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AI in the Contact Center: Improving the Human Touch

Artificial intelligence (AI) may be the hottest topic in IT today.


This is certainly true for contact centers, where vendors are positioning the technology as something that will completely revamp customer engagement. Over the past few years, this has led to a rise in AI-infused virtual agents, bots, and other “machines” that interact with people. For one of the best examples of this, watch this Google Duplex example, shown at the 2018 Google Next show, of an AI-based virtual assistant making a call and booking a hair appointment.





This got the creative juices flowing, and industry people started theorizing about how this technology could replace human contact center agents, which would save companies millions of dollars in labor costs. This, in turn, certainly raises the question of whether AI is at a point where it can replace people in such an important role.


This very topic came up last week at Five9’s second-annual industry analyst event. Going into the event, I believed that AI should become part of the contact center but shouldn’t be customer-facing, at least not yet. The perspectives I heard at the event solidified that opinion.


During his keynote, CEO Rowan Trollope quoted Five9’s new CTO and head of AI, Jonathan Rosenberg, as stating: “Machines bring mastery and humans bring heart.” This means that no matter how smart machines are and how quickly AI can connect data points, business-to-customer interactions still require the human touch to be effective. People have feelings and empathy and we are a long way from having those things not matter during interactions.


It’s widely believed that, in the digital era, customer experience (CX) is becoming the top brand differentiator, trumping incumbency, price, and all other factors. CX often starts with a text, call, or chat with a contact center agent. I can’t get into any specifics of what Five9 is building, but I can say it’s looking at ways of infusing AI into every contact center interaction to make agents better than they are on their own. At the event, my fellow No Jitter blogger and TalkingPointz analyst Dave Michels referred to this as an “augmented agent,” and I think that’s a good description of an agent empowered by AI.


The role of AI, at least in the near term, is to be an assistive technology to the agents rather than something that replaces them. Businesses need to understand that every interaction with a customer will do one of two things: either delight the customer and increase loyalty or disappoint and drive the customer to a competitor. AI can arm an agent with the necessary information to ensure the former happens far more often than the latter.


Often with contact center, interactions fail to please the customer not because of the agent but because of a disconnect between what information the agent has and what the customer expects. For example, a customer typically has to feed a bunch of data into the contact center before talking to an agent -- punching a card number using the keypad or speaking a flight number into an IVR system. When the agent finally gets on the phone, the customer often has to repeat all this information. While it’s true that the move to an omnichannel contact center can take care of identifying a customer and provide some data, AI can take this to the next level. Omnichannel is table stakes for all vendors and differentiation will come from new experiences created by a combination of data and AI.


For example, an AI-infused contact center could feed the agent ideas on how to respond to a customer inquiry or complaint. I might be calling my wireless provider about a problem with my mobile phone. The AI can look through all the data about it, notice that I recently rebooted the phone and upgraded the operating system, and tell the agent to skip those steps.


You could argue that a virtual agent or chatbot could just as easily make that recommendation, and you’d be right. However, recall that every interaction will either increase loyalty or possibly drive the customer away. AI technology isn’t perfect and anyone who has ever interacted with a bot or robot has experienced a situation where the machine recommends something that makes no sense at all.


Here’s where the combination of the augmented agent shines. If agents receive recommendations or data that make no sense in context, they can simply ignore them and deal with the customers as they would have without the AI. Customers are none the wiser about what has happened in the background. But had the recommendations been directly customer-facing, the experience would have been negative. Too many of those, and the company can say adios to the customer.


The combination of AI-based expertise with human experience and understanding will create those experiences that delight, not just one or the other. The AI can make an agent smarter and react faster but, ultimately, the agent has the intuition as how to best handle a customer.


As an analyst, I’m lucky in that I get to see a lot of emerging technology and I’ve heard numerous contact center vendors discuss AI. To date, Five9’s Rosenberg delivered the most complete and broad vision, with the best examples I’ve seen. Again, I can’t share any specifics at this time, but I can say that this area might be the most exciting to watch in the communications industry. Trollope started the event by saying something to the effect of “the contact center industry will change more in the next five years than it has in the previous 25” and much of that evolution will come from AI.


Business leaders, contact center managers, and anyone else that cares about customer experience should be interested in AI. However, they should also be careful to use it the right way. AI can make agents better, smarter, and ultimately more human, which is better for customers than yelling into their phones at a machine to find them a real person with whom to talk.


You’ll surely hear more on AI in the contact center at Enterprise Connect 2019, kicking off on Monday, March 18, in Orlando, Fla. Check out AI-related programming here, and tune into a No Jitter On Air podcast episode previewing the Monday morning “Contact Centers 2022” session that will explore where to draw the line between automation vs. AI-assisted humans in the contact center.


And if you’d like to hear about Five9’s vision for yourself, check out the Wednesday morning mainstage panel to hear Trollope’s perspective on why customer engagement is leading the enterprise communications conversation. You can visit Five9 on the Expo floor, in booth 1700, as well.


If you haven’t yet registered, don’t miss out! Register today, and take advantage of a $200 discount you’ll receive as a No Jitter reader by entering the code NJPOSTS upon checkout.