Contact centre AI: why automation can’t outsmart the human touch

By Fergus Kelly, Managing Director of Capstone.

According to the headlines and the hype surrounding the growth of automation and artificial intelligence, AI is taking over the contact centre – but in my opinion, that’s not really the case.

Sure, the pace of development in this area has certainly accelerated in recent years. And as the technology has evolved, it’s become much easier to connect separate systems and allow them to share information, so routine tasks can more easily be automated.

As a result, integration costs have dramatically decreased, and automation has become a very attractive option for a broad range of businesses across most sectors. But as an industry, I believe we are at risk of over-looking something vital; just because you can automate, doesn’t mean you should.


Automation is nothing new

As a contact centre tech veteran, I can tell you that automation is nothing new. It’s been around in some form since the 1970s, led predominantly by the banking sector.

Automatic call distributor (ACD) technology made it possible to filter and route calls to the right agent at the right time, dramatically reducing call waiting times. By the 1990’s this technology was widespread and in 1995 Nationwide bank introduced 24-hour telephone banking, supported by speech recognition and interactive voice response (IVR) units.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that this technology gave rise to both good and bad experiences for the customer. Calling your bank for an automated readout of your account balance was, at the time, a revolutionary improvement for customers. On the other hand, it wasn’t so great battling with a voice activated menu system when simple keypad button pressing would have been easier.

At times, these systems left callers feeling incredibly frustrated by the time they managed to speak to a human.


Not every process should be automated

So, what can we learn from these past experiences that can be applied to the newly developed technologies of today?

Time and time again, I have seen that when automated systems provide a poor customer experience, it’s generally for one of two reasons: 1) poor User Interface (UI) design, or 2) the inescapable fact that a human touch is required for the process.

From a users’ perspective, good system design should allow new customers to easily choose the correct option at each step, and to go back if they make a mistake. It should also enable frequent users to achieve their goal quickly, or simply to speak to an operator, if required.

That’s no mean feat, particularly when customers now expect to interact with a business through multiple channels, including voice, webchat and social media. They may move between different channels at any point and expect the experience to be seamless.

Realistically, for many businesses this means that only a fraction of customer facing transactions can be completed in a ‘self-serve’ environment. Based on this, it’s clear to me that not every process is a good candidate for automation.


Power of the human touch

For all the talk about digital transformation, the reality of the situation is that some types of business, and some processes, are simply not compatible with a self-serve format or cannot be fully automated without compromising the user experience. Some customers just prefer interacting with a human. Having worked with hundreds of businesses, I know this is something that should never be overlooked.

After all, customer satisfaction is based on how the customer feels – about the service, about the process and about the outcome. Customers will link your customer service to how they feel about your brand, so if your automation leaves them frustrated, they may well disengage.


Be led by the customer

Essentially, I believe we need to shift our focus from: ‘what can I automate?’ to ‘how can I provide a good customer experience?’ That means successful digital transformation must be led by the customer, rather than the IT department.

When looking at the opportunity for automation with a client, here’s the process I generally follow:

1.  Map out each business process and assess its suitability for a switch to automation. Before proceeding, ask what the reasons for automating are – will it benefit both the user and the business?

2. Where automation will be helpful, aim to provide a common level of automation across all channels, be that voice, text based or social. Every point of interaction must deliver a consistent and positive customer experience.

3. Select appropriate technology and systems. For a cohesive customer experience, automated processes should integrate seamlessly e.g. by providing a single view of the customer and their journey across the automated services offered.

I have always found that companies who start with the technology (stage 3 of my process) and work backwards, end up with poorly automated processes and an unhappy customer. Instead, successful digital transformation in the contact centre must be spearheaded by someone with a strong vision for what that automation will deliver for customers from the very beginning.


Take a smart approach to automation

To conclude, far from being the death knell of the contact centre worker, automation should allow companies to do more of what they already do, but to do it better, faster and more efficiently. Ultimately, when you also take into consideration those essential yet intangible factors – brand image and customer satisfaction – I think it’s safe to say there will always be a need for the human touch in customer service interaction.

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