The Age of AI is upon us – seemingly everywhere at once. What does it mean for the contact centers, which are part of a $500-billion-a-year marketplace that’s expected to grow to nearly $750 by 2030?

How will the business model evolve? What is the best use of AI in call centers? Is the human touch of customer service a thing of the past?

James Wood, SVP of Solutions Architecture at Interactions, examines the impact of AI on customer service, its effect on CX and revenue, and how it’s shaping the future of work in contact centers.

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Q: Generative AI has the power to transform how we do business. How should it be utilized in contact centers?

JW: Generative AI can be a great asset for contact centers. It can offer tremendous benefits (below) and a level of sophistication that’s critical when you’re at the escalation point. But it’s equally important that this technology is applied carefully. A negative experience at a critical point can have severe implications for your relationship with the customer.

Q: How would Generative AI integrate with existing contact-center automation and impact the customer experience?

JW: First, think about Conversational AI more broadly, not just Generative AI. At Interactions, we deliver nearly 500 million engagements a year using Conversational AI and Human-Assisted Understanding (HAU). It’s an understatement to say we are experts.

It works like this: Every customer service voice call starts with an automated attendant asking, “How can I help you?” Our automated attendant understands natural language. It can process a customer’s query in a fast, frictionless manner. We have greater than 90% accuracy in understanding the customer’s intent. But sometimes a friction point arises in that automated experience. When that happens, a human assistant is sent in real time a clip of what was just uttered. That human has the ability to understand the customer’s intent and moves the conversation forward without interruption. For the customer, the processing is invisible. All she knows is that her issue was solved flawlessly.

What I just described is based on AI. It’s a process-oriented flow with a set of specific options and a journey toward customer resolution.

Now with Generative AI, we will begin to see AI increasingly respond to customer needs using a blend of dynamic content. The key word is “dynamic.” That’s what Generative AI produces.

For example, Generative AI can be trained on a customer’s Knowledge Base (KB) and provide specific solutions for specific problems. This is advantageous because it’s fast, smart, scalable, and always available.

However, Generative AI is less deterministic than a more process-oriented flow created by Interactions. That’s important to understand.

When you are contacting customer support, you generally know what you want to accomplish. There is an automated flow. Let’s say you are returning an item. You go through the automated prompts, answer the questions, accomplish your goal, and move on. You may benefit from Generative AI to answer questions, but you don’t need it to get resolution.

In years ahead, a blend of different AI approaches will likely become the modus of the contact center. At Interactions, we see a bright future of opportunity for this technology. But we also deeply believe you will benefit from human interaction in certain circumstances – usually the most critical ones.

The contact center will require balancing human and AI

Q: Talk about the significance of “process-based discussions” in contact centers and how AI might play a role.

JW: Process-based discussions are common in contact centers. Agents follow strict workflows, sticking to specific company policies. Generative AI, with the right training, can simultaneously manage dynamic, human-like conversations while ensuring that rules are followed and suitable solutions are provided.

Q: Does AI need to be as fully capable as a human to replace contact-center agents?

JW: I don’t believe AI must be as fully capable because a human in a contact center is only using a subset of their skills and capabilities. AI systems can handle most inquiries and add value to each one, and that’s likely to increase over time.

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Q: How essential are humans for brand interactions, or has automation become more prevalent?

JW: Today, a good deal of the interaction a customer has with a brand doesn’t involve humans at all. Nor does it involve AI. The vast majority of today’s CX interactions are with automated processes, and they are quite effective. But human contact still has a vital place. Especially when it comes to escalation points or friction points in a customer-service experience, the quality of human contact matters a lot. For many brands, the human touch is the essential connection that drives long-term customer relationships.

The frustration with customer service is real. When do you start pressing 0 and yelling for the agent? Our studies show that people do it after 1.5 to 3 utterances. We did a 2023 spring survey showing nearly one-third of customers swear at robots or humans in the last year.

Q: What is the tipping point for full AI integration in contact centers?

JW: Culturally, the tipping point happens when an AI-based solution becomes either indistinguishable from a human or is fully accepted as if it were a human. This involves both the evolution of the technology and people’s acceptance.

Financially, the tipping point will be easier to spot. It occurs when you make money. Your AI conversion programs suddenly save you more than they cost to develop. You make a net increase in EBITDA from implementing AI. Humans are either excluded or, much better, redirected to higher-priority activities. When that happens, it’s a crossover point.

But to be clear, we don’t see this as the future of contact centers. We see elegant AI-based solutions combined smartly with a human in the loop. Together, this combination delivers the best outcomes for the customer.

Q: How would you respond to the hype around Generative AI?

JW: There’s an enormous amount of potential for Generative AI. But what hasn’t yet emerged are the killer use cases at scale. You start to see them in 2024. As the capabilities of AI systems improve, there’ll be more and more broad usage. This leads to a gradual offset of human labor in customer contact operations. In the long term – and I’m talking many years in the future, if ever – we will potentially see human contact center staffing near zero. We are far, far from that.

Q: Does Interactions have a roadmap for integrating Generative AI?

JW: Our roadmap is exciting and a work in progress. Generative AI will be a valuable tool in the Conversational AI toolkit. For example, it can be used not just to directly enable customers to engage in self-service solutions, but it can also simulate millions of customer scenarios and swiftly help us build better AI systems. That’s just one example of many.

It’s important to note Generative AI models like ChatGPT and Bard are very large and general. Therefore, they may not be reliable for specific tasks in a contact center. There’s also a need for structured rules and business process implementation. Ultimately, I think the solution will be a blend of different AI approaches.

Q: Any final thoughts on AI automation and Generative AI in the contact center industry and how it will impact revenues?

JW: If the question is whether I feel AI automation and Generative AI will threaten contact-center revenue, then answer is that I don’t. Not in the near term. With Fortune 500 companies, part of the implementation planning is understanding revenue and cost impact. Most businesses aren’t so unsophisticated as to implement solutions that will see an actual fall-off in revenue. They’re going to implement solutions that are beneficial from a business case standpoint.

James Wood, SVP of Solutions Architecture at Interactions

That means that as the capabilities of these systems improve, they will be more and more broadly used, and there’ll be a gradual continued offset of human labor in these processes. You’ll see a gradual shrinking of humans engaged in customer contact operations. Those humans who remain involved will have greater specialization and a greater ability to solve customer needs.

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