ye olde chatbot
An alternative has emerged to the endless habitrails of the IVR channel: RPA-driven chatbots PHOTO: ☰☵ Michele M. F.

Automation has introduced efficiency throughout enterprises for decades now. 

One example comes from the world of customer service. Contact centers have long embraced automation in the form of Interactive Voice Response (IVR), much to the dismay of their customers. While IVR cuts costs for enterprises, customers complain of getting trapped in the virtual habitrail of the IVR channel. 

But all hope is not lost. As enterprises increase their focus on the customer experience, a new automated service channel has emerged which holds the possibility of delivering efficiencies to the business while retaining the goodwill of customers: chatbots, or Interactive Text Response (ITR). 

Enter Robotic Process Automation

The timing is right for this move. Messaging apps have been gaining in popularity and businesses are increasingly turning to the channel to improve their customer communications. David Marcus, VP of Messaging Products at Facebook announced at the Facebook F8 conference in April that over 1.2 billion people now regularly use Facebook Messenger every month, and companies and customers are sharing 2 billion messages.

Chatbots on messaging channels can work more reliably than IVR systems as they don’t have to deal with spoken language: “What you type is what you get.” Removing language simplifies the equation, allowing companies to tap into a new technology that relies heavily on Natural Language Understanding: Robotic Process Automation, or RPA. RPA is a discipline within the broad field of artificial intelligence.

In an interview with McKinsey, London School of Economics professor Leslie Willcocks defined RPA as follows: 

“RPA takes the robot out of the human. The average knowledge worker employed on a back-office process has a lot of repetitive, routine tasks that are dreary and uninteresting. RPA is a type of software that mimics the activity of a human being in carrying out a task within a process. It can do repetitive stuff more quickly, accurately, and tirelessly than humans, freeing them to do other tasks requiring human strengths such as emotional intelligence, reasoning, judgment, and interaction with the customer.”

RPA: Your New Digital Employee

With the introduction of RPA, the enterprise now counts a new type of employee among its ranks: the digital employee. By using RPA software, digital employees enter seamlessly into business processes. 

In the case of contact centers, the end goal of calling a hotline was reaching a human. IVR systems were considered the front door, but once you managed to break through the IVR guided maze, you ideally would speak with a human. Call transfers were always mono-directional — from the IVR to a human — never the other way around. But how would this same process work with the introduction of a digital employee?   

Take this scenario: A customer calls your insurance hotline. Your digital employee, let's call her "Ivy," takes the call and authenticates the customer, asking them for their account number and PIN. Ivy also finds out why the customer is calling, without having to ask: through deep integration with your company’s CRM and case management system, “she” sees the customer has an open claim with you and has just visited your website to review the case before calling.

Ivy logically infers the customer is calling because they want to speak to a person about the claim, which Ivy quickly confirms before connecting the customer with a live person. The live agent, let's call him "Mark," now speaks with the customer and, through personal experience and intuition — while also following business process and decision rules — determines that to advance the claim, more information is necessary. 

Rather than conducting the data collection step himself, Mark transfers the call back to Ivy, so he can focus on entering information about the issue into the case management system. Letting Ivy do the data collection step also improves security, as Ivy has no incentive to steal information, and she can operate in a fully PCI-DSS compliant environment. Ivy and the customer conclude the call.

The next day, Mark closes the loop by calling back the customer to convey, applying human empathy, that the case can be closed in their favor in a few more days.

Sample Customer Journey Ivy

This example illustrates how an improved workflow leverages the best of both human and automated interactions. Humans add common sense when pre-configured rules would lead to customer frustration and de-escalate customer situations with empathy. They are also still needed for true problem solving, to explain complex business process or in instances when the conversation just needs a human touch. 

Your digital employee comes in to efficiently address the simpler, more repetitive tasks which follow clear rules.

Find Your Digital Comfort Level

When you view RPA software or chatbots as fellow employees or colleagues, and you do that at scale, something interesting happens: you start rethinking the distribution of labor in your organization. You realize you are asking your employees to do things they shouldn’t be doing: because they are trivial, easily automated tasks, or repetitive tasks which are prone to human error, or mind-numbingly dull tasks that make your employees think about leaving.

The first step to understanding how to leverage digital employees in your organization is to think about the work items your employees accomplish in your organization today. Starting with the contact center, take the typical agent tasks and arrange them by “complexity” and the level of “human empathy” necessary, and you arrive at a diagram similar to the following:

Your Digital Comfort Level

Which tasks you hand over to the digital employee is up to you — it depends on your digital comfort level, which is influenced by the demographics of your customer base. Over time, it should move up, thereby freeing up work for your agents so they can focus on more sophisticated tasks.

Making Ivy Part of the Workforce

Your agents can also work with Ivy outside of phone calls or customer conversations. Ivy could increase your agent's efficiency by digging up answers from knowledge bases or CRM systems. Or intersperse their work days with training units that are conversational in nature. And why not let your agents text Ivy when they are sick or have a question about paid time off? 

Changes like this don’t come overnight, but now is the time to start evaluating these technologies and experimenting with small scale trials. Time has shown that only those who adapt, survive. Can your business afford to become extinct as the competition embraces the benefits of these new interaction technologies?