How AI Can Make the Holidays Bright

WRITTEN BY KELLY KOELLIKER

Challenges and Priorities Survey

The winter holidays aren’t always “the most wonderful time of the year” for the contact center. Time-off requests and spikes in call volume, especially in the retail industry, can bring forecasting and scheduling headaches that rival those induced by too much eggnog at the office party.

New technologies powered by artificial intelligence (AI) can change all that. The following are three ways that recent algorithmic and robotic advances can make the holidays merry for even the most stressed-out contact center manager.

1. Deploy AI for Tighter, More Accurate Forecasting

Full-time contact center workers are likely to request more time off during the holidays and, given the modern workforce’s expectations of work-life balance, smart contact center managers should strive to accommodate those requests as much as possible. New AI-powered forecasting systems can make the process easier.

In addition, today’s gig economy has made short-term workers plentiful and more readily available for contact center work than ever before. The challenge is how to use them efficiently in a way that truly fits your holiday workload reality and the time-off requests of your permanent workers. Automated scheduling solutions can intelligently pinpoint exactly when and where additional staff is needed.

How do they do it? Historically, contact center managers have used a variety of algorithms to predict staffing by running through a variety of intelligent equations to select the best model built on actual experience in years past. How many calls and chat sessions did the contact center handle during the holidays? Where were the peaks and valleys? How many employees took vacation time? How many called in sick? Who is available now, and what skills and channels do they offer? The new tools can take all these factors into account for building an optimal holiday schedule. It’s the difference between a two-dimensional spreadsheet schedule and a fully rounded, 360-degree one based on customer interaction volumes across all channels.

Employees are part of the scheduling process as well, from submitting availability and preferred scheduling to interacting with an app throughout the day to voluntarily take time off in overstaffing situations or pick up overtime, if necessary.

2. Get Peak Performance from Seasonal Workers

If you do bring in seasonal workers, you can’t afford to spend weeks training them to get them up to speed. You also might expect some of them to work from home. When they’re on a laptop at their kitchen tables, they won’t be seated next to an experienced co-worker to whom they can turn and ask questions.

All the more reason, then, for new knowledge management systems that leverage AI to serve up—quickly and accurately—the information your workers need to answer customer questions. With AI tools, new employees don’t have to understand everything about your company or its products. Once they know the basics about using your system, they’ll get the answers themselves. Today’s tech-savvy generation of younger workers is very comfortable working that way.

The AI tools can anticipate the best next steps in a process, so workers have a virtual guide working alongside them. And managers have stronger tools for coaching. Automated quality management tools can now listen to 100% of calls to the contact center, analyze such things as whether agents expressed the proper greeting or asked the customer if they could put them on hold before doing so. They help managers to quickly sleuth out how agents—particularly those who are new to the job—are performing.

Speech analytics are also part of the new automation and AI advances in workforce management. They can watch for keywords like “cancel” or “bad” in customer-agent interactions and quickly warn managers when and where such negative trends are occurring. They can also make sure that workers are saying all the things they need to say for compliance purposes when working with customers, even down to how clearly these vital words and phrases are being pronounced and understood by customers.

3. Consider Hiring Seasonal Robots

A lot of contact center work is repetitive. Why not consider Intelligent Virtual Assistants (IVAs) to offload some of it, especially during the busy holiday season? Where’s my package? How do I return this item? Does the retail outlet near me accept returns of items ordered online? These are some of the often-repeated customer questions that IVAs and self-service voice and chatbots powered by conversational AI can answer.

AI platforms use natural language processing (NLP) to anticipate what customers are trying to ask a chatbot and to find the right answer quickly. Customers can ask questions in conversational terms without having to comply with a specific business-defined format or keyword set. They can get the answers they need even if there are spelling errors or key details are left out.

IVAs can even tailor their conversations through context by accounting for the customer’s identity, history with the organization, preferences and engagement channel.

Companies are using IVAs to achieve deflection in live-chat volume as high as 80% or more, and dramatic reductions in contact center staffing costs. Indeed, the “conversational future” is today, with customers interacting naturally through conversations via digital channels, including the web, mobile, social media and communities, instead of using clunky self-service forms and menus which, thanks to NLP, are becoming a thing of the past.

One caveat, however: Sometimes chatbots can be detrimental to customer experience if they don’t perform correctly. Some do rely on keyword matching rather than the conversation experience that AI makes possible. Success is more than a matter of saying, “Let’s slap on an IVA.” Speech analytics tools can play a role here, too, by providing a clear view of which processes and which customer questions are the most likely candidates for automation.

Benefits Beyond the Holidays

At a recent user conference held by the B2B tech company for which I work, a customer gave a powerful presentation on managing call volumes related to promotions and aligning capacity to respond appropriately. His challenges were much the same as those of contact centers striving to meet holiday demands, and he used AI-powered workforce management solutions to meet them. He built an accurate forecast and employed temporary workers and IVAs in a blended, hybrid workforce approach to fill the new staffing schedules.

My point is that new automation and AI technologies don’t just offer benefits during the holidays. You might let your seasonal contact center workers go after January 1st, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent good-bye. If you have a promotion scheduled for spring, for example, you can send a text or email to your new pool of gig workers, fit them into your schedule and ensure that they are equipped with the information they need to get the job done.

In addition, new mobile apps let permanent and temporary staff check their schedules on-the-go, request a schedule change or trade shifts with co-workers, all subject to the decision of the manager, who can approve or deny the changes within the same apps. Whether it’s handling the holiday rush or responding to other spikes in call volume throughout the year, these new technologies make it easier for contact centers to “play” in the gig economy—leveraging its benefits by being just as nimble and tech-enabled as the young workers you hire.

Kelly Koelliker is the Director of Content Marketing for Verint Systems, Inc., The Customer Engagement Company. With more than 15 years of marketing and sales experience, Kelly’s expertise in the customer service industry covers fast-evolving categories as knowledge management, natural language search and CRM.