Deliver Customer Service Autonomously? Hold That Thought


Automating customer service is a complex proposition and even the best attempts still require many problems to be handled by live agents or employees.

Are organizations ready to engage with customers autonomously? There’s certainly a lot of hubbub around chatbots, now made smarter by generative AI, that can engage with thousands, or even millions of customers, at a time, treating each one with a synthetic personal touch. While customer service can be automated to a large degree, this is still a slowly advancing work in progress. In the meantime, the human touch still reigns.

That’s the gist of a recent survey of 215 contact center executives, published by CRM Media and sponsored by Microsoft and Nuance, which finds that 61%, see improving customer self-service capabilities as one of their greatest operational challenges. (I helped design and develop the survey.)

The data shows that contact centers are still very much people-oriented operations. Chatbots and automated interfaces aren’t quite ready for prime time just yet. We find only 6% are fully enabling their customer interactions through virtual assistants, chatbots, or automation. In many cases, among more than one in four respondents, the majority of self-service engagements eventually need to be elevated to be handled by live agents or employees.

Organizations are grappling with scaling contact center capabilities as well. There has been no letup in the volumes of customer transactions or requests coming into organizations – from any and all channels. Close to two-thirds, 63%, say the volume has increased over the past three years. Most customer engagements of these contacts include problem resolution, and managing inbound or informational inquiries. Close to half of engagements now are taking place via digital or mobile channels.

See also: Customer Mastering: The Secret to Improving the Customer Experience

How deeply has artificial intelligence advanced into customer service or contact center operations? AI is certainly on top of everyone’s mind these days, and offers compelling solutions to personalizing interactions. While it is not actively in production at the majority of contact centers, it has already made some inroads. More than one in five, 21% say they are already using artificial intelligence, and adoption expected to rise even more. Another 30% survey indicate they are considering AI in their future plans.

The potential of AI on contact centers is extremely promising, as borne out in other studies. Productivity will rise, according to a study out of the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study, which tracked the results of an AI-based conversational assistant using data from more than 5,000 customer support agents, found a 14% boost in issues resolved per hour. This study concluded that AI assistance improved customer sentiment, reduced requests for managerial intervention, and improved employee retention. Importantly, in this study, AI helped boost the capabilities of lower-skilled reps, as the model was built on the input of higher-skilled reps.

Introducing AI into contact centers also may heighten the roles of these centers in organizational growth, the CRM Media/Nuance/Microsoft study shows. Overall, about 40% of executives see their contact centers as revenue-producing. Companies with AI capabilities embedded into their customer contact operations are 34% more likely than their lagging counterparts to support revenue-producing centers.

The value of sharing information real time across enterprises can extend beyond efficiency in operations. With the right technology and processes in place, contact center staff should be able to align and work closely with people throughout the organization. For example, if a customer has a problem with a product, or even a suggestion, this is information that needs to be shared and transparent to product development teams.


About Joe McKendrick

Joe McKendrick is RTInsights Industry Editor and industry analyst focusing on artificial intelligence, digital, cloud and Big Data topics. His work also appears in Forbes an Harvard Business Review. Over the last three years, he served as co-chair for the AI Summit in New York, as well as on the organizing committee for IEEE's International Conferences on Edge Computing. (full bio). Follow him on Twitter @joemckendrick.

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