As the continued spread of COVID-19 disrupts workplaces and travel plans around the globe, customer service centers are experiencing an unprecedented uptick in overall call volume. This week, travelers looking to modify their itineraries with Canadian airline WestJet experienced waits in excess of 10 hours. Banks and credit card companies, including Capital One, are seeing longer-than-average hold times, with some customers reporting disconnections. And Google warned Google Store customers to expect “longer than usual” wait times as a result of precautionary health measures that have the company operating with a limited team.
As customer representatives are increasingly ordered to work from home in Manila, the U.S., and elsewhere, some companies are turning to AI to bridge the resulting gaps in service. The solutions aren’t perfect — there’s always going to be a need for human teams, even where chatbots are deployed — but COVID-19 has accelerated the need for AI-powered contact center messaging.
LivePerson, a global tech company that develops conversational commerce and AI software, says it has observed “significant” increases in volume on its conversational platform, which is used by over 18,000 brands, including Sky, IBM, Vodafone, Virgin Atlantic, and RBS. Overall conversation volume has jumped by about 20% since mid-February, with verticals like airlines and hotels experiencing 96% and 130% climbs, respectively.
“We are at all-hands-on-deck status helping brands enable their contact centers to work remotely to meet the demand on messaging platforms as voice call hold times skyrocket,” a LivePerson spokesperson told VentureBeat.
Directly, a startup developing a platform that leverages AI trained by subject matter experts to analyze contact center interactions, says it has also had to make “significant” service adjustments for clients like Microsoft, LinkedIn, Airbnb, Autodesk, Samsung, and SAP in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Businesses are looking for solutions that will allow them to solve customer problems while also ensuring the safety of their workforce through appropriate social distancing measures, and we are part of their plans to leverage all available resources, including AI, experts, and agents,” the company told VentureBeat via email.
On the one hand, injecting more AI and automation into customer service is business as usual. Even before the pandemic, autonomous agents were on the way to becoming the rule rather than the exception, partly because consumers prefer it that way. According to research published last year by Vonage subsidiary NewVoiceMedia, 25% of people prefer to have their queries handled by a chatbot or other self-service alternative. And Salesforce says roughly 69% of consumers choose chatbots for quick communication with brands.
But AI isn’t likely to replace human agents entirely — as recent developments have shown, it’s far from a perfect science. Twitter and YouTube said this week that as they increase their reliance on AI moderation, content might be flagged or taken down by mistake, and Facebook’s decision to more widely deploy its content-moderating AI almost immediately resulted in the blocking of legitimate posts and links.
That’s why LivePerson asserts that we will always need a human workforce of some kind. “AI typically can handle simple tasks like updating addresses or providing delivery status … [but] we believe the ‘tango’ of bots and humans working together — all in the same conversation — to help consumers is the right approach,” said the company. “New jobs like bot manager and conversation designer are actually springing up … We’ve found that contact center agents are the best people to take on these roles, as they’re on the frontlines taking care of customers every day, and with our tools they don’t need to know how to code to build and optimize bots.”
Directly is in agreement. “[W]e’re [not] close to a world where there will be zero humans in customer service … Different businesses have different needs, and not everything can be automated — even if you have troves of data like Google and Amazon do,” said the company. “What we’re learning in this situation is that all available resources are needed — including a company’s own customers, agents at home, and automation.”
One such example is Contact Center AI, Google’s call center management solution that launched in general availability last November. It offers virtual AI-powered agents that automate basic customer interactions, but it also provides seamless handoffs to human agents through real-time call transcription. Additionally, its Agent Assist feature furnishes live agents with support during calls, including the aforementioned transcriptions, as well as customer intent identification and recommended articles and workflows.
For its part, Directly’s AI-powered answers feature automatically determines which customer questions are best handled by subject matter experts, who provide live assistance over a range of social and messaging channels. CEO Mike de la Cruz claims companies can reduce support ticket volume by up to 80% and cost by over 90% per customer contact, which is substantial, considering that the top 2,000 corporations in the U.S. spend about $250 billion each year on customer support and field about 50 billion customer cases a year.
“The future of contact centers was always going to be AI-powered messaging: Consumers prefer communicating on SMS, WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat, and other messaging channels, and brands see better business results compared to the old world of voice,” said LivePerson. “But this shock to the system will accelerate brands’ embrace of remote contact centers and work-from-home solutions for their agents. Brands that do this will be able to maintain a sense of normalcy throughout periods of crisis because they’ll be communicating on the same channels consumers use to talk to family and friends — without all the mess of routing voice calls to remote locations, where agents are dealing with kids or pets in the background. It’s a huge risk to rely on fixed locations with hundreds or even thousands of people sitting three feet away from each other.”
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