Web Chat: 'Gateway Drug' to AI for Customer Support?

Most of the annoying effort that IVR imposes on customers is driven by the binary nature of its navigation systems. While listening to the fifth prompt in the third level of options, many calls transform from patient pleas for help to aggravated demands -- not a good thing, especially since we have long known that the more effort you impose on a customer the less likely he or she is to be loyal.

As a companion technology, Web chat takes a very different approach to automation. Most Web chat service providers have equipped their solutions with word-spotting technology that supports rudimentary canned responses and some ability to offer agents hints about the topic of conversation. However, the limitations of word-spotting quickly expose themselves to all but the most inexperienced customers and agents. As a result, many of my enterprise customers are beginning to explore the power of enhancing their Web chat solutions with inexpensive artificial intelligence or cognitive computing platforms coming on the market.

For reference, once you implement the “brains” of the cognitive Web chat service, you can expand it to SMS with the addition of an SMS service center or use it on an IVR if natural language processing or speech-recognition interfaces are enabled. Neither of these efforts are plug and play.

Less Effort, More Loyalty
Cognitive engagement technology will enable the customer to reach the information stored at the fifth prompt of the third level on the IVR with much less effort -- and therefore with a much better experience and increased customer loyalty.

Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce, and SAP are among the most notable companies taking advantage of AI and cognitive interfaces. All offer cloud-based processing and can scale from a few concurrent sessions to tens of thousands sessions. Nuance enables the use of speech interfaces for any of these processing platform providers. Genband and Genesys recently announced intelligent interfaces via partnerships in which IBM provides the heavy-lifting. Aspect, Avaya, and Cisco have all published some information about cognitive engagement tools. Many of these vendors are exhibiting at Enterprise Connect in Orlando this week, so if you're attending, seek out their booths get an idea what you can do with this technology.

Relief & Risk
There is one thing about implementing cognitive engagement tools in your contact center that is very important. That is, in most contact centers, you do not have to break anything or turn anything off in order to complete the delivery. For contact center infrastructure managers, this will be a great relief.

This is not to say that there are no risks. Omnichannel solutions vary widely among manufacturers, and Web chat can be part of these solution portfolios. If your current Web chat vendor exposes an API, then you have a chance to reuse your existing Web chat solution. If not, then you may need to replace your existing solution if you want to transform your Web chat interface with cognitive computing capability.

Holy Grail in Bot Form
The industry is evolving quickly. “Bots” seems to be the theme, and I have heard some customers and vendors use the words “chatbots” and “phonebots” to describe these solutions.

A derivation of the theme is evolving in the social media business. Facebook Messenger and WeChat bots (http://venturebeat.com/2017/01/18/how-wechat-bots-are-running-amok/) are two examples. For any size enterprise, such a solution may be a viable option. Given the broad-based success of WeChat bots and Facebook Messenger, this seems to be a great opportunity for small enterprises that do not have architectural restrictions imposed by legacy infrastructure to offer technologically competitive solutions to their larger competitors. In other words, I believe that small, agile enterprises will get their bots to market well before their larger competitors.

Cognitive engagement technology will have the same impact on labor costs in contact centers that IVR had 20 years ago. The idea that you can replace humans with bots without the need for clunky, press-6-for-support interfaces is the new Holy Grail for contact center finance professionals. At least two of my Fortune 500 customers started looking at this technology because their CFOs requested that it be done.

Apple with Siri, Amazon with Alexa, Microsoft with Cortana, and Google with Google Now are leading the charge on cognitive interfaces in the consumer space. The experience transfer to customer service is natural and expanding. I believe that a well-executed cognitive interface can lead to a 60% to 70% reduction in contact center labor cost over the next five years. Given the rapid increase in demand for these solutions, it may be sooner.