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Can AI-Powered Call Centres Improve Telecoms Customer Service?

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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AI could make it less painful to contact your broadband, landline and mobile provider and boost reputation and revenues for telcos in a crowded comms market

Contacting your mobile, broadband or landline provider can be a pain. Even queries that can be resolved quickly are only done so after completing a maze of dodgy hold music, account detail recitals using the NATO phonetic alphabet, and endless instructions to “press zero to hear the options again.”

And even that is preferable to the ordeal of actually trying to leave. But in a highly competitive UK communications market, providers are beginning to realise that good customer service can be a key differentiator, fostering loyalty and encouraging word of mouth recommendations.

Improving customer service

© Artem Furman - Fotolia.comRegulator Ofcom has published customer satisfaction data since 2009, asking customers of various companies about the service they have received, including the speed at which issues were dealt with, the standard of advice given and the attitude and ability of the advisor.

The hope is of course that publishing this data will encourage telcos to improve.

Outsourcing call centres abroad might save money, but can upset customers or even harm security – three employees at Wipro, TalkTalk’s outsourcing supplier, were arrested last year following a data security review. This trend is being reversed and many companies advertise “UK-based call centres” as a reason to sign up.

BT clearly subscribes to this theory. In January it announced plans to create 1,000 new customer service jobs as part of plans to answer more than 80 percent of all consumer queries from within the UK by the end of the year. It’s also providing additional staff training, simplifying processes and improving its website and applications.

Matching up

But all this costs money and telcos are already complaining about the competitive and regulatory pressures of the UK market. Afiniti believes its artificial intelligence (AI) system can not only improve the performance of customer service operations but “more than offset” the cost of bringing back call centres to Britain.

Typically, call centres pair customers with the first available agent. Afiniti’s ‘Enterprise Behavioural Pairing’ system analyses customer history and publicly available data such as credit rating, purchases and even likes on Facebook, to match people with the most-suited member of staff.

In theory, better chemistry between caller and agent should improve customer satisfaction, reduce call times and encourage people to buy more services or recommend a company to a friend. Higher sales and greater efficiency can have a 3-5 percent impact on revenue, the company claims, and “bar a little IT time”, there is no cost of installation.

Machine learning

microsoft“Lots of people have been talking about AI and algorithms, but we think we’re one of the first to do this in an applied way,” Chris Farmer, chief marketing officer at Afiniti, told TechWeekEurope, claiming that machine learning is what makes the technology AI and not just big data.

“The AI learns over time from the billions of interactions. It’s about how to make the most appropriate pairing.”

At the end of each day, the algorithm makes an assessment of successful and non-successful interactions and sees how the rules can be applied the following day. Eventually, it is thought this algorithm can be expanded to cover social media.

Larger companies with bigger staff (and of course larger revenue streams) stand to benefit more because a greater sample size can lead to more insights, but Afiniti says smaller businesses would still benefit. All perceived efficiencies are discussed during the consultation phase.

Telco transformation

Afiniti says “any business that is reliant on talking with its customers” can benefit from its technology, but recognises the telecommunications space as an opportunity because of the aforementioned competitive pressures and already counts O2, Sky, Virgin Media and Vodafone among its customers.

“Telcos over the last 7-10 years [have moved into] a very mature phase,” added Sundar Bharadwaj, Afiniti’s managing director for media and telecommunications, noting that telcos are constantly trying to digitise and automate as many processes as possible “Some of the most successful ones are constantly transforming themselves. They are protecting and growing value in their customer base.

“The call centre is becoming more intensive, more relationship-driven. Every interaction turns into a brand advocacy.”

Bharadwaj claimed the technology would make it easier for companies like BT repatriating call centres to the UK because the algorithm could determine whether a customer is more receptive to a UK-based operator.

“Afiniti more than offset the value of bringing back centres to the UK. There’s a client in Europe. They have a huge agent pool in South America, but [the operation] is a third of the cost in Europe so they can’t afford to bring it back. They can determine where the best place for this call is.”

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