The Gist

  • AI is critical. Artificial intelligence is becoming a critical component of modern call center operations.
  • Improving EX and CX. Deploying AI-enabled tools in contact centers can improve customer experience and agent efficiency. 
  • The human touch. While AI can automate some tasks, it can't replace the human touch entirely, and human agents will still play a critical role in contact centers. 

AI and machine learning are coming of age, and this year is set to become the year that AI dominates the customer service call center, by providing real-time feedback, predictive analytics and in-depth analysis. AI is enhancing the customer experience while improving the lives of call center employees. This article will look at the ways that AI is changing the game when it comes to call center dynamics.

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) in the Call Center

Most of us are familiar with IVR when calling customer service centers, and have found them to be annoying, time-consuming, and not very helpful. “Press 1 for Spanish, 2 for English,” and so on. It’s gotten to the point where when the first prompt is heard, the caller just keeps pressing zero to speak with a live customer service agent before getting trapped in a maze of repeating, endless frustration. Still, when IVRs first came out, they served a purpose, and saved customer service agents a lot of time, even if they didn’t do much to improve the customer experience.

Since then, the situation has greatly improved, largely through the use of AI and machine learning. IBM’s natural language understanding (NLU) software was used to create an AI-enabled system that is able to provide real answers to the questions that customers ask. IBM partnered with Humana, a healthcare insurance provider, in collaboration with IBM’s Data and AI Expert Labs & Learning (DAELL) and created what became the Provider Services Conversational Voice Agent with Watson. The unique solution combines multiple Watson applications in a single conversational assistant, and runs on the IBM cloud, while the Watson Assistant for Voice Interaction runs on location at Humana.

The voice assistant features seven language models and two acoustic models, each of which is targeted towards a specific type of user data. This solution achieves an average of 90-95% sentence accuracy, and is able to handle several sub-intents within the major groupings of eligibility, benefits, claims, authorization, and referrals. This allows Humana to more quickly provide answers to questions that were not answerable before. The previous IVR system was likely to produce a seven-page fax in response to a request for “benefits” while the new solution is able to respond with a specific point benefit using natural language, such as “the co-pay for optometrist visits is USD 75.”

Related Article: What Is a Contact Center? Omnichannel Customer Experience Redefined 

The Pandemic Accelerated AI in Call Centers

With so many businesses closing their doors while others were forced to transition to an entirely remote workforce, call centers struggled to quickly move from in-office call centers to home offices. Magnus Geverts, VP of product marketing at Calabrio, a customer experience intelligence company, told CMSWire that 2020 was the year of reinvention for contact centers, and that AI allowed businesses to remain operational. "To continue to take care of their employees, customers and brand reputation, contact center leaders turned to AI-based solutions like predictive analytics to gather internal and external insights for employee empowerment and to drive competitive advantage in customer experiences," said Daniels.

COVID-19 pandemic changed the world of customer experience forever, according to Shawna Wolverton, EVP of product at Zendesk, a customer relationship management software provider. “In response to record-high ticket volumes across nearly every industry, many companies accelerated their adoption and usage of AI-powered chatbots to help customers quickly get answers to common questions,” she said.

The healthcare industry has been quick to jump on the use of AI for help with its call centers, especially in relation to vaccination efforts, which have been under immense pressure to be rolled out at breakneck speed. “A year later, healthcare providers are using bots to help people get fast answers to questions ranging from vaccine eligibility, availability, tracking and administration, and scheduling appointments,” said Wolverton. “By using automation to handle a high volume of repetitive tasks, they are able to focus on helping people get answers to more difficult and complex questions.”

In spite of the acceleration in the use of AI for healthcare and vaccination call centers, Wolverton said that a recent report from Zendesk revealed that AI continues to be underused. This comes at a time when there is an increasing opportunity — and sense of urgency — for brands to take advantage of AI for more than just eliminating simple tasks. “Customer support teams can use AI to replicate the pattern-matching abilities of the human brain, and also spot trends that the human eye often misses, significantly speeding up manual and time-consuming processes. For example, natural language processing can read millions of tickets to quickly identify and understand larger issues, which enables teams to improve the time they can provide a resolution to a customer,” said Wolverton.

AI Is Set to Enhance Customer Experience

Although the time and cost savings from AI and automation hold tremendous value for brands, the potential returns for improving the customer experience are even bigger and more meaningful. "From providing near real-time feedback on customer and employee insights and stress predictors to voice-of-the-customer innovations, AI-driven analytics can quickly analyze the sentiment of customer interactions equipping contact centers with the visibility they need to help optimize the customer experience," Daniels related.

In February 2021, the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) surveyed over 15,000 adults in nine countries to find out how they felt about vaccines and what they plan to do once they're vaccinated. The results of the survey revealed that most respondents said that vaccination levels will need to exceed 70% in order for them to feel safe returning to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. Assuming vaccination rollout rates stay at current levels, that means many consumers will not regain pre-pandemic comfort levels until well into 2022.

These digitally savvy consumers are now accustomed to the many digital shopping mechanisms that ramped up as a result of the pandemic — and based on the survey results, many consumers expect to continue using them. It’s worth noting that according to the survey, once the vaccine is readily available, at least 1 in 5 consumers still plan to shop primarily online, with convenience cited as the main reason, followed by value and the wide variety of available products. Many consumers just do not feel safe being around other shoppers — nearly 1 in 4 shoppers in the US and the UK indicated that they don’t feel safe shopping in-store and that they don’t enjoy the in-person shopping experience any longer.

Brands will have to continue providing exceptional customer experiences, through AI-enhanced personalization and customer service as these aspects of the customer experience become a differentiator that is even more vital for businesses now than it was before the COVID-19 crisis. Seamless, hyper-personalized experiences across all channels may make all the difference to customers in a post-vaccine landscape, along with AI-enhanced call centers in which AI is providing human agents with intelligent, real-time decisioning that can be used to create the “next best” action.

AI is not only improving the customer experience, the daily experiences of employees are also more productive, engaging, and personally satisfying with the introduction of AI. “The first thought that often comes to mind when people think of AI is chatbots or intelligent assistants. Yet this is more than just a customer-facing trajectory,” explained Daniels. “Employee-facing self-service powered by AI is a key initiative to embrace and help agents simplify their day, provide information during interactions, or assist with training and development while improving work-life balance, all of which goes a long way to ultimately improving CX.”

Improving the employee experience is key to also enhancing and improving the customer journey. “The old adage of happy employees make happy customers remains true. Forward-thinking organizations are using, and should use, AI-powered self-service to maintain loyal customers and empower employees,” said Daniels.

Conversational AI and the Call Center

Conversational AI enables brand’s call centers to fully or partially automate conversations on messaging channels at scale. AI-powered messaging played a large role in many brand’s pandemic responses, which was simply the acceleration of a trend that had already begun, according to Rob LoCascio, CEO of LivePersonan AI-powered conversational chatbot service provider.

LoCascio said that AI-powered call centers enabled brands with no set infrastructure in place to immediately begin to improve the customer experience even as more and more lockdowns shuttered businesses.

Learning Opportunities

“The technology not only empowered businesses to communicate with customers as physical locations shuttered but gave them the ability to do so on a mass scale. Decreasing wait times while increasing volume allowed business to foster stronger relationships with an expanded network of customers.”

Going forward, these relationships will continue to be developed through the use of conversational AI-powered call centers. “As call centers are now familiarized with conversational AI-powered technology they’ve gained a deeper understanding of its true business potential, not only as a tool to cut losses, but as one to drive revenue,” said LoCascio. Over the course of the next year, he envisions call centers using the technology in a variety of new ways. “Now that many have mastered their process for customer service, we’ll start to see more utilization across marketing and sales practices, from providing tailored product recommendations, to increasingly customized conversations based on consumer intents, to in-messaging purchases.”

Consumers have been getting accustomed to using AI-powered customer service, as a survey from LivePerson revealed that 75% of customers said that they spend more money with brands that offer messaging. For brands’ call center agents, conversational AI allows them to focus their time and energy on more interesting, complex issues while automation takes care of repetitive tasks. Using the proper tools, LoCascio told CMSWire that brands are even able to elevate future conversations by analyzing performance metrics and performance benchmarks.

David’s Bridal, for example, successfully used AI-integration in its call center. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, the chain was forced to temporarily shut down retail stores and needed to act quickly to maintain business continuity for their brides and employees,” said LoCascio.  

Through the messaging experience provided by David’s Bridal’s concierge bot, Zoey, ecommerce revenue continued to grow during the pandemic. “This is an example of how conversational AI can assist in making repetitive tasks more convenient for customers and allow employees to provide the most value to customers who require more complex assistance,” LoCascio said.

Predictive Behavioral Routing

Predictive Behavioral Routing (PBR) was first introduced and patented by Mattersight Corporation, an enterprise analytics provider, in 2014. PBR uses AI and analytics to match call center customers with specific customer personality models, which are in turn used to route calls to those agents who are best able to handle those specific personality types, effectively turning a random encounter into a personalized customer service experience.

NICE Nexidia acquired Mattersight in August of 2018 and combined its own advanced Interaction Analytics and what it says is the largest database of customer behavioral profiles with PBR to provide brands with a more comprehensive understanding of the customer journey and persona. This type of AI-driven Predictive Behavioral Routing aims to facilitate more productive and positive call outcomes and a better overall customer service experience.

The PBR software takes a detailed look at the natural predispositions and communications habits of the customer that is calling and the agents that are available to respond so that their interaction is both natural and positive.

Initially, the brand identifies metrics for each call center agent that determine characteristics such as disposition, average ticket time, or how knowledgeable the agents are about particular customer issues.

Finally, call tracking software data is used to match the inbound call to its database to determine the personality and communication style of the customer along with their call history. By using multiple criteria, the PBR software is able to create as detailed a picture as possible of the caller.

PBR works in conjunction with other platforms including CRM software, IVR systems, and skills-based routing in order to give a call center agent all of the relative data that is required to make the call an efficient, satisfying experience for both the customer and the agent.

Final Thoughts

The pandemic accelerated an ongoing trend in which AI was used to enhance the current de facto call center response tool — IVR. By using AI-driven chat tools, smaller problems can be immediately addressed, while large, more complex issues can be directed to call center agents. Conversational AI continued to help evolve the call center, while predictive behavioral routing took it to the next level, enabling brands to deliver exceptional customer experiences during the pandemic and beyond.