Putting Human Call Center Agents on Hold

Putting Human Call Center Agents on Hold

By Joseph Williams February 23, 2017 1 Comments
Joseph Williams PNG
Putting Human Call Center Agents on Hold by Joseph Williams

How long do you think it will be until virtually all tier 1 call center agents are replaced by AI bots? I addressed this a bit in my Machine Learning session at last year’s Business Communications Summit. 

I’ve been discussing the topic with my colleague Dave Michels, and we agree that the impact of artificial intelligence on contact center operations will be significant. Chatbots are the first step, but automated bots that naturally interact with callers will initially reduce and eventually eliminate all but the most complex human agent interactions during the next decade.

The industry has arrived at a formidable convergence of natural language processing, speech synthesis, machine learning, and declining compute costs that will make it possible to produce outstanding customer service outcomes from AI bots within the next five years – if not sooner.

There is a powerful motivation here; there are some 2.2 million call center employees in the US and another million or so supporting US customers offshore. These call center employees occupy more than five million square feet of office space. Pencil out the costs to industry to provide customer support (don’t forget to add contact center software, office furniture, and headsets) and you arrive at tantalizingly large expenses that will be targeted for reduction by vendors of new robot customer service representative (CSR bot) technologies.

CSR bots are already here in rather primitive forms for call automation as in auto attendants and virtual receptionist services. These are largely call routing and simple information (e.g., account balance or bill due date) services. The coming wave will enable a CSR bot to replace a significant number of human CSRs and answer, in completely natural language, a considerable array of customer calls. 

The CSR bots will likely provide a better overall customer experience in the aggregate than do human CSRs [a chilling idea, I concede, but no less true for being chilling] and will do so consistently 7x24x365, probably in a cloud environment where enhanced interaction options will be available via microservices. These CSR bot applications will instantly scale to handle any call volume in any language across pretty much any device (voice, video, text, or perhaps even in virtual reality) at a fraction of today’s costs. These CSR bot solutions will enable firms of any size to offer sophisticated customer call center services.

The trend towards automation is already accelerating among mobile collaboration vendors. Recently published research predicts that knowledge-delivering chatbots will be standard offerings in mobile collaboration suites by the end of this year. Chatbots are computer programs designed to produce conversations with humans, typically through some kind of text-based interface. The voice extension of this technology has been to Amazon’s Echo (aka, Alexa) or to Microsoft’s Cortana. While early chatbot prototypes were clunky they are rapidly improving helped by an explosion of powerful tools (IBM’s Watson, Octane AI, gupshup, and many others). 

The AI breakthroughs that are enabling chatbots are already being applied to the call center. Virgin Trains in the UK is using the Celaton system to handle many customer inquiries while cleverly routing more complex problems to human operators, all the time learning from each call. One of Europe’s best-known analysts, Sarah Burnett of the Everest Group, has already predicted that CSR bots are going to get so good that CSR jobs are going to vanish for repetitive tasks. It is coming, folks.

In 2017, Dave and I are going to work together on providing analysis of emerging CSR bot products and technologies. We are going to look at what traditional UC vendors are doing and what potentially disruptive market entrants might come into play. If you have ideas and comments you want to share on this coming disruption, please do so below or by dropping me an email.


1 Responses to "Putting Human Call Center Agents on Hold" - Add Yours

Don Van Doren 2/25/2017 8:55:36 AM

Yes, AI is clearly a trend. The technology will certainly be there. However, past innovations such as adding email or chat have not reduced the number of agents. Rather, consumers simply engage more with companies, using all the channels available.

In addition, my personal forecast is that this trend will not have the pervasive impact in the time frame that Joseph envisions. Acquisition and deployment of these systems is expensive, and we have seen many examples of situation where better technology and approaches are available, but are simply not adapted to the extent possible. Why else are ~70% of customer interactions still using a telephone call? Perhaps cloud-based solutions will lower the costs of the systems, but tailoring the solution to a specific company’s environment will continue to be an expensive challenge.

That said, the technology is certainly coming available. And some companies and some interactions will take advantage of it. However, it won’t be the wholesale transformation envisioned in five years, in my opinion.

Now that the AI technology has progressed to the point where this vision is feasible, potential suppliers need to focus on the ways to capture and incorporate the specific details and back-end integrations that will make these solutions work economically in a particular customer environment. Then, we are prepared for “launch”. However, I feel that the overall result will likely be better and more pervasive customer engagement capabilities, not a wholesale reduction in call center agents.

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