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AI’s Next Frontier: The Contact Center

Now, it’s AI’s time to revolutionize the contact center by enabling amazing customer experiences, driving up customer loyalty and increasing revenue. More broadly, AI is transforming the definition of customer service.

Contact center agents have always been there to answer our basic questions:

When do you close?

Do you have this in stock?

How far away is your store?

Over the years, their importance and value have grown as they now answer complex questions, provide consultation, and often replace the in-person help historically provided at a brick-and-mortar in-store experience.

The complexity of the questions requires agents to be resourceful and connected, so that they can find answers, and deliver those answers in a variety of ways.  Their value has never been more important as companies are in a competitive race to deliver customer delight through these agents to customer interactions. It remains one of the few post-sale customer touchpoints for any business yet often bears the legacy burden of a poor reputation stemming from bad customer experiences. AI is poised to change that quickly.

Technology has always been vital to the contact center.

In the 1980’s Interactive Voice Response (IVR) let customers solve their own problems with the press of a button. The emergence of the Web in the 1990s brought the internet to homes, opening a new channel for companies to interact with customers. In the early 2000s, new touchpoints like email and chat transformed the call center into a contact center, and later that decade social media democratized customer service. And the recent adoption of cloud technology unburdened companies from on-premise platforms, expediting software updates and reducing setup and infrastructure demands.

Now, it’s AI’s time to revolutionize the contact center by enabling amazing customer experiences, driving up customer loyalty and increasing revenue. More broadly, AI is transforming the definition of customer service.

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This modern revolution all starts with data, which contact centers hold in spades with call detail records and full recordings of every contact with customers. However, much of that data has traditionally been “dark data,” sitting unused in remote corners of contact centers’ servers. But recent advances in automatic speech recognition mean these hours and hours of previously unusable voice recordings will suddenly become quite useful and a source for training machine learning models.

No part of the contact center is immune to AI’s impact, yet we won’t see it replace human agents any time soon. AI will instead augment the agents to drive customer experiences that are significantly better and more seamless than what either can deliver alone. This is happening in every part of the contact center, including agent routing, agent assistance, virtual agents, business insight and quality, compliance and assurance.

Here’s how this will play out:

Virtual agents, powered by AI, will replace IVR systems

Live agents will be augmented by virtual agents and agent assistance. Virtual agents, powered by AI, will replace IVR systems by delivering voice-enabled, human-like conversational interfaces and can work standalone or guided by a live agent, depending on the complexity of the customer interaction. Agent assistance, meanwhile, will use AI to prompt then guide human agents with the appropriate and best next best action throughout the customer interaction as fast as possible.

The Coming of Age for Interactive Voice Assistants 

Interactive Voice Assistants (IVA) represent the next evolution of IVR systems, which have been around for a long time and are limited in their capabilities. The holy grail of IVA is a system that’s nearly indistinguishable from a human agent in its ability to listen, comprehend, analyze and talk with customers. We’re not quite there yet; IVAs remain slow and imperfect, leading customers to demand a human agent as soon as possible to resolve their issues. 

Exceeding customer expectations is a primary goal for every business and this is where AI is uniquely positioned to help them deliver. As Gartner recently noted in its Artificial Intelligence Primer for 2018, “the ongoing consumerization of AI — through the growing use and effectiveness of AI-enabled assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant — boosts end users’ awareness of, and expectations for, intelligent conversational interfaces to enterprise products and services.” With great expectations comes great responsibility; AI can assume much of this responsibility in the contact center by augmenting human agents.

This is not a dystopian future none of us will ever see in our lifetime. The demand for exceptional customer experiences and the rapid development of AI are too strong for businesses to take a wait-and-see approach. Big players like IBM, Salesforce, Amazon and Microsoft each offer robust AI capabilities in their platforms.

Google recently announced its Contact Center AI platform, with technologies like DialogflowAutoML and Topic Modeler, that are aimed squarely at the contact center. 

While AI is attempting to replace humans in numerous other industries, like transportation with self-driving cars, its promise in the contact center is less authoritarian and more complimentary toward humans. We’re not far off from truly capable virtual agents that seamlessly augment the human agent, all in the name of exceptional customer service. Soon enough you might even want to call the contact center.

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