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Adapting to COVID-19: How Virtual Agents Fit In

Gerd Altmann ----pixabay.com2_.jpg

woman surrounded by AI
Image: Gerd Altmann -
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis unfolds across the globe and in our communities, it will likely increase demand for business services while also causing labor shortages.
Call centers are swamped, as anxious consumers look for answers about the virus or attempt to change travel plans, for example. This situation is causing long wait times and dropped connections – preventing callers from getting help when they need it most. At the same time, call centers are short-staffed as agents call in sick or attempt to transition to remote work.
Businesses may now be facing two crises: unpredictable spikes in demand for service and the need to prepare for a potential economic recession.
Conversational artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligent automation (IA) can help businesses remain agile by increasing service availability, backfilling for absent employees, and reducing costs and business risk.
Consider the following examples.
Extending Service Availability
State and local governments, schools, non-profits, and businesses must be ready to support increased call volume and demand for services. Virtual agents, powered by conversational AI and IA, can help by:
  • Providing automated answers to common questions
  • Sending outbound notifications about things like school closures, changes in hours of service, or travel restrictions
  • Enabling customers to report problems and ask for help
  • Scaling on-demand to meet unexpected spikes in service – giving customers access to answers and self-service when a live agent isn’t available
  • Scheduling store pickup — as consumers exercise social distancing, they may be increasingly looking for solutions that allow them to spend less time shopping in stores


Supporting Your Workforce
The current crisis will likely cause some staff members to call in sick, ask for shift adjustments, or transition to remote work. Virtual agents can help you manage these changes in the following ways:
  • Shift-finder services - employees can call an automated sick line that triggers a virtual agent to make outbound calls or texts until it finds someone else who can fill in and notifies management of the change
  • Support work-at-home agents – virtual agents can seamlessly transfer automated self-service calls to live agents as necessary. It doesn’t matter if the live agent is working in a call center, a brick-and-mortar store, or from home, the virtual agent can transfer the call with a screen pop that includes a transcript of the initial conversation.
  • Virtual agents can automate IT helpdesk tasks to assist employees as they set up their home workstations. They can also help with HR-related tasks, such as or FAQs about benefits or outbound notifications regarding schedule changes.
Reducing Costs and Shifting Expenses
With an economic slowdown upon us, businesses will need to deliver quality customer care while also reducing operating costs. Virtual agents can help companies reduce the cost of handling routine inquiries (they typically cost around 10% of the average live agent’s salary, benefits and training, according to our experience) and enable businesses to redeploy valuable individuals to handle more complicated service requests or focus on revenue-generating activities.
Virtual agents that now use speech recognition, natural language understanding, and conversational AI also can help businesses avoid what Boston University’s Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor, calls “so-so” automation. As he explained in M.I.T.’s Technology Review:
“…the best cases of automation are good both for customers and for the workforce. Take a familiar machine, the ATM. ATMs took over certain tasks that bank tellers used to do—hence the name “automated teller machine.” But they didn’t put those people out of work. From the mid-1980s, when ATMs started spreading rapidly, to 2010, the number of human bank tellers actually increased. Why? Because the machines they significantly increase productivity. As banks save money on this one task, they can expand into other areas, Acemoglu says: “They’ll open more branches. They’ll deal with additional problems and offer new services.”
Businesses will also likely focus on delaying purchases and upgrades of costly on-premises software, hardware, and equipment. Instead, they may choose to transfer additional capital costs to operating expenses by adopting software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions that offer pay-as-you-go models. That’s exactly what happened during the great recession of 2008 when service organizations first began the transition to cloud contact center solutions.
Cloud-based virtual agent platforms can help businesses lower development costs, improve productivity, and innovate quickly.
The current crisis will have a profound impact on many businesses. But cloud-based communications, collaboration, and service can help soften the blow. From free online meetings to work-from-home contact center solutions to advanced self-service offerings, businesses have a variety of options for maintaining service, supporting employees, and managing risk during these trying times.