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Why AI will be the cause of – and solution to – all customer service problems in 2020

In 2020, customer service's biggest opportunity is also one of its biggest challenges. 

16th Jan 2020
Managing editor MyCustomer.com
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Despite reports that AI hype has reached the point of peak inflation, AI adoption continues to gather pace in the customer service sector, and the expectation is that it will only accelerate in the new decade as organisations seek to provide additional support to their service agents, deliver more successful self-service experiences, and automate the high volume of routine queries that can clog up call centres.

Research from Genesys from last year, indicates that the majority of call centres are ramping up AI investment as part of their digital service programmes, with 64% of respondents expecting to apply artificial intelligence to engagement channels, and over half (52%) planning to support virtual assistants and messaging apps over the next two years.

The implications that this surging investment may have for customer service will be far-ranging. And while organisations are well aware of some of the repercussions – some of which may be positive, and some less positive (from the workforce’s point of view) – there may also be unexpected consequences. And in order to fully benefit from AI’s advantages, organisations need to understand – and prepare for – some of these unintended effects.

Upskilling agents

The impact that rising investment in automation and AI may have on service staff numbers has been well documented. While some extreme estimates forecast that as many as 40% of jobs could be replaced by automation in the next 15 years, the reality is that this is speculation at best, and alarmist at worst. But without question there will be some impact on the labour market – and not all of it to do with numbers.

Research by the CIPD, for instance, suggests that automation and AI will have a net upskilling effect on UK jobs, with AI replacing some low-skilled jobs, but also generating new more highly skilled jobs. For customer service departments, this presents some potentially tricky obstacles.

With rising deployment of AI software and robotics catering for simple queries and requests, agents are increasingly becoming the domain to deal with more challenging customer interactions – whether that be more complex queries, or more emotional callers.

This requires a richer skillset than what many of today’s agents necessarily possess. And there are indications that organisations are concerned that their customer service teams are simply not equipped to deal with these changing demands. 

The Customer Contact Association’s report ‘The Future of Work and Automation in CX’ surveyed 800 customer service executives about this changing service landscape, identifying some of the skills that are most important to the service agent of 2020. 83% reported that agents will need to possess quality problem-solving skills, as service staff will be required to tackle more complex queries, while 68% of respondents stated that agents will also need to have high emotional intelligence to be successful, particularly in the case of vulnerable customers who require a more sensitive, human dialogue.

Elsewhere, against a backdrop of a progressively omnichannel environment, 85% of those questioned felt that agents will also need to be more skilled at handling multichannel interactions. All of which means that there is pressure on service departments to adapt the skillsets of their teams in the coming decade – something that 69% of those surveyed by the CCA believe represents their biggest challenge going forwards. Indeed, less than a third said they report that they are well-equipped (28%) or satisfactorily equipped (30%) to meet the requirement of reskilling. 

Creating differentiation and value

The flip side of this is that while this may be a challenge, forward-thinking organisations should view this changing service landscape as an opportunity to create competitive differentiation. And with a combination of the right recruitment, training and IT support, the new nature of calls being fielded by agents can present a valuable opportunity to strengthen customer relationships and add value.

“More and more companies have begun to employ AI technology, such as chatbots, to deal with highly transactional customer queries. This is undoubtedly in the interest of both businesses and their customers, enabling simple questions and issues to be resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible,” says Jaime Scott, CEO and co-founder of EvaluAgent.

“However, throughout 2020 we will likely see businesses appreciating the need for a human touch. While there are fears that automation may soon render many workers in a variety of sectors redundant, the advent of the technology in customer service has in fact made the role of contact centre agents all the more important.

“Admittedly, some businesses may be tempted to repeat past mistakes and view customer service as just a cost to be optimised, and automation the latest cost-cutting tool. However, others are starting to recognise the opportunity that it offers to differentiate their service on the remaining, more complex and emotive interactions.

“Consequently, a new breed of call centre agent is emerging that is trained specifically to offer a great service on those complex queries, across a multitude of channels. It’s essential that they’re given the skills to communicate effectively with customers and analyse the problems at hand, and empowered to use their own common sense and judgement to offer a solution.”

AI for agent assistance

The good news is that a significant proportion of AI investment hasn’t only been to automate routine queries, but also to provide assistance to this new breed of agent. Over the last two years or so, the industry has increasingly embraced the value of AI in the advisor experience.  Indeed, research by Ovum and LogMeIn reveals that the deployment of AI for real-time agent assistance is the second most common application of artificial intelligence (reported by 50% of respondents) after the automation of routine tasks (reported by 60%).

AI can improve agent performance in a host of ways, providing them with support to find the right responses quicker, prompting them to provide cross and up-sell offers and predicting the best responses to customer queries in any digital channel. Research by Fonolo last year suggests that within those companies that have AI providing agent assistance, three-quarters of service professionals report that it has helped them improve the prioritisation of their work, increased first contact resolution rate and CSAT or NPS, raised agent morale and reduced call volume and handling time.

In 2020 the key to success will be found with human advisors working alongside AI.

This “hybrid workforce” of human and AI combines the efficiency of bots with the empathy of agents, and a growing number of contact centres have already adopted this blend to enable them to drive operational efficiencies, improve customer engagement and ultimately surpass service expectations.

Thomas Rødseth, chief technical officer at Puzzel, says: “As the trend for combining agent intelligence with automation continues, the focus will be on building a hybrid workforce. For example, the latest application of chatbots maximises AI learning from the contact centre and other parts of the business, to provide agents with the real-time knowledge they need to resolve customer interactions. This new breed of Virtual Personal Assistants or ‘bot buddies’ will give employees an opportunity to boost their performance and grow their careers.” 

David Pattman, managing director CX Services at Gobeyond Partners, part of the Webhelp Group, adds: “I believe that in 2020 the key to success will be found with human advisors working alongside AI. This will drive innovation forward and dramatically improve our social and working lives. It will also allow businesses to enjoy increased productivity and efficiency without negatively influencing the customer experience. In short, tomorrow’s winners will be companies that understand that when it comes to designing services, organisations and systems, the mantra should be ‘collaboration is key’.”

Agent costs and relocation

But there are likely to be other, unintended consequences of AI for the service world as 2020 unfolds, and it will be important for organisations to be aware of these and prepare. One such issue will be the implications of filling service departments with highly-skilled staff.

Teon Rosandic, VP EMEA at Talkdesk, notes: “As AI-based assistance becomes more trusted and mainstream, it will move increasingly to customer-facing roles to handle simple, rote queries, escalating more difficult questions to live agents. The strategic consequence of this is that agents will need to be equipped and empowered to handle the more difficult issues. This may require changes in hiring practices, as well as enhanced training. But it may also impact compensation, as these will be more senior roles.”

Indeed, the upskilling of agents will almost certainly drive up advisor salaries. Forrester’s Ian Jacobs suggests that brands will spend $8 billion more on customer service agents in 2020 than the prior year, largely as a consequence of the heightened demand for highly-skilled agents, and the employee experience improvements necessary to retain them.

AI will create new challenges in the form of job displacement, salary expenditures, and internal restructurings; companies must anticipate these issues.

The concern for some is that these rising labour costs could encourage some companies to lean more heavily on self-service AI and digital service channels, and reduce their staff headcount. With a recent Invoca survey indicating that 52% of consumers feel frustrated when they are not given an opportunity to communicate with a human, Forrester has warned that those organisations that head down the path to digital-only service that will “disappoint and anger some customers”. It recommends that Hybrid CX (i.e. the right blend of human and digital service) represents the best course of action, being “emotionally more positive, has greater impact and is thus strategically superior to digital-only CX” – even if it is potentially more expensive.

But if this hybrid model is to be successful, and AI frees up agents to focus on the more complex and emotive interactions, there are further considerations to bear in mind. For instance, Forrester’s Ian Jacobs believes that to meet customer expectations, and to genuinely create differentiation on service, agents will need to take into account different regional nuances, which Jacobs believes could lead to greater agent outsourcing and relocation.

He predicts: “Improvements in AI will cause contact centres to rethink their outsourcing strategy. As automation handles the easy tasks, agents are left to tackle customers’ complex and emotionally wrought questions. This leaves little room for missteps due to cultural dissimilarities. Brands will start to more closely examine contact centre locations closer to home, hoping to find agents who really can hit the right empathetic notes.”

He concludes: “AI will create new challenges in the form of job displacement, salary expenditures, and internal restructurings; companies must anticipate these issues and be prepared to confront them head on.”

Indeed, when it comes to AI, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. And for every opportunity there is a challenge. Unlocking AI’s potential requires more than mere investment in the technology.

Research by LogMeIn and Ovum indicates that most enterprises are still at an early stage when it comes to AI strategy and implementation. And the majority of managers are either in the process of formulating their AI strategy (38%) or have an early phase strategy in place (28%).

2020 will be the year that organisations will experience both the good and bad of AI. But it will likely be far less painful for those that have a plan in place.

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