Reinventing the contact center

Artificial intelligence can help manage changing demand in a crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing organizations to rethink and radically change their operations in real time. The disruption has led to increased pressure on contact centers for reasons ranging from dramatically increased demand, to extensive and sustained order or service cancellations. One individual attempting to file for unemployment benefits for example, is said to have made 991 calls over six days to a state Department of Labor without reaching a person or virtual agent. Call 992, apparently, was the lucky number.

For many businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic is happening midway through an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled virtual agent technology transformation. For those organizations, virtual agents have been revolutionizing contact centers, supporting scalability and enabling human agents to focus on more complex, fulfilling work. But many other enterprises have not even started yet.

Whether in the midst of an AI transformation or at the very beginning of their AI journey, organizations have been struggling to meet demand because they didn’t move fast enough when they could. Long wait times and disillusioned or angry customers are the consequence.

Even in the best of times, customers are ready to abandon a brand after only three unsatisfactory support interactions. Among Millennials, 22 percent said just one bad interaction is sufficient impetus to leave. And one banking survey found that when phone call wait times are longer than four minutes, customer satisfaction drops by a third. When they are stressed or at a disadvantage, as many are during this pandemic, customers may never truly forgive organizations that fail to deliver. Clearly, those that have not yet moved to deploy virtual agents need to move now.

When contact center meets AI

Some contact centers have already deployed virtual agents and are thus better able to adjust quickly to changes in volume and new customer concerns. They can immediately scale operations to handle unanticipated workload. Our research suggests AI’s importance to organizational strategy is likely to double in the next three years.

There are five primary ways that virtual agents can help the contact center:

  1. Workload management: Digital labor can resolve routine queries with no involvement from human agents. For example, a business can scale immediately, providing automated answers to new questions, such as may be necessary with COVID-19. Are there new operating hours? Has the return policy changed? Because digital agents can quickly adapt to new FAQs, it leaves human agents free to engage in the more fulfilling effort of solving customers’ more complex inquiries.
  2. Agent assist: Unseen by customers, human agents can use a digital assistant to gather additional information, including possible technical responses, suggestions to resolve customer disputes, and opportunities to upsell.
  3. Automation: Virtual agents can leverage robotic process automation, machine learning, and optical character recognition to ingest and update even handwritten documents, and move workload or even complete processing.
  4. Pre-screening: When queries are escalated to a human agent, that agent is supplied with pertinent data already gathered by a digital agent, reducing handle time and burden.
  5. Smart routing: Some companies are using digital agents to help triage incoming queries and decide how they should be routed.

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Meet the authors

Joseph Petrone

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, Partner and Global Cognitive Care Offering Leader, IBM Consulting

Prad Paskaran

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, IBM iX Contact Centre Practice Lead, IBM Consulting

Brian Goehring

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, Associate Partner, AI / Cognitive & Analytics, IBM Institute for Business Value

Originally published 20 June 2018