Virtual Agents Will Replace Live Customer Service Reps

Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence/robots, companies will eliminate call centers with human reps. Pro or con?

Pro: Clearly Destined

Virtual agents are already augmenting and replacing human support personnel. You don’t need fancy arguments to explain this phenomenon (we have built computers to beat chess champions, so having them help customers with bill disputes is a walk in the park). Forget the fact that virtual agents can cost 1/50 of what live human assistance does. The real reason behind the trend is that customers prefer virtual agents.

Actually, what customers prefer is self-reliance. A recent Forrester Report showed that only 28 percent of U.S. online consumers "prefer to contact companies via telephone or e-mail rather than using a company’s website to get answers to their questions." And we feel certain that, as younger generations turn into a larger segment of the market, they are going to drive upward the percentage of people disinclined to interact with humans for assistance.

Leading Web companies are already using virtual agents. SFR, a division of the mobile communications giant Vodafone, employs a virtual agent to facilitate 750,000 conversations a month to answer customer questions about their accounts and the company’s services. Online auctioneer eBay (EBAY) is already facilitating 200,000 customer conversations a day with virtual agents across six countries. Apple (AAPL) recently bought virtual agent company Siri. IBM (IBM) will soon release an artificially intelligent agent named Watson.

Leaders are moving to virtual agents, and although we will no doubt continue to have human assistance available via live chat or a phone call, it will soon turn into the exception, not the rule.

Con: Too Many Limitations

Most technology revolutions fail because either the underlying technology is immature or it is solving the wrong problem. Artificial intelligence-based virtual agents are a bit of both.

When you think of virtual agents ruling the customer service world, think about interactive voice response. ("Did you say Dallas?" "No! I said Dulles.") Meanwhile, we are still on hold for the next available agent (or technology).

No one disputes that customers prefer self-service. To make it meaningful, think of the elegance of an ATM. No one puts a virtual agent inside an ATM. It’s designed with simple options that make it easy to use. The secret behind great self-service is evident everywhere: good retail venues, whether online or real. Or great products.

Putting AI-based agents on your website is like putting lipstick on a search request. AI-based agents have no real intelligence other than trying to figure out what you just typed. And matching it to a knowledge base. Even if the technology matures to the point where it can understand everything you say, it does nothing to make common service problems, such as billing errors, go away. And it takes away effort from solving the real problem, which is that you have no idea what your customers want and how to make Web self-service work. Customers want to avoid interaction (wasted time), whether it is real or virtual.

At our firm, we are working on predictive models that anticipate what customers are trying to do across channels: phone, Web, and chat. When customers still have trouble trying to do it on their own, they’ll find friendly agents on hand to help them.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

muse mohamed said

This is an amazing technology.

Aw

If I needed to contact the company's customer service (only after the company's website failed to answer my question), I would prefer a life chat application like the one they had for Comcast and ATT. It's very convenient and doesn't need to cycle through endless options like in a phone call. Also, the live chat personnel responds faster--I don't know if the personnel is automated, but I don't care. However, if I needed to phone in, give me a human operator anytime.

Strategery

Ha! Call centers in India have done a mediocre job at customer service. How will an automated system be any better?

geets

Using a combo of media will be far more effective.

Martín Ezcurra

Perhaps it is a matter of expectations. The maturity of the technology today might not offer a full replacement but rather a complement, leaving to the human customer representative those questions/subjects that the virtual agent could not handle.

Martín Ezcurra
martin.ezcurra@botgenes.com

Dirk Jan Dokman (The Selfservice Company)

Talking about technology is the wrong way to approach this subject as virtual agents have been around (in rudimentary terms, automation of FAQ’s at least) for some time. In self service terms this is all about delivering what the customer wants, and that’s not just in relation to customer queries or complaints but also by providing general advice and purchasing services/product. Adoption of virtual agents by the biggest B2C companies will be the real measure of success as their customers provide immediate feedback with their feet (to use a retail term). European companies such as KPN Mobiel http://www.kpn.com/prive/mobiel.htm have further developed their online customer focus by providing a virtual agent (‘Kim’) to also advise on products and services, which ultimately assists the customer by acting as a sales agent. The evidence is clear, the adoption of virtual agents is well under way and although they’re not a replacement for more complex enquiries that can be dealt with by either live agents or a customer rep, there is the option of customers to get an immediate, relative response to the more straightforward FAQ related questions. Have a look at www.chatbots.org to see and compare different live examples.

chk3

The question is whether the live person has the knowledge to understand the problem and to determine the solution. I find that even the live people are simply reading screens of information they found by typing in the same keywords that gave me information that didn't help...which is why I called in the first place. Arggggggghhhh!

jazmine

The reps from India that we deal with now seem barely human. So, what's the difference?

mike

What a great idea. I am so excited!

Matt

As some have already mentioned, this is not an either or situation. Self service functionality has been available for some time and continues to improve. Intelligent software is also becoming more... well, intelligent! I would be the first to encourage the use and implementation of these.

However, as in most things, the answer is rarely one or the other. Anyone in an operational environment will know there are always exceptions so whilst you might build AI to cater to 90% to 95% of your customer base (wouldnt that be nice?), the other 5% to 10% will absolutely need the facility (web chat, telephone or other) for the human intervention to take place.

Going the whole hog is probably not the most sensible decision..

Prof. Sine Mens (BotGenes)

With about 500 virtual agents/chatbots worldwide and successful implementation in multiple types of organizations and languages, we believe that the next challenge for vendors is to bring the TCO (total cost of ownership) below the current $250 U.S. per month, to allow small and medium size companies to offer 7x24 customer services, services they cannot afford to offer with humans agents.

Prof. Sine Mens

noHold Inc.

Mr. Kannan makes some great points. No technology can replace the human element. And, in all honesty, there will be some problems that can only be solved by a human. However, perhaps it is unjust to rate all virtual agents the same.

One of Mr. Kannan's concerns had to do with virtual agents not knowing what customers really want. noHold Virtual Agents have the ability to learn what customers are asking, which questions are not being answered, which products or services are most popular, and turns that information into actionable marketing collateral.

We are making leaps and bounds with Virtual Agent technology. Gone are the days where Virtual Agents are thought of as simple search tools that use a natural language processor. [Our ] noHoldVirtual Agents can learn and become better with experience. The back-end tools make it easy to add and change content. And reporting tools to provide statistics about effectiveness and usage.

http://www.nohold.com/

Kenwa Mabini

Having that personal interaction trumps every single argument over A.I.

Gustavo Leo

The customer service representatives will be all retired people or young people, first job, and they will do this probably by video calling on cell phone or other gadget, maybe Skype on television. "Different" people's answering questions works. See jetblue attendants.

Vikas Deolaliker

The best application for this technology is IT self service.

Abe Johnson

I don't agree that virtual call center agents will replace live CSR. I think virtual call center agents or agents who specialize in 800 answering services are the extension manpower for customer service, since the demands of sales reps are very high among businesses today.

Marcin Strzalkowski

Matt is touching the key point, which is there are questions that can be automated (repetitive, not comprehensive queries) and cannot (complicated, requiring check up with other IT systems)--usually at least 20%. While talking to Fortune 500 customers, one will have to match this with customers' inability to get this dynamic data from IT systems. So virtual agents cannot replace, but can force real agents to switch to (more productive) outbound calling.

Marcin Strzalkowski, www.inteliwise.com

D Zuninga

Aw--Comcast actually offers a Virtual Agent provided by noHold, Inc. in addition to live chat and phone/email support. It's the first option listed on the contact us page and is available on the .net side as well.

The AskComcast implementation, in addition to proving technical and account support to subscribers, also acts as a presales agent and can offer suggestions on what package or product is best for that particular customer based on their feedback--even giving the user personalized pricing info for services avaialable in their area.

Rock

We have to admit that virtual agents are more and more frequently applied in real communication among social activities. This kind of sciecntific advance creates literally quicker, more efficient, greater powerful computised procedure of automatically solving problems and offering some help that customers need. More significantly, quite a few users are content with the virtual agents' service.

Nonetheless, the future of virtual agents is not necessarily thriving in business at the cost of live customer service reps. Just as the above commentor Martín Ezcurra said, the maturity of the technology today might not offer a full replacement but rather a complement. What would it be? The reason is very clear. Virtual agent, as its name goes, is ultimately not real. It doesn't have positive thinking like ours. Customers will probably get problems that can't be handled by virtual service. At this piont, live customer service is really helpful and essential. Similarly, the relationship between virtual agents and live CS reps is the one between electronic books and traditional books. Must you confirm that the former one will take place of the latter one? Hard to tell.There is something related to the preference of certain customers' wants and needs.

Martha Letherwood

I seem to be minority of one. Tape recordings are absolutely nothing more than a way to raise blood pressure and make me blacklist a particular company. They are in no way, shape, or form an acceptable replacement for humans, especially humans that actually speak the same language of their customers.

There should be a list somewhere--if not already existing, let's make one--of companies so committed to quality (live) customer service. Anyone know where I could find one?

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