The Future of AI in Contact Centers

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I have spent nearly the last decade working in the contact center industry, mostly with Next Caller (a fraud and authentication solution), and now at XSELL Technologies, which is at the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and Customer Experience. For that matter, I have spent my entire career in tech working at startups. So I am usually familiar with whatever the latest and greatest buzzwords are, and for the last five years or so, those have been “artificial intelligence,” “machine learning,” and specifically in the contact center industry: “bots.”

Yes, chatbots and voicebots have become so commonplace in the CX industry that I still haven’t figured out how I haven’t met one at any tradeshows, where everyone gathers every year in person to talk about them. And if you see me stressing that people are gathering in person face-to-face every year (even in the wake of COVID), that is on purpose. The irony is rich: people flying across the country to talk about virtual assistants to replace human-to-human interactions while themselves enjoying lavish cocktail receptions and slapping each other high five. There is a reason they are doing this: they find the human connection valuable. And the same is likely true for our customers, and therefore our industry.

Let me be clear: there is distinct value in bots and in automation. There are many customers who prefer self-service options over talking to human beings, and if they can interact with a digital assistant to handle simple tasks, it saves time and money for both sides. And simply from a cost perspective, if you are running a massive contact center operation and the technology is smart enough today to handle certain simpler questions and therefore guarding the time of your human staff, who in their right mind would not take advantage of that?

I’d like for you to close your eyes and imagine life as a customer service agent. This is a high-churn job for a reason – it is not always a fun job. The hours can be odd, the customers can be rude, the incentives are often misaligned, and the pay is not always great. In certain environments, your every move is monitored, all the way down to how long your cigarette break or lunch break is. I have even heard of companies who have paid to help their employees quit smoking, and while this sounds well and good on paper, I’ve often thought to myself that the ulterior motive of the employer is to actually make the agent more efficient with their time. They believe that the efficiency gains of a non-smoking agent far outweigh the cost of the program to get the agent off the cigarettes. This is obviously uncommon, but I am just pointing out what most are reticent to say out loud. Unfortunately, many CX leaders are focused predominantly on efficiency gains versus gains in customer experience.

So, what inevitably happens if you are an agent and your company is investing disproportionately in automation tools like bots? Well, first and foremost, all of the easy questions are now out the window. Your job as an agent is already difficult, but at least half the time you get to answer simple questions and with great confidence. When you do that, the customer feels good and so do you. You go about your day with confidence feeling like your job is not incredibly difficult and that many customers enjoy interacting with you.

But when you take away the proverbial fastballs down the middle and replace them entirely with curveballs, the life of the agent becomes much more complex. Now, every single interaction is a challenge, requiring you to cross-reference knowledge hubs to find information or god forbid, transfer the call to a supervisor for some help. The job feels hard now, and many customers do not make you feel good. All the while, you are not getting paid any more than you were before for this seemingly difficult job, and it is utterly clear to you that your bosses up in corporate will invest in any tools that they can to automate people like you away. In fact, several of your friends have been let go since the advent of the automation tools, so now you feel tremendous pressure that if you do not get up to snuff, that you might be next.

Is it really any wonder why attrition rates in the contact center world are higher than they have ever been? And though I realize that it is a difficult job market for most employers, I cannot think of a time in the past decade where I heard more people talk about how much they were struggling to find and hire good agents.

All of the aforementioned reasons are why we need to take a radical shift in how we think about artificial intelligence. If we are still willing to show up at events and see our peers in the office after having proven that remote work environments and events can work, then surely we ourselves understand the power of human connection. And the reality is, there will always be matters so complicated that they require a direct connection with your brand. It is time to put our money where our mouth is.

How do we do that? We think of AI in a different way. AI is not just about automating people away to create economic efficiencies. It is also about making people stronger. Even in my sales role, I use several AI tools that help me understand the buying behaviors of my clients, or that help me with my outreach. These tools take skills I already have and they hone them and sharpen them. They make me more productive. But they don’t replace me.

This is why I am so passionate about what we do at XSELL. We leverage behaviors of top-performing agents – the behaviors and causal language they use that have been statistically proven to lead to the most successful outcomes – and then we distribute those learnings across the frontline agent staff with real-time coaching. It is like playing chess with an earpiece in and having a grandmaster chess player whispering in your ear what move you should make next. This empowers agents, gives them confidence, makes them feel like leadership is investing in them (and not in firing them), and reduces their need to find the right information or talk to their supervisor. Naturally, this makes them happier and less likely to quit, and that attitude trickles into their conversations with customers. It also allows new agents to get trained and onboarded much faster as they have the proverbial “answers to the test” right at their fingertips.

From now on, when we talk about AI, let’s try to act out on the bold vision of turning our “cost center” into a “profit center.” It starts with a change in mindset. This is just the beginning.

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