COVID-19 Impact: Recalibrating Human & AI Roles, Part 2


Our three-part series on COVID-19’s impact on contact centers and the shift to more flexible human and automated models continues with a look at the gaps that the pandemic exposed between digital and human service delivery, and the role AI-driven technology can play in contact center recovery and resiliency.

In Part 1 of this series, our panel members shared their insights on top challenges contact centers face in the transition to a post-pandemic service and support model.

Our panel of industry experts for this series includes Chris Arnold, Vice President of Contact Center Strategy, ASAPP; Tom Goodmanson, President & CEO, Calabrio; Tim Montgomery, Founder & Managing Partner, Alamo Cloud Solutions; Toby Parrish, Chief Operating Officer, Televerde; Jen Snell, Vice President of Product Strategy and Marketing, Verint; Paul Stockford, Chief Analyst, Saddletree Research; and Cameron Weeks, Co-Founder & CEO, Edify.

Q. What potential gaps or weaknesses has COVID-19 exposed between digital and human service delivery? How can centers quickly address these issues to ensure short- and long-term recovery success?

CHRIS ARNOLD: COVID-19 exposed that most companies didn’t have enough web, app and chatbot capabilities to contain the voice queue volumes from reaching over 800% capacity and presented consumers with over three-hour wait times. 

To address this, pivot from crisis mode to innovation and review the new digital options that you need to stand up. Also, optimize the digital channels you currently have and make sure all teams are on board with the changes. It’s time for companies to be brutally honest in a retrospective review of why the existing digital capabilities were not able to contain the tsunami of inbound inquiries. The strategy and approach contact centers take now to adjust to the “new normal” will deeply influence their performance in the coming years.

TIM MONTGOMERY: Many organizations were forced to bring their digital and contact center teams into the same conversation. In most organizations, both teams are looking at the same problem, but through a different lens. IT is building customer self-service solutions and the call center is looking for ways to get creative with their legacy call processing tools. The post-pandemic contact center environment will require organizations to create digital strategies from the inside out with a focus on giving our support agents easy-to-use tools, just like the ones we provide to our customers. We often see transactions handled in contact centers that can be easily completed by customers online. Customers can quickly teach themselves how to process routine transactions and get answers to their questions within seconds. But when they come into the call center, that same transaction can take several minutes to process, which takes valuable time away from the customer. Also, consider the training time for the agent—several weeks for agents vs. several minutes for the customer. Our future digital strategies will be even more focused on internal solutions vs. external solutions.

TOBY PARRISH: For Televerde, our transition to readiness wasn’t an issue. Our delivery and performance have actually improved. As an organization with 10 global engagement centers, seven of which operate inside prison facilities, we have robust contingency plans that are always ready to go at any time. We also began to heavily invest in our infrastructure a little more than one year ago and to transform our MarTech stack from homegrown to best-of-breed. These combined efforts enabled us to successfully pivot when we needed to.

In terms of the business community overall, the pandemic was a wake-up call. It exposed a lack of digital readiness across many organizations. Companies weren’t as far along in their digital transformation as they may have thought they were, and that became clear when the time came to pivot and they couldn’t.

To ensure recovery, companies must reinvent their business models and processes—digital-first combined with the human touch. When you bring data intelligence, marketing technology and the human touch together, you can actually accelerate revenue for your customers. Key will be building out your MarTech capabilities to ensure your teams are reaching and interacting with the right decision-makers, while simultaneously freeing them up to collaborate and strategize with your customers. This transforms your contact center into a savvy, forward-looking engagement center.

Smart investments in technology need to become a need-to-have (vs. a nice-to-have) and leaders must commit to going all-in on disaster recovery preparation. Plan and prepare so you can pivot on a moment’s notice.

JEN SNELL: COVID-19 completely changed the trendline on the kinds of questions that customers were asking of brands, especially during the first few weeks. For example, at COVID’s onset, Verint IVA and conversation insights informed our travel client of questions from travelers wondering if their trips were canceled or if there were service interruptions due to the virus.

The same was true for the majority of contact centers, where customer queries suddenly narrowed down to one or two topics but at an unprecedented volume. For example, one of our Cloud IVR customers saw a spike of over 150 million minutes through their voice channel that was supported at scale. However, this shift in customer behavior also left many contact centers scrambling for solutions to scale across their digital and voice channels as well as support their live agents, especially if they were unable to identify the change in customer focus until they were in the midst of a deluge of customer questions.

That’s why it’s so important to be able to detect trends in your customer base as they are emerging. AI-solutions should provide management with insights from live-agent conversations and user interactions so you can update information and content in real-time across all channels, including digital IVAs and voicebots. Being able to identify large customer concerns as early as possible gives your business the time it needs to develop new processes and a cohesive roll-out of responses. It also positions you to beat competitors that are scrambling to retroactively address customer queries.

We were able to work alongside our customers to update their IVAs and natural language voicebots with new knowledge, ideas, actions and natural language understanding intents, so customers and employees could receive quick, personalized resolutions to their questions. From Verint’s conversation insights, our clients were able to glean critical insights and understand customers’ concerns so the solutions could address them quickly and at scale, providing seamless and exceptional service, even through a major disruption.

I would encourage all organizations to discuss with your AI vendor how they ensure their solutions are adaptive for emergent situations and informing crisis responses, just like this one, where new trends of questions crop up and overwhelm a call center if their AI is not supporting both customers and live agents appropriately.

Q. What are the opportunities for contact centers to leverage AI-driven technology to adapt quickly to changing circumstances driven by COVID-19?

CHRIS ARNOLD: We’ve learned to live with immense complexity in the industry. Agents are now more isolated by working from home. That strong peer support in their brick-and-mortar centers, consistent coaching conversations for challenging situations, and limited access to all the systems and tools creates challenges. An artificial intelligence platform can play a huge role in augmenting agents, coaching them—based on results of the center’s best agents—and being their assistant to proactively unearth the right answers and solutions for customers.

Secondly, with machine learning algorithms able to ingest huge volumes of data—whether it’s voice or text—an AI platform can provide critical business insights to identify where a company is missing the opportunity to contain and automate basic transactions that will impact an entire CX organization and help transform its cost structure to become a digital-first organization.

Lastly, an environment where agents can hand off basic tasks to automation and tackle the more difficult customer challenges will ultimately provide the best customer experience. Implementing AI will enable CX organizations to address systemic inefficiency by way of automating the more basic, highly transactional customer needs while augmenting the agent with a modernized, intelligent suite of desktop capabilities for the more complex and emotive interactions.

When a center takes the opportunity to use AI, it can reduce the cost of customers switching to competitors due to poor customer service, which costs U.S. industries $1.6 trillion. AI can prompt the entire agent workforce to say and do the same things as the top 10% of its agents. Elevating the performance of an entire team by closing the typical range of performance also drives significant benefits in customer and agent satisfaction while driving substantial improvements in business objectives. 

TOM GOODMANSON: It has been said so often at this point, but these are unprecedented times, and for businesses, it is hard to navigate without visibility. Running with a gut feeling will not work as it has nothing to be grounded in. AI-enriched technology can offer that visibility and certainty for contact centers. Service teams can act quickly and with data-driven confidence using AI-fueled analysis that aggregate insights from 100% of interactions rather than the 2% that most contact centers manage.

Such an effortless overview of the overall tone and quality of customer interactions allows contact centers to track and respond to changes as they happen instead of playing catch-up later down the line. Using fast, holistic AI indicators allows for near-real-time alerts on the channels, processes or teams that need attention, for instance, if there is a sudden downturn in customer sentiment across a segment of customer communication, you would be able to take a multitude of actions to get them back in line with customer expectations.

JEN SNELL: By leveraging AI-driven technologies like enterprise-grade IVAs across service channels, contact centers have the chance to turn their greatest challenge into their greatest opportunity. It’s no secret that contact centers are facing unprecedented call volumes that have the potential to overwhelm agents and frustrate customers. However, by leveraging an IVA as a part of your organization’s support stack, you can easily scale response to meet the size of the demand.

At Verint, we’ve seen how IVAs can be deployed to meet an outsized demand even before coronavirus. During the 2010 Icelandic volcano eruption, there were worldwide disruptions of flight and travel schedules that led to an incredible uptick in customer queries. Another customer in the travel sector, whose IVA usually handled approximately 25,000 questions per day, answered more than four times the number of questions in a single day during this crisis. Not only that, but the IVA was integrated with the travel company’s fluid scheduling tool, and travelers were able to utilize the virtual assistant to find out the latest updates without calling in or waiting in queues.

IVAs make it possible to answer thousands of questions accurately and simultaneously. During this time, when every customer wants the ability to reach out to brands 24/7 and get answers, there’s nothing more valuable than AI that allows a business to scale their response without needing to increase headcount.

PAUL STOCKFORD: The industry should automate immediately. I’m referring specifically to AI-enabled intelligent agents for both customers and agents—especially WFH agents. On the agent side, intelligent agents, or bots, can supplement in-house training and also act as real-time assistants to agents in terms of gathering and presenting information to agent desktops during a customer interaction. The role of intelligent agents in their ability to assist live agents is being defined in a sort of on-the-job-training scenario. Customer service professionals are constantly discovering ways to improve the agent experience and are increasingly turning to intelligent agents to fulfill those improvements. Replacing a manual knowledge management task with an automated intelligent agent is a good example of how the role of bots will continually expand.

On the customer side, automated intelligent agents were, or could have been, instrumental in handling the tens of thousands of routine calls that were blocked or abandoned because contact centers were overwhelmed with calls following the general shutdown of the country. In those scenarios wherein bots already had been deployed, agents were freed to address complex customer issues, while those customers with basic questions or issues were helped by automation.

With the country’s unemployment rate approaching that of the Great Depression, filing an unemployment claim became a frustrating endeavor for claimants and an overwhelming problem for unemployment call centers trying to answer an unprecedented number of daily calls. A small company in San Francisco called developed intelligent digital agents to assist with this problem and offered them to the public at no charge. In this application, unemployment claimants interacted with an online bot that gathered information from the applicant, created a form that the applicant could print and send to the unemployment via snail mail. Why did this process work? Because the systems processing unemployment claims were put in place during the 1960s and could actually process an old-school printed form faster than an online application?

Automated intelligent agents are available to contact centers of all sizes and there are no technological barriers to delivering these AI-enabled bots. They can be delivered via the cloud to virtually any contact center and have already proven their value in terms of reduction in cost-per-call so payback is immediate and impactful. It’s time for the contact center industry to adopt this AI-driven technology and put it to work.

Part 3 of this series will examine how the acceleration of automation adoption/expansion will impact agent training and development. Also, a look at which AI-powered support tools can add the most value to CX and EX as contact centers navigate near- and long-term recover.