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Call centres are increasingly using chatbots to enhance the customer experience

Strategy, Vision and Roadmap 2019, a report published by Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and the Customer Contact Management Association (CCMA), looks at the impact of new and disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced data analytics.

It suggests the growing need for businesses in all sectors to respond to fast-changing customer expectations is one Irish customer contact centres, known as Cx, are well-placed to deliver.

It’s a sector that began with basic, human-to-human telephony. Today, the data generated by Cx activities feed into every aspect of an organisation’s activities, from sales to engineering to logistics.

It’s an area in which Ireland has strong research capability, including dedicated research institutes such as ADAPT, Insight and CeaDAR. CeaDAR, for example, works with Cx companies in areas such as customer analytics, contact centre analytics, text analytics, analytics in real time, social media analytics, location-based analytics and sentiment analysis.

The upshot of all this research activity is a customer experience that is increasingly proactive. Not alone is the company you contact more likely to already know why you are contacting them, but is in fact more likely to be contacting you. The reason it is able to do this, and cost-effectively, is because contacts are increasingly handled by specialist Cx software known as chatbots.

"Chatbots are becoming table stakes in customer service operations. AI offers a whole new plethora of opportunity to 'fix it before it breaks'," says Justin Conry, head of transformation (CRM) at Three Ireland.

“Companies like Bearingpoint offer consulting in what they call ‘predictive failure analytics’ to use big data and AI in order to pre-empt a service failure or issue and trigger a certain set of actions. The more predictive AI we use, the better the service experience should become, at a minimum being able to quickly diagnose the issue a customer is having and fixing it fast.”

It's an area Avaya in Galway, which grew out of Nortel, has a long pedigree in. It has been developing contact centre products, including interactive voice response (IVR) solutions, for 20 years and today is home to one of the country's largest global R&D sites.

“Traditionally, you would have had a person on a phone. Now contacts are coming via social media, chat, email and WhatsApp,” says Shane O’Neill, the company’s product management director.

‘Customer satisfaction’

These new channels suit the company and the customer alike. “Progressive organisations really do care about how they serve their customers better and customer satisfaction is a very important part of growing a business,” he says.

Advances in technology gives organisations a huge amount of data about the customer journey, which typically starts on a website, where a customer is asked if they want to start a webchat.

There are enormous advantages to both customers and companies in bypassing the traditional phone call. For a start, with a phone call, a customer expects resolution on the spot, which can’t always be delivered. By its nature, this can lead to a frustrated customer. Equally, a customer left on hold for long periods can also come away feeling frustrated, even if their issue is resolved.

With chatbots, the time paradigm shifts. You post a question, either by webchat, email or tweet, and are much more prepared to wait for an answer.

It’s a migration that suits younger customers in particular. “Millennials are used to the conversation never ending,” says O’Neill. “With WhatsApp or webchat, I can put down the phone, move around, go make a cup of tea or even come back the next day and carry on from there, because there is context,” he says.

Instead of having to start all over again with each agent, the conversation, who you are as a customer, how you got to this point in your query and the path you took, is all known to the system and, if the issue is “escalated”, so too does the human call centre agent who takes over.

“I’m amazed how many organisations don’t have this ‘context’,” O’Neill says.

‘Successful outcomes’

“This conversational model is being driven by social media. Call centres have traditionally been very strong on data that reported on things such as the productivity and efficiency of call centre staff. The data was used to focus on operational matters. Now, thanks to AI, the focus is on successful outcomes for the customer.”

Previously, call centre success was measured in terms of an operative’s ability to take 15 calls an hour, and a break for five minutes. Hitting such a target enabled a call centre to say it was very productive. “But we don’t know how successful they were in terms of outcomes for the customer,” O’Neill says.

Newer solutions improve the up-front service, freeing customers from being stuck in menu hell and, freeing call centre staff to do more value-added Cx tasks.

“More and more centres are using bots, particularly where the customer is online, to interact with them. The bot will learn over time, to the point where it will suggest an answer based on previous conversations. Bots can even pick up on customer sentiment.”

Apart from obvious use cases, such as reading the terms and conditions required under financial regulation, for example, chatbots can use speech analytics to detect if the customer is getting agitated. If a telco customer mentions the word switch, for example, they can be routed through to customer loyalty.

The software can also provide behaviour matching, perhaps ensuring an older customer is routed to a more mature human call centre agent, where a millennial might be more comfortable dealing with a bot.

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times