The pandemic has created big changes in the way people shop and engage with businesses. And with the accelerating shift to eCommerce, consumers are reaching out for help more often than ever. Forrester projects that digital customer service interactions are likely to increase by 40% in 2021 as a result of COVID-19 — and asserts that customer service will be a lifeline for tens of millions of consumers impacted by the pandemic. These rapid changes in consumer behavior have many companies exploring how they can use AI to improve customer experience processes.
But is it wise for brands to ramp up or widen their embrace of AI customer service right now? Isn’t it more important to ensure customers can engage with human beings, and not robots, when they need help?
Yes, human interaction still matters in customer service and AI can’t fully replicate it. However, AI can facilitate interactions between customers and human agents and make them better, while taking some of the burden off of the contact center. Strategic use of AI and machine learning technology in customer service processes will enable companies to enhance the overall experience for customers seeking to interact with the business. Here’s how to use AI to make customer service more effective without making it less human.
When a customer reaches out to your contact center — whether it’s to get information, make a purchase, or access customer support — they expect an efficient and productive experience every time. On top of that, they also want to walk away feeling like a valued customer.
How can AI-powered customer service help you meet those expectations? AI can collect mountains of data during every customer call and contact in real time. By analyzing thousands of conversations, it can help you determine exactly why your customers are calling. Are they calling because they had a bad experience online and couldn’t complete their purchase? Are they frequently asking the same questions? Are they current customers who are calling for service after seeing a paid search ad?
With today’s AI-powered conversation intelligence solutions, you can answer all of these questions and get a complete view of your customers at scale. With this information you can provide better experiences on your website, fine-tune your paid search ads, automatically adjust keyword bidding to drive sales calls instead of service calls, and even diagnose and fix broken eCommerce flows. This allows your customers to self-serve online when they want to and call when they need human assistance. This saves your contact center time and money and allows your customers to interact with your company they way they want to.
With a more complete picture of the needs of each customer, your business can deliver increasingly customized interactions. With a call tracking and conversation intelligence solution supporting the contact center, agents get better visibility into the customer journey. They can tell what ad a customer clicked on, what landing page they called from, what products they are interested in, as well as a more complete and accurate history of contact center interactions and purchases.
All of this can help businesses create more streamlined and satisfying customer service experiences. VITAS Healthcare, for example, used Invoca Signal AI to automate call classification and gain deeper insights into customer conversations. By digging into granular data derived from customers’ conversations and call experiences, VITAS was able to better understand callers’ needs and reduce average hold times by three minutes.
Another potential benefit that can result from the use of AI in customer service: more sales. The technology’s ability to gather, analyze and act on big data can help with agent coaching to enable contact center agents to better serve callers and convert more of them into customers.
For many consumers, a defining factor for great customer service is the ability to interact with a brand anytime they want to. But how many businesses can reliably staff a 24/7/365 customer service operation? Not many. Cost-effectively? Even fewer.
As the world becomes increasingly digital, customers are becoming less accepting of limited customer service hours. Take the consumer who receives a late-evening delivery of a package containing an expensive product that has been damaged or has items missing. Do they want to wait until the next morning to contact customer service? No. They want to pick up the phone or start a live chat right away to report the issue and get it resolved quickly.
Luckily, AI doesn’t need to sleep or take a day off. With AI customer service, businesses can easily maintain a customer service operation that covers all the contact center’s off hours. Using tools like AI-powered chatbots, you can provide 24/7 service and gain some backup whenever human agents are working at or near capacity during regular hours.
At the very least, chatbots can gather basic information, assign a case number, and flag the interaction for human follow-up, if needed. The customer therefore gets some level of “on-demand” service and feels better knowing their problem is being solved.
AI-powered customer service chatbots can do many basic but important things, from confirming a customer’s order status to helping a customer request a refund or set up a return. But not all customer service issues are easily addressed through programmed responses. Also, not all customers want to interact with a robot, even if the technology is capable of answering their questions and addressing their needs.
Fortunately, AI-powered chatbots have the capacity to assess whether they can handle a customer’s request, or if the customer needs to speak with a human agent. While not exactly a demonstration of true “empathy,” the AI’s decision to connect a customer with an actual person sends a powerful message that the business cares about its customers’ preferences. It’s prepared to deliver higher-touch service if the automated path proves too limited or is leading to customer frustration.
Ideally, human customer service agents would focus on one customer and one issue at a time. But often, they must multitask, which can easily lead to customer dissatisfaction and a poor customer experience if not handled smoothly. Have you ever contacted customer service and, midway through dealing with your question, the agent puts you on hold for several minutes without explanation? And, when they returned, they weren’t quite sure where they had left the conversation with you? That was probably a multitasking moment.
Many agents must navigate multichannel customer service environments, handling customer requests coming through by email, phone, instant messaging, texting, and live chat. It’s a lot to deal with, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed — especially during peak business periods like open enrollment or the holidays. Of course, peak periods for service and sales are exactly when businesses don’t want their customers to feel neglected or hassled.
Here again, AI customer service can save the day (or the season). AI-enabled chatbots can easily handle multiple inquiries at once, avoiding the need for putting people on hold. That has a double benefit for customer service operations: First, it enables customer service to handle more calls, faster. Second, it frees up human assets to handle higher-value inquiries, such as those that might be turned into additional sales, while AI customer service technology handles routine inquiries or simple requests.
No matter how well-trained and experienced a human customer service agent may be, they are bound to get frustrated with or bored by their work from time to time. Many agents pursue a career in customer service because they enjoy helping people. But some people are just not enjoyable to deal with. Difficult and demanding customers can test the mettle of even the most good-natured reps.
Customer service work can also be boring for agents if they’re dealing with the same types of issues day in and day out. If their work becomes mundane, they might start to make mistakes. Or they may deliver lackluster customer service, which can undermine the customer experience and hurt the brand. They might even decide to quit their job, leading to costly turnover for the business.
AI doesn’t care if a customer is rude or if the work gets routine. AI chatbots will keep on delivering consistent, helpful and friendly responses to customers. They can reduce repetitive manual work for agents and provide quick resolution to frustrated customers (thereby negating their need to even connect with a human agent).
The value of human interaction in the customer service process isn’t in dispute. However, businesses still want to avoid overstaffing (or understaffing) this critical function. With AI call center technology, they can get a better handle on just how many agents they need to employ in their call center, and what times they may need more or fewer team members. (A simple, predictive analysis of call volume trends using Invoca can help bring that information to light.)
AI technology is an investment, to be sure. But it’s one that can deliver operational efficiency and a solid return on investment when integrated appropriately into the enterprise. It has a fixed cost relative to human talent, so you can increase the level of service even when demand outstrips customer service budgets.
AI can improve customer service by increasing efficiency and customization, providing consistent always-on service, helping direct customers to higher-touch service when they need or want it, and allowing businesses to reduce costs and deploy a smarter strategy for the customer service function overall.
That’s a solid list. And it’s important to note that it doesn’t include “completely replace humans.” AI, automation, and robotics are rapidly changing all types of jobs, and estimates vary widely as to how much of an impact they will have on employment, generally. However, it’s doubtful the human element in the customer service experience can ever be fully replaced. People may be satisfied interacting with bots for simple matters. But when seeking help for more complicated issues, and empathetic customer service, they’ll seek the human touch.
As businesses learn how to use AI in customer service, they’ll want to keep that in mind. AI and machine learning are powerful technologies that can help organizations transform how they operate and deliver customer experiences. But when positioned as a complement to human agents — providing them with the support and insight they need to be more effective at helping customers and delivering outstanding experiences — they have even more impact.
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