opening hours, returns or order queries. But for more complex, challenging issues the technology acknowledges that it’s time for the human touch. The customer is seamlessly transferred to a live operator along with full context of the conversation and insight, giving the customer a better, more personalised and intelligence-based experience.
The enhanced insight and data on customer buying behaviour from AI also means greater targeted customer offerings, resulting in higher call volumes, requiring more humans. Contrary to belief, more operators are being employed than ever. 81% of UK retailers said they would be hiring more operators during the 2018 Christmas season, compared to the year before.
Furthermore, our research found that contact centre staff themselves were too experiencing multiple benefits from AI technologies. 59% of UK contact centre workers said they feel more empowered, 51% more motivated and 23% positively challenged through the implementation of AI. It has also greatly impacted on the flexible working options available to staff, as 60% of operators now work from home, reducing overheads for the business and increasing staff satisfaction levels.
Using AI Analytics to improve the user experience
AI Analytics leverage the latest NLP (Natural Language Processing) to gain insights and trend analysis on customer behaviour to help improve the brand offer. Intelligent agents fuelled with artificial intelligence can help anticipate specific customer needs, resolve issues – often before they occur – and respond with solutions utilising data learning mined from customer contexts, previous chat history and preferences. Its cognitive computing power enables businesses to offer efficient and personalised services to customers.
Responsible use of AI is paramount however. Many bots are programmed to be as personable as possible, arguably the intention is for the end user not to be able to distinguish between a human or virtual assistant. Questions may be raised on the ethical sensitivity of this approach – but at the end of the day, so long as the question is being answered, does the end user mind who solved it? However, customers do care where their data is concerned, and this will continue to be the case, with ongoing cybersecurity required to be both proactive and reactive, stopping attacks and monitoring performance.
What does the future hold?
Mitel’s recent white paper The Impending Contact Centre Disruption points out that ‘conversational technologies are impressive and still improving. Earlier this year, we even saw the reverse scenario with Google Duplex. Here, the chatbot called the human to complete a task (of scheduling an appointment). In several cases, the human was unaware that they were even speaking to a machine.’
It’s clear that AI will continue to lead the agenda as the driving force in the overall customer experience, and the experience will continue to be the most important element to business success. Providing intelligent solutions, powered by advancing AI technology, combined with the human element, will ensure emotional and meaningful customer engagement for brands and will inspire loyalty and recommendation. People however will continue to be integral to the customer experience strategy and its workflows, as it will always be people that are the consumers.
Nick Beardsley is Enterprise Director at Olive Communications