The Robots Are Coming… to the Contact Centre

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Carl Tuthill 4th February 2016 3 minute read

The Robots Are Coming… to the Contact Centre

Replacing people’s jobs with machines is not new. More surprising perhaps is the speed: according to research conducted by Deloitte, 850,000 UK jobs are at risk of disappearing by 2030. The emergence of ‘digital’ coupled with commodity computing and the coming of age of AI is a tremendous threat to many of today’s roles.

Perception, social skills and emotional understanding are some of the traits that the Deloitte research suggests are least likely to be replaced by machines any time soon. One would assume these are also some of the skills contact centre agents need to deliver excellent customer service.

Well… that depends. Life is short. As a customer, I’d rather spend 2 minutes sorting out a boring utility bill or mobile phone query with a machine than 3 minutes with a person – assuming the outcome is the same or better. I can spend the extra minute on something I actually want to do instead. (I’d even be happy to avoid the supermarket queues and use those self-checkout tills more, if only they didn’t so often tell me I have an unexpected item in the bagging area!)

Man v Machine

Technology is indeed dreadful when it doesn’t work as well as a person. I’ve certainly had moments like that scene in Outnumbered when the Dad is frustratingly wasting time on the phone to a poor natural language IVR when he wants to focus on his family.  And yet far too often I have also called a call centre and –generally after waiting far too long– spoken to a personable agent who doubtless was chock full of perception, social skills and emotional understanding, only to find that they didn’t know how to deal with my query (or thought they had but I later found they hadn’t) and ended up wasting far too much time. In these cases, I would have preferred the efficiency of a machine.

It might not be for everyone just yet, but equally I don’t think I am alone in this. Customers typically turn to whatever is most convenient for service resolution. Consider the adoption of online banking – how much does the lack of human interaction harm the customer experience when it comes to everyday banking? It would be easy to argue not very much.

Automation reward

The reward is there for companies who will excel at automating aspects of the contact centre.  McKinsey research states it can crucially increase customer satisfaction by up to 33% (as well as generate savings of 25-30% by reducing call-centre volume alone).

Web-chat has had automated response ‘bots’ since the days of MSN messenger, and the technology has moved on considerably. Virtual service agents today are using machine learning and natural language to provide ‘life like’ responses and resolutions. Yet in many scenarios, this doesn’t need to be some sort of Turing Test experience: people will soon get used to dealing with automated response bots – at least for getting ‘mundane stuff’ sorted so that we can spend more time on those interactions in our lives that matter more. Provided the bots are well designed and implemented.

Finding the mix

A brand’s identity and personality may always be best delivered by people. Cross-selling is more effective where rapport is high. Yet there will increasingly be a mix, including machines delivering service through digital and then voice, for customers who are happy with this (which one day will be almost everyone). The question needs to be ‘how do our customers want us to service their needs?’ rather than ‘what time do we open the contact centre?’

The breadth and depth of technology requirements could outpace organisations that do not have clear customer management strategies, innovative mind-sets, and the right delivery partners. 

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