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Will AI replace human interaction in customer contact centres?

—25 July 2018
—Anish Shah, Capita, talks about the use of AI within customer contact centres

Delivering an outstanding customer experience requires a perfect blend of technology and human interaction. The capabilities we have in creating this perfect blend are developing all the time as customer expectations and innovations point us in ever-growing directions. However, there are some things that I don’t believe will change. One of the most notable things that falls in to that category is a customer’s desire to have direct human involvement. 

Often a customer will escalate their request to a dedicated helpline or contact centre if they are unable to resolve their query or complaint elsewhere.  Call me a cynic, but I believe that when someone picks up the phone to an organisation it’s because they want to talk to a human. In some cases it’s the last straw, in others it’s their most preferred route but in all cases they seek to speak to a person because it will more likely lead to the conclusion they require.

It could be that they haven’t been able to resolve their issue through a self-serve channel, such as finding the answer within the FAQs or on a message board. Deploying a cognitive/AI solution can support these conversations to a certain extent, but it’s not a panacea. So I’m a firm believer it will not replace customer service agents in the medium term and at this point it’s impossible to know exactly how things will change in the long-term.

Where AI will be hugely useful is in supporting the agent to deliver a better outcome and ultimately this is exactly what organisations should be concerned with. That could be through data analytics in real time making recommendations and suggestions – e.g., how the agent can help the customer, provide information about products or to cross sell extra services. Or it could be about pattern recognition on how often the customer calls, along with their buying behaviour. However, all this is possible only when there is a reliable, robust and single source of data. 

Imagine if you are a new customer and you don’t have any past history. The cognitive solution will pick that out. It can recommend or highlight to the agent that they have a first time caller. No previous contact could suggest something has gone wrong with the product or service. That makes them important, making this customer a priority.

With advanced natural language processing (NLP), in the next 10 years AI/cognitive applications might completely take over from the human agent within some organisations, but in the next five, it’s unlikely. This is a very challenging area technologically; a great deal more challenging than the media and reports make it seem to be. 

Even when cognitive applications or NLP can accurately mimic human conversation, what they won’t do is capture the joy of conversation - what makes humans want to talk. And that is a very important part of the reason why human involvement is crucial and will remain so. 

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