How AI-powered voice assistants are changing the call centre landscape
Your last conversation may have been with a bot. Voice assistants are the new generation of B2C communication.
Voice channels remain the primary way businesses and customers communicate with each other. Take the COVID-19 pandemic. During the height of lockdowns, contact centres for various industries were inundated with calls as businesses paused operations. Companies soon discovered how crucial it was for their phone lines to remain accessible during crises. Call centres need to have the capacity to handle unexpected surges in enquiries, even if they don’t happen often.
According to research from Accenture, customers prefer live interaction when trying to resolve urgent and complex issues. In fact, 58% of customers prefer to solve urgent issues through calls rather than other channels. Moreover, 57% of customers ranked phone support as their initial channel preference, because one can ask questions or explain their situation more clearly.
All things being equal, voice channels are still one of the most effective and accessible modes of contact for people of various ages and backgrounds. The problem is that call centres need humans to man the phone lines, and each agent can only handle a specific number of queries effectively. Scaling up and meeting surges in demand means hiring more people, which may not be easy or cheap to do in extraordinary situations like a global pandemic.
Enter voice-enabled artificial intelligence (AI). Though not new—after all, people have been talking to Siri and Alexa for over a decade—the technology has more recently been making great strides in the customer experience industry. With it, businesses will radically change the way they talk with customers. Whether it’s through interactive voice response (IVR), virtual customer assistants (VCA), or some other solution that is still being developed, Voice AI will soon become an essential part of any contact centre’s toolkit.
The primary advantages of Voice AI are concurrency (the capacity of engaging multiple customers on the phone at the same time) and scalability (the ability to quickly increase and multiply servicing capacity). These two characteristics are what make Voice AI a game-changer for call centres. Instead of hiring additional agents during busy seasons, companies can instantly deploy Voice AI resources to handle a massive influx of calls and inquiries. Contact centres now have the flexibility to quickly scale both bandwidth and efficiency without incurring massive costs.
Call centres can also use Voice AI to screen out and answer simple, repetitive queries. Of the hundreds or thousands of calls being fielded by agents on a daily basis, a large chunk of the volume are frequently asked questions. This is especially helpful when an event—say, a change in government policy—affects a large number of customers, who would typically be calling about the same thing at the same time. By redirecting these types of calls to voice assistants, human agents can be freed up to focus on more complex tasks that bots can’t do.
When Voice AI is unable to respond or satisfy a customer query, it can route the call to the next available agent based on the intelligence it has gathered. The human agent that takes the call can then address the customer’s questions and provide the necessary assistance more efficiently and effectively. This results in a better customer experience, potentially reducing wait times and unnecessary call transfers.
Voice AI can also shave off precious minutes through automation. Data processing, such as transcribing audio calls into text, can be done by AI in real-time through Automatic Speech Recognition. Just automating documentation saves customer service representatives hours of manual labour, which can boost agent productivity.
Contact centres often have a rich database of call recordings. Unfortunately, most of that data just sits in storage, waiting to be uncovered. That’s because voice data is generally more difficult to analyse and use—after all, who has time to listen to hours of recorded conversations? Converting audio into textual data using Voice AI can unlock the value of these recordings. The textual data can be run through analytical tools more quickly, enabling companies to unlock meaningful insights and improve customer interactions.
Even if the recordings are not transcribed, the raw audio data can be used to feed machine learning, which is the process that makes AI smarter over time. By going through the thousands or millions of recorded calls, Voice AI can begin to see (or hear) patterns that may help companies streamline and optimise their processes. One day, Voice AI may even be able to automatically classify and score every call.
For now, IVRs and VCAs are still clunky and awkward. While they have helped businesses deflect simple queries, the customer experience is oftentimes less than enjoyable. In fact, 56% of customers feel that an automated telephone system is the most frustrating element of customer service, particularly when it keeps them from speaking to a human agent, according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022. AI can help customer service to become truly conversational.
As AI capabilities continue to develop, voice bots may soon stand at the front lines of call centres. IVRs and VCAs can gather and provide relevant information to customers in lifelike conversations—much like how human agents ask questions to uncover real issues. This is the holy grail of conversational AI.
Eventually, conversational AI may also evolve to include sentiment analysis of customer conversations. This will be powered in part by tone analysis, which picks up nuances in speech that can signal certain emotions or communication styles. Today, voice bots already use tone analysis data to nudge human agents in the right direction—say, adjust the agent’s tone of voice or choice of words to appeal to the caller. This helps build rapport and a stronger connection with customers, helping callers feel that they are being listened to and understood.
Far from becoming a replacement for human agents, Voice AI will serve as a tool that helps agents do their work better. Aside from taking on the repetitive and sometimes frustrating tasks of standard questions, Voice AI can help guide agents to the right answers. By simultaneously transcribing and processing the call, Voice AI assistants can automatically bring up related resources or options for the next step an agent can take. This makes customer service conversations more seamless and pleasant.
Voice AI assistants can also bring up customer history and other contextual information to help agents address customer concerns more holistically. Agents now have more bandwidth to focus on the customer experience, rather than scrambling to get the right information onto their screen. Streamlining the process also empowers agents to achieve one-touch resolution, which is a win for both the company and its customers.
All these improvements feed into the big contact centre metric—customer satisfaction (CSAT). Whether or not voice AI bots have direct interaction with callers, their contribution to the entire contact centre ecosystem will result in better outcomes all around.