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.