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RetailX Brand Index 2019

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GUEST COMMENT How AI is impacting the role of the retail contact centre agent

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Call centres are the front line of online retail organisations. Increasingly contact centres are adopting Artificial Intelligence (AI) to deliver a personalised, customer driven experience. Diana Bourke from outsourced customer service provider, Echo-U, asks: How is the role of the online retailer’s contact centre agent evolving in the age of AI?


The contact centre provides a fundamental connection between the business and its customers. Particularly in the case of internet retailers, the call centre is often the first point of contact, making it crucial to the customer experience. Retailers and consumers alike are searching for a personalised experience with first contact resolution being the Holy Grail.


AI in call centres is nothing new. In fact, in 2018 Marks and Spencer announced it was automating the routing of all its calls, replacing its contact centre staff with AI.


But what does AI have that a human doesn’t?


AI creates efficiencies. It can deal with a simple customer enquiry by offering self-service options that eliminate the need for human interaction. AI also delivers valuable data to give call handlers information to resolve more complicated enquiries.


Chatbots are an effective method for allowing customers to self-serve, as straightforward queries can be resolved and answered in a simple sentence. Anything more complicated, such as an answer which requires justification or explanation, becomes more difficult for the Chatbot to answer. Great strides are being made with linguistic processing software which will lead to more and more complex queries being answered in this way. But the technology isn’t there yet.


The good thing about AI is that it puts the customer in control which is great for the customer experience. Chatbots allow the customer to either phone in or self-serve via a webchat. The query will initially be handled by a Chatbot, but if it can’t be satisfactorily resolved via the bot then a human webchat operative will take over the conversation. Throughout the entire process, the customer will often be offered a ‘click to call’ option which will allow them to be put through and speak to a human advisor on a priority basis.


On the second point AI software is now being developed to listen to calls and interpret the impact on the customer, such as, if as a result of the call, the customer’s loyalty will increase in the future, and if the customer is dissatisfied, what could have been done differently to resolve the situation.
This means AI is now helping to predict customer behaviour on the phone, providing data in the form of recommendations to the call handler on how best to deal with the enquiry.


At Echo-U we are currently investigating the use of AI to assist with our internal Quality Assurance and compliance processes. Real Time Speech Analytics ensure that from a compliance perspective we are being adherent 100% of the time.


How AI has changed the role of the customer service agent


AI can’t empathise like a human. As AI resolves the more simple enquiries, humans will increasingly be required to handle more complex cases. This requires a different type of agent with a higher degree of knowledge. Gone are the days of call handlers reading from a script.
“CEB research has found that the best type of customer service rep for handling complex customer issues is someone who can take control of the conversation and proactively lead that customer to a mutually agreed solution.”


In order to achieve this, a contact centre needs to embody a culture of empowering its agents with the skills, tools and processes to make the best decision for each individual customer.
An empowered agent is genuinely curious. They are bought into the wider company’s vision and strategy. They have the knowledge to see the bigger picture. They have empathy for the customer and are able to use their initiative to solve the issue.


A culture of organisational transparency empowers its employees to make the difference between resolving an issue and delighting a customer. Which is, after all, customer experience nirvana.
It is important not to forget the new breed of customer service agent handling webchat queries. Where the Chatbot cannot resolve a query, a human will step in, but this interaction is via the written word, not over the phone. This requires another layer of skill to inject personality and compassion into the written word. It is much easier to misinterpret the written word, so these operatives require an altogether different type of training.


What is the right amount of AI?


AI has fundamentally changed the role of the customer contact agent. No longer is reading from a script an effective method of communication. Agents need to be able to empathise with the customer and be empowered to achieve a first call resolution. AI delivers efficiencies and data to allow call handlers to continue to learn and evolve the way they deal with each contact.


Irrespective of the level of involvement that AI has in Echo-U now and in the future, it doesn’t diminish the effectiveness, importance and role of our human advisors using the art of conversation to resolve a complex issue. If anything, it increases the importance of the human interaction as advisors become brand ambassadors.


One size definitely does not fit all. It is about understanding the business and its customers, and creating a tailored solution that is as personal as your customers. It is about matching the customer requirement with the most appropriate solution. This can all be achieved by outsourcing the customer contact function which allows your business to combine the flexibility of a start-up with the experience of an established player, leaving you free to focus on your core business.


Author: Diana Bourke, managing director, Echo-U

Image credit: Fotolia

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