Customer service has evolved tremendously over the past decade. What was once a call centre staffed with hundreds of agents fielding phone calls has transformed into an omnichannel operation with webchat, social media messaging and AI-powered chatbots handling routine inquiries. This increasing automation of customer experience is only set to accelerate in the years ahead as artificial intelligence capabilities advance at a break-neck pace.

The rise of a new kind of call centre

The traditional image of a packed physical call centre is becoming a thing of the past. As Contact Centre-as-a-Service (CCaaS) becomes the dominant model, it will become easier for more companies to launch intelligent voice assistants (IVAs) through their cloud-based infrastructure. IVAs can warmly and adeptly assess caller needs, provide resolutions to a wide range of issues and effectively escalate more complex calls to live agents. 

As chatbots and virtual agents or “voice assistants” powered by natural language processing and machine learning algorithms become more sophisticated, they will take on an even greater share of simple, repetitive tasks that once burdened live agents, allowing contact centre staff to focus on complicated issues and delivering personalised service.

Behind the scenes, there will be an “AI competency centre” comprised of knowledgeable employees training and refining the AI front line, ensuring it operates smoothly. While virtual agents handle the FAQs, live reps – skilled up and ideal for emotionally complex or sensitive issues – can devote their expertise to building meaningful connections and providing the empathy that machines lack by design.

Reducing costs without sacrificing service

The driving force behind this AI transformation? Basic economics. Organisations are currently under intense pressure to scrutinise their finances and identify areas where costs can be cut, while also struggling to fill open positions, particularly at entry-level. High turnover has historically plagued call centres, but in the post-pandemic era, turnover has spiked even further — in 2022, the agent turnover rate was 38%. To maintain operations with these labor shortages and reduce costs, automation is now a necessity.

At the same time, organisations are investing heavily in initiatives to improve the overall customer journey. Companies across industries are exploring AI options that will provide a quick path to recognised business value, without sacrificing customer trust. The goal is to boost efficiency without compromising quality. Intelligent virtual agents can slash operational costs while solving customer problems more quickly than an understaffed contact centre.

For years, it was assumed that convincing the customers they were communicating with a person was key for chatbots to be effective. But today’s state-of-the-art AI is changing that perception. The focus now is not on imitation but on competency — creating AI capable of resolving customer needs regardless of whether it seems human.

Digital-first — but not digital-only

As more companies deploy advanced chatbots, digital self-service channels will become the first choice for many customers. But for more complex needs, customers will still prefer picking up the phone. This means call centres will remain vital, prompting increased investment in more functional, conversational voice AI to handle the majority of their inbound support and service calls. AI agents will play a central role in the customer experience, and may often be the sole point of contact between a brand and their customer, making them as essential to a business as its website.

Beyond competence, personalisation is also key for next generation virtual agents. Traditional IVR phone trees with repetitive menus prompted by keywords will give way to AI that greets callers by name and asks how it can help — no menu navigation required. As proficiency expectations will skyrocket with increased technical capabilities, CRM ecosystems will adapt to customer preferences rather than the other way around. Conversational AI promises more natural, intuitive interactions, with the customer’s experience always the top priority.

Final thoughts

While human skill and empathy remain vital, AI-fueled automation efforts will transform service delivery in the years ahead. Virtual agents will handle routine inquiries, at a near limitless capacity, allowing staff to focus on complex problem-solving and relationship-building and ending the concept of long hold times. With AI competency centres overseeing these technologies, businesses will reduce operational costs while providing prompt, personalised and satisfying customer experiences. 

Though a new class of challenges and risks may come with rapidly evolving AI systems, the benefits are clear. Customer service is poised to reach new heights through the power of automation.

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