2021 Outlook: AI, Knowledge Automation and the Evolving Role of Remote Agents



Already experiencing pandemic change, contact centers can expect even more in 2021, at a more rapid pace. Call and ticket volumes continue to rise, and the remote workforce will remain, at least partially, distributed as the new norm. As CX organizations continue adapting, some are still second-guessing critical technology decisions, which can cause additional friction for customers and potential burnout of their remote workforce.

We can all admit now—the pandemic really just exaggerated the challenges contact centers have been facing for many years. Some made the necessary strides to achieve a digital-first mindset focused on helping more customers. But even with omnichannel expansion and AI adoption, they could not overcome unprecedented ticket volumes in 2020. According to Harvard Business Review, the percentage of “difficult” customer inquiries more than doubled when the pandemic began, reaching a staggering 20%. It’s clear the pandemic only heightened expectations from customers to interact with live human agents.

As we enter the post-pandemic era, contact center experts shared in a recent Contact Center Pipeline article, “COVID-19 Impact: Recalibrating Human and AI Roles,” the key challenges for the industry:

  • Many orgs are still trapped in a traditional, prolonged approach to implementing new technical solutions and processes.
  • Those that sought a digital transformation favored customers and neglected agents—i.e., simplifying and accelerating the customer’s ability to find information or complete some processes faster than agents.
  • Omnichannel tools opened the floodgates for customers to connect, yet left agents trapped in information silos.
  • AI, chatbots and IVAs meant more customers could connect with brands, but trust in chatbots is extremely low due to accuracy issues.

As CX organizations continue adapting, technology decisions are becoming increasingly critical to reducing friction for customers and avoiding remote workforce burnout. Even proponents of a digital transformation experienced pitfalls, such as an omnichannel approach that favored speed and sacrificed accuracy.

As more customers connect with more agents across more channels, agents are left to time-consuming modes of finding information across content silos, without the benefits of being able to tap the shoulder of a colleague for help.

In 2021, contact centers must start considering the NEXT normal, as it’s abundantly clear customer service orgs will need to adapt to these new realities by addressing that core issue.

Paul Stockford of Saddletree Research states it best: “The industry should automate immediately. I’m referring specifically to AI-enabled intelligent agents for both customers and 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 Solution Lies in Transforming Knowledge Management

At the start of the pandemic, Gartner correctly attributed efficiency failures in remote contact centers to a lack of knowledge management. Now, according to CCW’s recent market study, customer services orgs view knowledge management as one of the key ingredients for tomorrow’s contact center, with over 53% of companies rethinking new strategies for KM (CCW Market Study: State of Contact Center Technology, p.9).

According to Gartner, through 2022, many Artificial Intelligence initiatives will fail due to the lack of established knowledge management (KM). AI solutions require a source of knowledge, and KM addresses this need by providing a centralized repository of structured information from across the enterprise.

While providing a means to store and centralize company information is critical, that’s just the first step. We’ve all faced the same annoying scenario—trying to remember the exact title of a presentation and endlessly searching a content management system to no avail. Storing docs on a shared drive and memorizing keywords just won’t cut it if you plan to be serious about improving knowledge management.

In the end, it’s not just about centralizing company information. It’s really all about the level of access to that information. That’s where AI comes in.

By analyzing search or message intent, AI can automate knowledge retrieval by recommending the right answers, thus circumventing the core issue and truly augmenting the agent’s ability to understand and help the customer quickly.

Knowledge Automation Will Power the NEXT Normal

With AI and knowledge automation, CX organizations can eliminate the remaining friction between customers and agents, drastically improving the efficiency and quality of your remote workforce in 2021. Let’s review a few ways this can happen…

Embed Knowledge Automation in Self-Service Portals to Automatically Deflect More Interactions

81% of customers try to resolve an issue themselves before reaching out to customer support. However, most of the self-service portals have a limited search and an overload of content, which naturally leads to clients giving up and filling out a Contact us form. And while most customers expect businesses to respond to their emails within hours, keeping up that level of service is very challenging.

However, with the latest developments in AI and automation technology you can seamlessly deflect inbound emails simply by having a powerful recommendation engine connected to your Contact us form.

The support team at a Fortune 1000 company recently integrated knowledge automation into their customer-facing FAQs and webforms. By surfacing the right information prior to form submission, the company now successfully deflects 20% of their inbound interactions while providing a much better customer experience.

Integrate Chatbots with Knowledge Automation to Enable Complex Decision-Making

Although people prefer chatbots to any other digital methods of communication, only around 16% have a positive experience with them. That’s because just like real agents, virtual assistants need a reliable knowledge backbone to support them. As our search habits become more complex standard chatbots are failing to keep up with them.

However, new breakthroughs in knowledge automation enable chatbots to be connected to much more robust FAQs and even full documents. Your chatbot can learn to suggest answers to more complex questions by simply using your existing content and connecting it to a knowledge automation technology.

Agent Assist Technology Aids in Training and Quality Assurance

Innovative Agent Assist guides agents through real-time answers to help to improve performance by quickly surfacing the right knowledge at the right time and place.

With AI-powered recommendations, agents can get real-time suggestions without even leaving the tab on all the channels your customers use to connect with your brand. This cuts the time to agent proficiency by 50% and can compensate for the absence of on-premise coaching and help from supervisors.

For example, a leading automotive company had trouble finding answers to technical questions with agents taking on average 3.5 minutes per call to locate an answer. Upon adopting Agent Assist embedded directly into their homegrown CRM, time to retrieval dropped to less than 30 seconds, driving down handle time on complex questions by 3 minutes per call.

Connect Knowledge Automation to Your IVR

Automatically recommending answers to your agents based on how customers came through your IVR is another easy and effective way to improve the efficiency of your contact center. By passing the caller’s intent to the knowledge automation platform, it can then immediately provide agents with specific information or guided help.

Digital Transformation Starts with Knowledge Automation

As contact centers continue navigating the turbulent nature of the global economy, including the likelihood of near-permanent distributed teams, knowledge automation is a critical first step to solving persistent challenges.

Shorter interactions and accurate resolutions require consistent, reliable information. And when it’s predicted and automatically delivered, agents can skip the arduous search step completely.

Knowledge automation can power company answers across all avenues customers contact support teams, at the pace they’ve come to anticipate. And as customer service organizations continue growing to meet volumes, AI can also help alleviate training and onboarding of remote agents so that they’re up and running even sooner.

For more information on how knowledge automation can transform your contact center into the resource your customers deserve, read the whitepaper “Introducing Knowledge Automation.”

Steve West is Director of Marketing at Shelf, an end-to-end knowledge automation platform powering today’s contact centers with answers. Steve is a product expert in the CX and contact center industries, focusing on the strategic needs of the market and how technology can improve support experiences for businesses, employees, and consumers.