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Leveraging AI in the next generation contact center

Customer service
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/lenetstan)

As we emerge from the shadow of Covid-19, businesses have an opportunity to rethink their contact centers and set themselves up for long-term success. If the priority in 2020 was rapid adaptation and survival, the focus for 2021 and beyond should be on reinvention in order to meet a vastly different set of customer expectations.

By looking forwards and truly embracing the potential that a digital-first contact center offers, businesses can take their customer service operations to the next level. Perhaps more importantly, they can give themselves a competitive edge that will keep their customers coming back for more.

At the core of this opportunity is artificial intelligence (AI). According to a 2020 customer experience benchmark survey, 52 percent of businesses said they will be using AI and automation to improve customer service. What’s more, 66 percent said they use at least one AI channel, up from 50 percent in 2019. 

Businesses are recognizing that the transformational power of AI goes well beyond the typical self-service bots. From customer contact routing to the agent experience, contact center operations will never be the same. 

Research firm IDC found that the early adopters of customer experience-centric AI have seen a 25 percent increase across core performance metrics, such as customer satisfaction and cost of service. It has quickly become clear that AI can be a catalyst for change in the contact center, creating real and lasting improvements to drive the next generation of customer service.

Demystifying AI 

The first step in capitalizing on the promise of AI is understanding exactly what it is. Many people envision AI as being one monolithic piece of software, whereas it actually refers to a combination of components and capabilities. These most commonly include natural language processing (NLP), machine learning (ML), and automation – all of which come together to bring AI-powered tools and services to life.

These capabilities play key roles in the delivery of a superior customer experience. For example, NLP helps computers analyze text and speech so they can deliver a natural and accurate response. This enables tools such as virtual assistants and chatbots to engage, understand and respond to customers in a human-like way, as well as use contextual clues to measure customer sentiment.

This ability for AI-powered chatbots to be truly conversational and understand the nuances of the human language is underpinned by ML technology. Machine learning involves analyzing huge volumes of data to identify patterns and predict outcomes, enabling programs to learn over time and deliver a more accurate and efficient service. Machine learning provides the foundation for an intelligent bot that can engage customers in a more natural way compared to previous generations of tools.

These capabilities – supplemented by automation, which can empower agents by handling the more repetitive and mundane tasks –all play key roles within forward-thinking contact centers.

From providing fast answers to simple customer queries via chatbots, to identifying customer sentiment by analyzing interaction data in real-time, the opportunities are extensive for businesses to reimagine how they deliver customer service through AI. This is what will enable them to build stronger, more authentic connections with customers in an increasingly digital world.

New possibilities

One of the biggest recent catalysts for AI, particularly throughout 2020, has been the growing preference for digital and self-service channels. According to the 2020 customer experience benchmark survey, 8 in 10 consumers are more willing to do business with companies that offer integrated self-service options. It is therefore no surprise that 67 percent of consumers now use AI for customer service, up from 46 percent in 2019.

In today’s digital era, businesses must be prepared to engage with customers on the channels they want and deliver the experience they now expect. With both interaction volumes and consumer demands increasing, AI is proving invaluable in helping businesses keep pace with these contact center trends and deliver better customer care.

For example, the application of NLP and machine learning are transforming frustrating menu-driven Interactive Voice Response (IVR) tools into truly conversational Interactive Virtual Assistants (IVAs) across voice, chat and social. These platforms move beyond asking customers to select from a long list of options. Instead, they can speak or type naturally, before being routed to the most appropriate agent who knows exactly what the customer is enquiring about. This ensures more accurate routing, decreases average handle times, boosts productivity and – most importantly – delivers a superior customer experience.

AI also has a key role to play when it comes to assisting and supporting human agents. AI-powered bots can be used to gather customer information in real time, which can then be flagged to agents to ensure quicker and more effective agent-assisted interactions. These AI-powered bots essentially act as agent "co-pilots", advising agents about the next best action for specific situations and performing some of the more mundane administrative tasks.

It is clear that AI is already transforming customer service – and this is just scratching the surface. From increasing agent effectiveness, to reducing operating costs and driving customer satisfaction, AI can deliver tangible improvements to any contact center. By building a roadmap to harness the potential of AI across the customer service function, businesses can elevate the customer experience and take their contact centers to the next level. Those that do, will be the ones that thrive in the new digital era.

Paul Jarman, CEO, NICE CXone