Will AI Replace Call Center Agents? Yes…and No.

AI has its place, but robots can't replace humans’ role in a call center’s central mission.

Humanity’s struggle to remain relevant in the face of technological progress or a grand, intractable power is one of the epic themes in literature and movies. Sometimes, humans stubbornly fight – and ultimately lose; think John Henry and the steam drill. Other times though, we benefit from accepting the progress and acknowledging its power, adapting to it and channeling it to our advantage; think Luke Skywalker and The Force.

Contact centers are living this universal struggle right now. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and adaptive processes are ushering in an era of unprecedented possibility and uncertainty now, just as assembly lines did one hundred years ago and the widespread adoption of computers in the workplace did in the 1970s and 80s.

While the assembly line increased production and lowered costs, it also demanded that fewer laborers work more hours and fundamentally changed the nature of their work. Computerization and automation sent productivity soaring but rendered many back-office jobs obsolete.

In contact centers, AI and cognitive computing now automate, streamline and augment once complex, time-consuming, human-driving activities, touching everything from forecasting, scheduling and speech analytics to customer interactions.

Is that a good thing? What are the limits of AI in contact centers?

Everyone in the contact center at every level, from managers to front-line agents, is watching the relentless march of AI and asking, ‘Where do we fit in?”

It’s at the point of the customer interaction where leadership’s answer to that question most impacts a contact center’s success, and it’s not an either/or, exclusively-AI/exclusively-human calculation.

Chatbots Can’t Replace Humans: Blending Artificial and Emotional Intelligence

Evidence shows that a combination of AI (in the form of bots) and human agents, strategically utilized at well-defined stages of the customer interaction, deliver the highest levels of customer satisfaction. Any concern that AI will replace human intelligence in call centers is unfounded. Augment, yes; replace, no.

Customers want a speedy, professional first-contact experience that ends with all questions and issues resolved. Bots are now widely accepted as a practical tool for streamlining customer interactions in their initial stages (e.g., greeting the customer, collecting background information). They’re also highly capable of processing simple transactions. In many instances, a chatbot’s assistance is all a customer needs to reach a happy conclusion.

It’s when interactions move beyond customer service basics that uniquely human traits, like judgment, problem-solving, motivation, creativity, and empathy – in short, emotional intelligence – become necessary. Face it; there’s a reason some customers eventually press ‘0’ to talk to an agent.

Just as humans can’t possibly match a machine’s ability to consume and analyze data, machines will never match the interpersonal skills of a properly coached live agent.

A person, equipped by nature and training, can navigate the gray areas of a complex customer interaction and make nuanced decisions a perfectly logical machine cannot, and those decisions can secure the ultimate outcome - heightened customer loyalty.

The Importance and Cost of Hiring for Emotional Intelligence

Is emotional intelligence one of those ‘either you have it, or you don't' human qualities, or is it coach-able?

The easy answer is that it can, indeed, be taught. The answer gets more complicated, though, when you realize there’s a limit to what degree emotional intelligence can be taught, and that the degree varies by individual. Moreover, the coaching you provide isn’t going to be a straightforward information dump or process memorization exercise, like teaching an agent about your products or how to navigate your knowledge base.

The bottom line is, as bots evolve, they could be the future of Tier 1 customer service activities. The role of human agents is being pushed into Tier 2 and Tier 3 activities, those requiring in-depth technical knowledge, expert service and support and high-level interpersonal skills. You’ll need to up your coaching game.

Your screening and hiring will probably need some refining as well, given that you'll likely be seeking personal and professional qualities in your agents that you’ve not had as much need for in the past.

A generally higher standard for screening and hiring, attractive compensation packages, and greater investment in each agent’s coaching – there’s little doubt it costs more to attract and retain coachable agents with emotional and classical intelligence. But, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for, and you have to expect to pay more for a class of agents who can perform professionally and problem-solve in the face of complex and potentially charged customer interactions.

What Does This All Mean for Contact Center Managers?

Managers must adjust their bases for evaluating agents’ productivity and the contact center’s overall efficiency. For example, complex customer interactions mean longer Average Handle Times, meaning there may need to be less focus on quantity (of calls handled) than quality and less emphasis on tasks than outcomes. Expectations around traditional agent productivity metrics, like Average After-Call Work Time and Occupancy Rate, may also need to be adjusted.

In more and more contact centers, leaders understand that empathy matters, self-awareness matters – and not just in agents’ interactions with customers. Leaders need to develop those qualities in themselves as well. After all, if you’re hiring agents because of their emotional intelligence, you have to assume they’ll recognize its absence in their interactions with managers and supervisors, and that directly impacts their productivity, well-being and retention. It fundamentally impacts a contact center’s effectiveness.

While it’s true that AI is transforming contact centers, it’s equally valid that a new kind of agent is emerging, and those agents are also transforming their workplace. As AI solidifies its position as a tactical, Tier 1 customer service tool within the contact center, a different breed of human agent will expect more from their employers. They’re seeking empowerment, and if unsatisfied, they may change jobs.

Looking at the ‘Chatbot or Human Agent’ question from the customer experience perspective, it’s important to appreciate that there are appropriate roles for both; where AI’s strengths end, human strengths begin. Maximizing both human and machine potential in your contact center means identifying the points where a chatbot's cold logic and dispassionate processes cease to serve the customer experience and where the qualities that make us human make us indispensable.


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