Can AI-powered 'whisper agents' improve emotional intelligence in the contact centre?

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One of the most complex challenges big businesses currently face is how to introduce artificial intelligence into the contact centre without losing the human touch. 

In the early 1990s, when the term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ was first popularised, Daniel Goleman wrote a book exploring what he perceived to be the five components critical to emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.

These competencies have also been a critical skill in customer-facing industries.

In customer service roles, for example, the daily rigours of productivity and efficiency are tied directly to the quality of conversations. Customer service executives recognise the role that strong personal dynamics and emotionally intelligent agents play in creating positive impressions and boosting brand loyalty.

Developing modern customer service

The challenge of delivering emotionally cognisant customer service has been compounded by automation technology within the contact centre. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive technologies has grown rapidly in recent years, helping companies to reduce wait times, increase customer service availability and improve resolution rates.

In fact, Gartner predicts that a quarter of all customer service operations will use AI-powered virtual assistants by 2020, leading to a hybrid workforce of human and digital labour in the contact centre.

Not all virtual assistants are created equally, with simple chatbots unable to respond to more complex and nuanced requests. But digital customer service colleagues, like Amelia, are now operating in many centres, both working directly with customers and acting as a 'whisper agent' to human customer service agents to help them provide a faster and more accurate response to even the most complicated or random requests.

But no matter who delivers the service in the modern hybrid contact centre – whether its human or digital agent – and on whichever channel, it’s critical that emotional intelligence is not lost. So, will we still be able to experience the same levels of emotionally cognisant customer service when supported by intelligent systems? And, if so, how does this work across a hybrid workforce?

Roadmap for emotional intelligence in hybrid customer service

The five original components of Daniel Goleman’s theory for emotional intelligence can play an important role in creating a blueprint for emotional intelligence within the hybrid contact centre. And, while human and digital agents won’t all excel in the same areas, it shows the opportunity for augmenting the experience of contact centre agents with AI, without losing the “human touch”.

No matter who delivers the service in the modern hybrid contact centre – whether its human ordigital agent – and on whichever channel, it’s critical that emotional intelligence is not lost

So, what are the five components and how do they apply to the hybrid contact centre?

Self-awareness and self-regulation

It’s important to be aware of your own emotional state, as this will impact the type of action you then take. For human agents, this can be tough – especially when it entails self-regulating to not show your frustration to a customer who is driving you up the wall.

A digital customer service colleague can work in symbiosis and support human agents here, by acting as 'whisper agents'. As the intelligent system records and analyses customers’ reactions to the different responses that can be given, it can suggest how the human agent could respond to give the best answer to the customer, also taking in emotional aspects of the dialogue.

For example, it’s really hard to work as a human working on a cancellation line, as the vast majority of your customers will not be happy. The people who can deal with these people well are worth their weight in gold. But, as you’re less likely to get an emotional outburst from AI, because of the rules that dictate how to act when they see certain behaviour or emotions, digital colleagues can support human agents by providing them with the responses that will best serve the customers’ emotional state, no matter what the situation or how the agent may be feeling.

As the intelligent system records and analyses customers’ reactions to the different responses that can be given, it can suggest how the human agent could respond to give the best answer to the customer

Motivation

If you look at the motivation of most contact centre workers, it’s hitting KPIs - get so many resolved calls in one day, get so much feedback on your calls, etc. But this motivation can be at odds from what consumers want. In the worst run contact centres, agents churn through customers as quickly as possible.

When operating directly with customers, a digital AI colleague doesn’t care if it speaks to you for five minutes or five hours; it can scale to handle any number of conversations. As it’s not driven by human agents’ KPIs, it is purely focused on the outcome and positive emotional state of the customer. This enables digital agents to spend more time with customers, when a human agent might be under pressure to get the issue resolved, wrapped up and then get onto the next. In time, as digital agents take on more customer-facing tasks, this will shift how human agents are measured, as they will have more time to deliver a superior service.

Empathy

We’ve all had bad experiences with contact centres, where agents have been not listening or trying to solve our problems. Other times, it’s been great, thanks to the empathy of the agent showing they want to solve the issue.

Humans are naturally very good at empathy - it’s a key skill to navigate life. However, it’s much harder for a digital agent to be empathetic, show listening skills and understanding. Even when it can track people’s emotional state, a digital agent may sound cold and robotic when using empathetic language. As such, digital agents need an additional element of self-awareness when operating directly with customers, which kicks in when they recognise a conversation that requires human agents’ empathy and sympathy.

As digital agents take on more customer-facing tasks, this will shift how human agents are measured, as they will have more time to deliver a superior service

Social skills

Customer service agents must build rapport with customers, sometimes in the most challenging situations. This is still incredibly tough for digital agents to replicate; for example, I don’t have a relationship with my Amazon Alexa, no matter how often I use it.

AI systems, when operating as whisper agents, can help human agents develop better relationships. By analysing and understanding the emotional state of the customer during a call, it can advise future agents on the best ways to engage with that customer in the future.

Augment our emotional cognisance

Digital agents, with the ability to track and respond to different emotional states, provide an amazing opportunity to support human agents deliver the best, most emotionally cognisant customer service. By augmenting the experience and understanding of human agents, while providing additional customer-facing support, brands can be confident that investing in AI in their contact centre won’t dehumanise the customer experience.

About Johan Toll

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