AI and the agent of tomorrow

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Karen Brough 23rd July 2018 5 minute read

AI and the agent of tomorrow

We recently sponsored a piece of research from the Institute of Customer Service on attitudes to AI technology. Titled ‘The Heart of Artificial Intelligence’, the research surveyed consumers as well as customer service organisations and employees to gain insight into how AI is being used in the industry and the implications for the future. In a recent edition of Intelligence, Capita Divisional HR Director Karen Brough shared her thoughts on how changing technologies will lead to a change in desired contact centre agent skills.

As more and more of the simple enquiries that come into contact are handled by automation, self-serve and AI, those left for agents to answer will be increasingly complex.

We’ve always had complex enquiries, but in the future the proportion of complex to simple will significantly shift and present challenges for agents in how they think, respond, and what information they will need at their fingertips.

For example, it’s likely that complaints resolution will increase. Such calls are much harder to resolve through formulaic scripts. They need agents who can think in imaginative and problem solving ways. ‘Outside the box’ is a tired phrase, but it’s apt here.

Technology-based products are unlikely to get simpler, so technical questions also look set to grow – and again they’ll be the non-obvious ones. Agents won’t just need an extra level of technical knowledge; they’ll also need to be good at explaining it to customers.

We could be looking at a new kind of ‘tech-empathy’ – a fresh skill that enables agents to grasp the fundamentals of the technology being discussed, intuitively understand where customers are struggling with it, and find ways of guiding them to answers that don’t just solve their immediate problem, but help them get more from that product (and avoid repeat calls) further down the line.

Both of the above will call for agents to develop astute interviewing techniques – the ability to ask questions that get to the heart of an issue, when customers may not fully understand the issue themselves!

Increasingly agents will meet questions they’ve never been asked before. Scripts will be of little help and more effort will need to go into establishing easily understandable parameters within which agents can work and offer solutions.

So where does this increasing complexity and ever greater requirement for detail knowledge leave the agent of the future? One of the more common assumptions I hear is that it will give birth to the often-theorised Super Agent – someone who can answer every question via every channel on every subject.

But is this realistic?

It can be really challenging for an advisor to know that much, to have that degree of empathy on so many levels, and to be able to swap seamlessly from channel to channel, instantly adapting your language and conversational skills to match.

Advisors with such a wide mix of abilities will be rare and could be expensive –not necessarily an appealing solution for an industry that will still revolve around keeping costs under control while employing large numbers of people, often very rapidly (eg during Peak Periods).

It’s more likely that agents will ‘grow’ extra specialisms, through aptitude, training or AI/Knowledge base support. Enhanced Agents if you like, rather than Super Agents.

Yes you can help people add skills, but within limits, and you need to keep hold of what they are naturally good at. So it might be easy to flex a good voice agent onto webchat where some of the conversational skills are similar. But try to move them onto Twitter, which is a completely different beast, and they could find it challenging.

Because everything moves so fast around us it’s easy to fall into the trap that people can do more and more and more as each new technology comes along. People evolve, but never as fast as the technology itself. They need time to catch up.

We can expand their abilities and extend their skills, and that’s a route I see us going down. Perhaps, many years ahead, we may get to a Super Agent who can answer any question and slip easily between every channel; even channels we haven’t thought of yet.

However, it may be more effective for some organisations to focus on enhancing the skills of existing agents to focus on depth of knowledge, rather than breadth of knowledge in the immediate future.

To learn more about ‘The Heart of Artificial Intelligence’, click here.

This article originally appeared in our edition of Intelligence titled ‘Customer Management and the Future of Customer Experience: People and Trends’ – find it on our Intelligence hub page.

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