Saving the World from Call Centers

Artificial intelligence (AI) is clearly going to play a role in communications and collaboration in the coming years. Most of the heavyweights in the tech industry are touting their AI capabilities, from the best-known example -- IBM's Watson -- to the AI capabilities from Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon for layering into applications and services in their spaces. You don't have to be a utopian dreamer to recognize that the technology is constantly improving, and to see the opportunity for enterprise communications to leverage this technology.

That was the premise for the session we did on Wednesday afternoon at Enterprise Connect Orlando in March. We brought together experts from across the spectrum of companies either building or leveraging AI capabilities to explore what AI can do today, and what it promises for the future of communications and collaboration.

One part of the discussion that's really stuck with me was the answer to the final question posed by my co-moderator for the session, Brent Kelly of KelCor. After an extensive conversation about what's being done with AI and analytics today, Brent asked this question of our panel (Barry O'Sullivan, CEO, AltoCloud; Carl Baptiste, SVP, UC and Enterprise Solutions, Genband; Rishi Vaish, VP for Watson Work, IBM; and Kris Hopkins, Chief Product and Strategy Officer, CaféX): "What's your 'moon shot?'" In other words, where do you think this technology could be headed, as it applies to communications and collaboration? What's the scenario where you see AI fundamentally transforming something about communications?

This is how Barry of AltoCloud answered: "We want to save the world from call centers."

He said he envisions a world in which we can build a "super-scalable journey manager" that can predict who, when, and how you should communicate with someone... and that's useful to the business and customers.

"And," he added, "if that means I never have to call the cable company and wait on hold and press 1 for this and press 2 for that, I for one welcome our new robot overlords."

As Brent noted, having the cable company reach out to you as a customer to proactively resolve problems would be a nice (and technologically quite feasible) early step. You can think ahead to how Internet of Things (IoT) can play into customer service, as contact center analyst Sheila McGee-Smith, of McGee-Smith Analytics, discusses in this No Jitter post, and see abundant possibilities for the future.

On one level, this doesn't look like a moon shot at all: Call center technology is already evolving to embrace multichannel and omnichannel support so customers can interact with agents in the ways that they prefer. CRM integration helps the agent understand why the customer is contacting the enterprise. Chatbots may be able to offload some work that's currently being done by agents, and augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and IoT technologies promise to alter the physical nature of the interaction between agent and customer. Few of these technologies are as widespread or mature as their proponents might like to suggest -- yet. But the evolution is under way, and is unlikely to slow down.

But moon shots start with space shots -- sending a man (or a monkey or a dog) up in a rocket and bringing them right back down. Then you get someone into orbit... and so on, until you plant the flag in a place that your ancestors never dreamed a human would visit. And the entire process ends up taking less than a generation.

So the cutting edge of contact center technology today may be more Gemini than Apollo. But contact centers are where customer experience meets hard ROI for communications implementations, meaning business cases will emerge and enterprises will be motivated to pursue them.

It may be farfetched to imagine that people won't be needing to talk, one on one, voice-only, with a customer service agent located remotely. But it's not farfetched to imagine a world in which that particular scenario only happens when it's truly the optimal way of solving the problem at hand.

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