Friend or Foe? Why Robots Are Shaking Up The Call Centre

Automation is inevitable, but does it necessarily mean redundancies?  Joseph Kenny, Vice President Global Customer Transformation at ServiceMax from GE Digital considers the impact of AI on call centre environments       

“Let’s play a game of rock, paper, scissors,” says Sophia, a disturbingly realistic robot talking to Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon. She wins the game, smiles and then says it’s a good start to her plan to dominate the human race. “I’m just kidding,” she adds smiling, her eyes narrowing, the skin creasing, the audience laughing.

Sophia is a social robot, designed to interact with people, to recognise visual images and react. Social robots have been around for a while now and are steadily improving. The Pepper robot from Softbank-owned AIdebaran, for example, was initially designed to engage customers in retail, banking and showroom environments. It uses AI to learn from the sort of questions people ask it, and the developers can learn how best to improve and deploy the technology to enhance experiences.

Building understanding and empathy into robotic systems is challenging. It’s far from fool-proof at present, although this is not stopping some companies from pursuing automated chatbots, such as Bank of America’s Erica and Pizza Hut and Renault with robots for use in customer call centres and showrooms. Developing natural conversation has proved tricky but as the pursuit of AI continues, this will of course change.

Google’s Duplex is an example of this and how it is building conversational nuance into the machine – see the Google Duplex demo of a real call being made to book a haircut and a table at a restaurant – using naturalistic human utterances and connectives. What this means is that we are now starting to witness realistic, engaging machines that sound like humans and not synthesisers. They have the ability to perform simple tasks, react to subtleties in conversations and if needed, in the case of Sophia at least, even look a little like humans. AI has now reached the ability to pass the infamous Turing Test. Developed by Enigma code-breaking British scientist, Alan Turing, this is the test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour that’s indistinguishable from that of a human.

So, what does this mean to the future of call centres and its employees?  According to an IBM and Forrester report Customer Service Trends: Operations Become Smarter And More Strategic, a lot of emphasis is being place on pre-emptive customer service. The report highlights that intelligent agents will anticipate customer needs by context, preferences, and prior queries and will deliver proactive alerts, relevant offers, or content. It’s also an agent that is always-on and will never ask for a holiday or a coffee break.

Understandably, many businesses will look at the potential cost savings. Call centre staff need on-going training and benefits. Intelligent chatbots only need training once and learn continuously from each other, in real time. This has significant cost implications for businesses that will want to reduce headcount. Should call centres retain humans for more complex tasks, using the technology to manage the more routine and often mundane calls – at least until technology catches up?

What is clear is that this is an area of the business where experimentation with robotic automation is risky. Customer service is increasingly crucial to profitability. As a Business Insider Customer Service Report revealed, 66% of US consumers are willing to spend more money with a company that provides them with excellent customer service. While chatbots can certainly help with some interaction and predictive analysis, is it too soon to risk customer service quality by handing it over to automation? Using technology to augment human customer service agents, and improve access to data, information and issue resolution is a reasonable first step.  Over time, as and if technology advances to the point where it passes the Turing Test, the role of human agents may decrease – but we are not there yet.

So, what does this mean to the field service community?  Human emotion will continue to shape contact centre engagements and although chatbots can try to replicate this, limitations will also remain. While there may be some redundancies in the sector – this is almost inevitable as AI improves and integrates with chatbot technology – field service will demand a mix of human and machine resources for the foreseeable future. As field service technicians drive the quality of service for consumers and business, so they will need a mix of human and machine support. What this points to is a more complex and transitional contact centre environment where AI chatbots complement – rather than compete – with our service teams in the field

For businesses to maintain customer service and field service quality, for the foreseeable future, this will be necessary. In theory at least, machines will enable human skills to flourish. Field service technicians will be more empowered to focus on their specific roles and contact centre staff will enable greater focus, direction and management, if not the initial contact itself. The robots are definitely coming but that doesn’t necessarily mean all contact centre staff have to run and hide just yet.

Joseph Kenny is Vice President Global Customer Transformation at ServiceMax from GE Digital