Our expectations for good customer experience are changing. Or are they? All we have ever really expected is to be recognized, treated respectfully and served efficiently.

In the past, delivering good experiences through our customer contact centers meant hiring andtraining empathetic, knowledgeable and accessible agents. Today the only way to maintain this human touch is through an intelligent combination of human and digital engagement that I call the “humanoid touch.”

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes in the Contact Center

According to the Site Selection Group, there are more than 10 million contact center customer service agents around the globe. This is a staggering number, considering that we often can’t get a human agent when we need one, and when we do connect, they are often woefully ill equipped to solve our problems.

The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

By 2019, more than half of customer interactions will take place in channels other than voice. Contact centers must gear up to support voice along with social media, SMS/text, chat and other media in an omnichannel environment. As digital channels begin to handle more transactional requests through automation, the customer interactions that reach agents are becoming more complex, and more difficult to resolve.

And McKinsey reports that, while all this is happening, the volume and complexity of calls are actually increasing.

Forrester Research leads us to believe that artificial intelligence (AI) will help save the contact center. In a report titled “How AI Will Transform Customer Service” (fee charged), the research firm reports that that 40 percent of contact center decision-makers are exploring use of AI technologies to disrupt the role of agents and differentiate service.

But will AI improve our customer experience or simply change the shape of the problem? As the lyrics of David Bowie's song "Changes" caution:

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream

From my perspective, people who run contact centers will need to understand how they can improve the flow of customer engagement to truly reap the benefits of incorporating AI-infused approaches.

Related Article: How Robotic Process Automation Fits in Your Contact Center

Intelligent Approaches to AI

Unlike David Bowie, who was clearly born to be a great rock star, the average contact center agent needs help to become great. So too does the average contact center humanoid.

Simulated humanoid conversations are great when they work well, but they are infuriating when they don’t. AI holds promise but, like any technology, it needs to be thoughtfully implemented. When it is implemented poorly, conversations with AI can take you back to the days of yelling “r-e-p-r-e-s-e-n-t-a-t-i-v-e” into your phone while dealing with an unhelpful IVR (interactive voice response) system.

In a recent TNW article, chatbot developer Thomas Gouritin offers this reassurance:

“It is possible to design a chatbot that performs a real service, understands who the user is, and truly helps solve a well-defined problem. But it takes time and effort.”

With the proper time and effort, AI technology can help to improve not only voice systems but also all forms of chatbots and virtual assistants. Perhaps most importantly, these assistants can also partner with human agents to better serve customers.

Forge a Human-Digital Partnership

A Forbes article titled “AI Is Super-Charging the Customer Service World” talks about AI-fueled conversations that agents are having with customers, without them even realizing it:

“The ‘machine’ listens, in real time, to the conversation between the customer and the agent, and then feeds useful information to the agent so that he or she can, in turn, give the customer the best response possible.”

Indeed, perhaps the most interesting potential use for AI in the contact center is not to replace agents in customer communications, but rather to team with agents. This teaming helps deliver a better customer experience with tasks that involve predictive personalization and sentiment analysis, and even in complex situations that require the ability to do something like, say, interpret sarcasm.

For example, banks are exploring how AI will help create and recommend more personalized banking products to customers. And retailers are looking to use machine learning sentiment analysis in email, SMS/text, chat and voice interactions between agents and customers to help improve outcomes.

Related Article: How Chatbots Improve Customer Experiences and Increase Efficiency

Improve the Metrics That Matter

The McKinsey article cited earlier reports that a 2016 survey of customer-care leaders found that “57 percent of executives consider call reduction their number-one priority for the next five years.”

Learning Opportunities

Centers have been investing in customer-facing AI technology solutions to reduce the number of live calls, and to shorten call times and reduce labor costs. Juniper Research forecasts success for AI-enabled bots, predicting that they will save banking and healthcare contact centers nearly $8 billion by 2022.

But improving first call resolution and time to resolution are not isolated measures, and AI is not the only technology that can (or should) be used to improve call center operations.

McKinsey research also tells us that we need to view customers along their journeys if we want to link customer experience with value. The management consulting firm found that journey performance is significantly more strongly linked to positive outcomes than are individual touchpoints alone.

For example, I recently easily placed an online order with a luxury cosmetics company that included a choice of complimentary gifts. The confirming order email come swiftly but did not include those gift choices, so I called the customer contact center. The prompt and personable agent proceeded to tell me that she gets that question a lot but unfortunately, she added, she would not be able to see my online order for 45 minutes, so she asked if I could please call back. I did. Each of my steps in each channel went well, but the journey did not go smoothly.

Clearly, AI efforts alone that treat rising call volume symptoms would not have addressed this root-cause problem. How then can contact centers attack the problem?

What Lies Beneath Customer Experience

What is needed is unifying technology that lies beneath, technology that provides an integrated 360-degree view of the customer that gives agents, even our AI and AI-informed agents, the journey context they need for successful customer interactions — across touchpoints, channels, systems and transaction history. That technology is case management.

In a June 2017 report for his firm’s clients, Gartner analyst Michael Maoz admonishes us to place case management at the core of our customer engagement centers:

“The call center has morphed into a customer engagement center, with multichannel support and event- and model-driven case management capabilities at the core.”

Those familiar with my previous articles in CMSWire know I agree with Gartner! I have been a raving fan of using case management to improve customer experience for some time. This technology can ensure that the human or humanoid touch results in loyal and delighted customers. With case management, contact centers can achieve a unified view of the customer and support complex interactions to help agents reach resolutions faster, the first time, every time.

Related Article: How Machine Learning Can Raise the Bar in Customer Service

Tell Me What You Really Really Want

I recall a conversation I had some years ago with a Gartner case management conference panel of customer service leaders. When I asked, “What’s most important for your contact center operations?” one vice president quickly replied, “It’s all about respecting our customer’s time!”

True then, true now. As the “timeless” lyrics of the pop song "Wannabe" tell us (yes, I am actually quoting the Spice Girls), what we ”really really want” is quite simple:

Now don’t go wasting my precious time
Get your act together we could be just fine

That’s a good lesson for humans and humanoids alike.