As AI systems become more commonplace, bots and virtual assistants are being adopted by businesses, as they continue to digitise their enterprises. How can your business use these systems without losing the personal connections great customer service demands
Would you rather speak to a robot? According to Gartner, chatbots will power 85% of all customer service interactions by the year 2020.
Perhaps more impressive (or concerning), it predicts that, by the same year, the average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse. The ability of a chatbot or virtual assistant to mimic a real human is a testament to how far AI has developed.
The progress of the bot and virtual assistant market continues. According to Tractica, there will be one billion users of these systems by 2025, generating a market value of $7.7 billion.
Indeed, businesses are already reaping the rewards these AI-based technologies can deliver: Marks & Spencer, for instance, is reported to have saved over £2 million in costs, as their virtual assistant helps customers with issues they have when shopping online – all without the need for a human.
Chatbots have quickly become a feature of online retail and banking spaces. A raft of companies now use bots from Marvel Comics (you can speak to Spider-Man) to UNICEF that uses a bot to help with polls and surveys that influence its policymaking. And, of course, Apple, Amazon and Google all have their own voice assistants.
Businesses now routinely use bots to interact with their customers, often entering into complex conversations. The core driver here is, of course, cost. A bot or virtual assistant can be available 24/7 and needs none of the support a human operator does. Businesses are, though, treading carefully with their use of these AI technologies to ensure their embrace of automation doesn’t alienate their hard-won customers.
Focusing on the financial services sector that has seen rapid expansion of chatbots in particular, Hervé Mazenod, Managing Director of Insurance and Investment at Gobeyond Partners told Silicon: “Financial services organisations are utilising chatbots and virtual assistants, amongst other technologies, to deliver new service experiences for their customers and keep pace with service expectations driven from other industries.
“For instance, chatbots are increasingly being used to handle simple interactions with customers, customer identification is being done through voice biometrics and highly personalised rates and pricing can be developed and targeted at specific customers across multiple channels.”
The business case is strong to implement a program of development for chatbots and virtual assistants. Their value to business processes has been rapidly expanding as the AI that supports them has developed.
Gobeyond Partners’ Hervé Mazenod continued: “What we often see is organisations think technology first, rather than customer-first. The reality is that, whilst these technologies can indeed deliver significant benefits in the right context, there is not usually a silver bullet for an organisation’s unique situation and set of challenges. It’s therefore critical to take an end-to-end view, starting with the consumer of the service. By identifying opportunities for improvement, or even transformation first, you can then select the most appropriate solution. So, think ‘problem to solve’ first, rather than a specific technology.”
The value of bots
The rise of self-service and the expansion of online retail has placed immense pressure on contact centres. Consumers – thanks to their continued exposure to assistants like Siri – has made them comfortable communicating using these systems and channels. As AI has advanced, conversational AI has become a reality.
Research from Accenture concluded 56% of respondents state conversational bots are a disrupter across their industry, with 43% stating they have already implemented the technology. “About six in 10 executives said bots can improve their organization’s ability to handle customer queries by networking with other bots, and that they can deliver personalized attention to website visitors by being more conversational,” said Accenture. “Just over half believe bots can also help them improve customer acquisition and retention by guiding web and tele-calling customers through the order process.”
As chatbots and virtual assistants have evolved, they have become more sophisticated. Today, your business can choose from a range of capabilities: These can include natural language processing, machine learning, entity recognition and intent – all of which can be manipulated to deliver a realistic experience for the user. The key to your business is to match the specific capabilities of the bot or virtual assistant to the precise needs of your customers.
Claus Jepsen, Deputy CTO of ERP leader, Unit4 explained to Silicon: “Customers have never been more demanding, and companies have never had to work harder to gain their loyalty. Convenience, cost, and conversation can all make-or-break the relationships we have with customers. So, getting this right is essential.
“Yet the manpower required to meet customer demands simply isn’t feasible for many and this is where the risk of automation creeps in,” Jepsen continued. “To effectively meet demand and maintain a sense of loyalty, organisations have to strike a balance between man and machine, human conversation and simple digital conversation. This approach is inexpensive, wide-reaching, and offers the flexibility organisations need to keep up, without alienating their client base.”
Bots and virtual assistants are not a panacea to remedy your failing contact centre or customer services functions. These technologies work at their best when targeted to deliver specific outcomes for your customers. More importantly, bots, in particular, must be used in association with human operatives.
Your customers will be happy to use a bot as the first point of contact but will quickly lose patience if they can’t resolve their query and can’t escalate this to a human customer service representative. Today, AI can deliver highly intelligent systems, but they must be integrated into your wider human-based customer services support.
Silicon in Focus
Martin Linstrom is the Managing Director for UK and Ireland of IPsoft. With over twenty years’ experience working in the technology industry, Martin is helping drive IPsoft’s mission to connect the world through AI and intelligent systems. He is passionate about transforming both customer and employee experiences for IPsoft’s customers through the implementation of enterprise AI.
How are businesses now using AI with Bots and Virtual Assistants?
“Artificial intelligence (AI) and specifically, intelligent virtual assistants are enabling companies to boost their brands at scale and deliver a seamless customer experience that joins up all touchpoints including telephone, email and online interactions.
“We are already seeing the widespread use of virtual assistants in the banking and insurance industries, which are leading the way in digitising their services but continuing to interact and engage with customers in a very professional way.
“AI is helping to evolve lots of internal business functions too. Take HR for example. Virtual assistants can be used to automate the onboarding process of new employees. Instead of making tens of different individual requests to teams across the business for laptops, login codes or building passes, the HR professional could simply ask it to “onboard Joe Bloggs” and the Virtual Assistants could handle the rest. This relieves immense amounts of time, so the HR team can focus on improving the employee experience, training and wellbeing – something which AI cannot do. And similar processes can be improved across the organisation, from automating password recovery to billing requests.”
What are the challenges CIOs and CTOs face when using AI with Bots, Virtual Assistants, and Social Media?
“The challenge many CIOs or CTOs find when adopting AI is employee resistance – and this is largely due to its portrayal in the media and movies of a world run by evil machines or robots taking our jobs which, unsurprisingly, makes people feel apprehensive towards change.
“It is, therefore, the responsibility of the C-suite to ensure that when making these investments and changes, the deployment of these technologies augments employees’ experience, reducing the burden of administrative tasks and supporting them in quicker and more informed decision-making.
“This will enable employees to take on more complex and creative work that supports greater innovation and a focus on adding value. Ultimately, from empowering them to work and think in this way, business leaders will be able to successfully establish a ‘digital first’ culture.”
Is there a risk that business moves too far towards automation and lose customer loyalty and brand advocacy?
“Brands using basic chatbots often have to make a trade-off between personalisation and fast customer service. But thanks to advancements in AI and the development of cognitive Virtual Assistants, customer loyalty can be significantly improved, and customers can be given a personal service at speed.
“The challenge for many brands is in getting the right balance between automation and humanisation of the customer experience. Getting the right technology that not only understands the words, but the context, intent and emotional sentiment of the customer will be key to providing a quality option to augment the capacity of human switchboard staff.
“It’s important that companies’ factor in EQ (emotional intelligence) as well as the nonlinearity of human conversation so they can be flexible, detect customer sentiment, mood and emotion and respond accordingly in a non-scripted fashion. By doing so, the dialogue will become more natural and dynamic and thus consumers will become increasingly more satisfied with their digital experience.
“AI technologies are actually creating new channels for customers to engage with organisations. As well as this they actually free up their human counterparts to continue to provide better levels of customer service across the other channels and higher-end services to the customer.”
Who is using AI with Bots, Virtual Assistants, and Social Media to great effect today?
“Insurance firms and banks are already leveraging customer-facing AI solutions to great effect today. Many of them are in fact seeing increased customer satisfaction rates despite removing the human-to-human contact element. For example, since implementing IPsoft’s AI solution, Amelia [https://www.ipsoft.com/amelia/], SEB, a leading Nordic bank has been able to avoid 544 hours of escalations to customer support with an average handle time of six minutes. What’s more, Amelia has reached a 90% accuracy rate in immediate intent recognition which has meant a faster service delivery to customers and soaring customer satisfaction.”
Are there any trends in the AI Chatbot / Virtual Assistants space you can identify?
“We’re seeing a new trend of firms adopting a four-day week, particularly where companies believe their employees could benefit from the additional day’s weekend without impacting their output. Digital colleagues will be a massive enabler in this trend, with some of the time saved from monotonous tasks going back to the employee.”
What does the future of AI Chatbot / Virtual Assistants look like?
“The introduction of a hybrid workforce – with human and digital colleagues working together to augment and improve our experience of work – will be key to the future of work. Interacting through a cognitive human-like interface, employees could work directly with Virtual Assistants to automate the low-value work.
“Virtual Assistants are only going to get more intelligent. The next phase in the development of a hybrid-workforce will be in having an on-demand marketplace for Virtual Assistants, whereby employers can hire a digital employee, choosing from a range of skills to fit their business requirements.”