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The impact of conversational AI on critical services

Artificial Intelligence
(Image credit: Image Credit: Razum / Shutterstock)

As communication tools go, the telephone has had possibly the greatest impact on a person’s ability to share information rapidly. Even before the advent of mobile phones, being able to pick up the phone and talk to someone was often the difference between life and death.

In recent years, however, a variety of factors, from evolving generational attitudes towards phone calls, to the economic impact of running large contact centers, have made it harder to dial a number, speak to someone and get or share information. 

From a customer perspective, this can be frustrating. From a critical service perspective, this can be life-threatening. 

The pandemic added a new layer of complexity – the disbursement of workforces. A variety of operators across industries including blue light, government, food, transport and financial services are wrestling with major challenges. Namely, how do they continue to meet the demands of their constituents and users when workforce shortages could curtail the ability to pick up the phone? 

What’s needed is a new way to meet the needs of users while lessening the burden on what are often overstretched, overworked and budget-restricted organizations. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) is expanding at breakneck speed, with the market for AI-enabled software predicted to reach US$125 billion by 2025. Quite often, the focus is on its potential to disrupt entire industries and displace millions of workers – the rise of the machines and the end of humanity, to take an extreme view.

Yet conversational AI could also be a game-changing communication tool for critical service providers. How? By empowering customer service departments and teams with the tools to engage customers efficiently and effectively.

What is conversational AI?

Conversational AI is an umbrella term that refers to multiple technologies, such as virtual assistants and chatbots that engage users using natural, human-like queries and responses.

As IBM explains, conversational AI uses “large volumes of data, machine learning, and natural language processing to help imitate human interactions, recognizing speech and text inputs and translating their meanings across various languages.”

While this description makes it sound like conversational AI will make customer service teams obsolete, it is actually the opposite – if anything, conversational AI will make human teams more valuable. How? By augmenting existing agents’ capabilities whether by automatically translating queries and responses into any language, enabling self-service by signposting to the right tools and portals or responding instantly to requests on any channel.

How conversational AI can help critical services

Conversational AI is helping organizations to provide life-saving services without having to increase headcount – a particular benefit for austerity-hit public sector organizations.

For example, residents could contact their nearest police department through a WhatsApp account to report untoward incidents in the middle of the night without having to make a phone call. A complaint relating to an important utility bill could start on a self-service portal on a bank’s website before being prioritized and routed to a live agent with the right skills and equipped with the right information on the customer’s account e.g. the current situation and any personal requirements the customer has, such as preferred language.

While the way organizations can deploy conversational AI will depend on their specific needs, there are three clear ways in which the majority can benefit:

1. Giving staff more time to focus on complex queries

Customer support teams in sectors like government, finance and healthcare typically spend hours answering routine questions every day. The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation, with the average contact center seeing calls scored as “difficult” rise to 20 percent from the usual level of 10 percent. This means that support agents are handling increasing numbers of complex customer queries, on top of routine messages. Answers for the latter may be simple, but they still take time and resources, which can increase wait times and negatively impact customer satisfaction and service delivery.

Conversational AI provides a way to consolidate responses to the most common customer questions, allowing live agents to focus their attention on customers that need them most.

For example, in Singapore, Ask Jamie, a virtual assistant developed by the Singapore Government in 2014, was updated to respond to questions about pandemic-related topics, such as the latest case counts and social distancing guidelines.

Or there’s Newham Council, which deployed a live chat and chatbot platform to provide self-service for residents with questions about parking. In doing so, it was able to free up the call center to focus on more complex conversations about the area’s parking rules. In six months, the council was able to answer more than 10,000 questions automatically, save 84 hours of call time and generate £40,000 in savings. 

2. Allowing users to communicate on their terms

As previously highlighted, while the telephone was once the main method of getting hold of an organization, a number of factors are leading to a decline in use from both a user and service provider perspective. When it comes to critical services of a sensitive nature, such as those involving personal health, many people may be uncomfortable vocalizing their situations and personal issues to a customer service agent over the phone.

Conversational AI offers a solution to these problems. By deploying chatbots and live chat add-ons across all digital channels, organizations can meet users on the latter’s terms. With the proliferation of communication options, more and more people prefer one method over another, and those organizations that can provide a means of conversing at that point will see better engagement and better outcomes, without necessarily involving contact centers and human agents. 

Of course, that is still an option. But having live chat on the likes of WhatsApp, for example, means organizations can direct users to the right sources of information, help them self-serve or, if necessary, connect them with a human agent. 

This setup gives users peace of mind knowing that they can reveal their personal information only when necessary.

In addition, conversational AI can add value to existing customer service facilities. For example, some platforms automatically translate customer queries and agent responses, meaning a team can appear to be fluent in multiple languages when interacting with users.  

Finally, conversational AI can add value to your customer service facilities. For example, at Futr, our platform automatically translates customer queries and agent responses, making your customer support teams fluent in over 120 languages. 

3. Knowing how users feel before you speak to them

The third benefit of conversational AI is how it can gather data that provides insights and intelligence to support service delivery. 

For example, chat logs can be reviewed for sentiment analysis, with keywords helping quickly establish a user’s mood and feelings. This can help identify the most pressing concerns, both in the specific conversation and the overall relationship with the user and, if necessary, contribute to how problems are resolved.

That same data can also help improve core services. For instance, a police department getting inundated with reports about antisocial behavior in one area of town can quickly deploy additional patrols there. Complaints about bus delays on certain routes can enable councils to take decisive action by adding more buses. 

Of course, using feedback to improve services is not new. Where conversational AI helps is its immediacy – the data from a chat can be instantly shared with the relevant departments, contributing to live resource planning and deployment. 

The future of conversational AI is here

AI certainly can divide opinion. Yet as we navigate a complex, disrupted world, it has a vital role to play in the delivery of critical services. This is not about machines taking over, but about value-adding tools augmenting existing teams to meet user needs. With service providers needing to support users while overcoming a variety of challenges, implementing live chat facilities across multiple channels can deliver an improved experience without putting additional stress on already overburdened organizations.

Andy Wilkins, co-founder and CEO, Futr

Andy is the co-founder and CEO of Futr, a tech start-up providing superpowers to critical support teams across the UK. With a legal and finance background, Andy founded the first international wealth management platform, which he sold in 2015, going on to start an early-stage incubator, Fintecho. Futr was born in 2017 when Andy and co-founder Lee Skyrme saw the massive opportunity to use cutting edge artificial intelligence to transform the way we access public services.