Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) are regularly hailed as the future of a more personalised and responsive approach to customer services.

However, their emergence as a realistic option for a wide range of businesses has raised fears over threats to jobs, as a growing number of tasks become destined for automation. 

There is no denying that AI stands to change the way customer service is delivered and will, in time, replace some functions that are currently handled by people. But the fear that it will result in mass redundancies is often overstated.

In reality, the technology will help to transform roles into more highly-skilled positions demanding top quality communications and digital skills. For example agent augmentation can support the advisor with real time, contextual information from which outcomes which are insight driven will deliver an enhanced customer experience.   

To quantify the impact that robotic process automation (RPA) and AI will have on customer service operations over the next ten years, Arvato conducted an in-depth, global, six-month research project with AT Kearney. According to our findings, 27 percent of current operations could be automated in the next five years – if the technology is adopted as estimated – rising to 45 percent by 2027.

At the same time, we believe that customer service representatives will evolve and up-skill as their roles are enhanced by technology. This presents an exciting opportunity for contact centres with the potential for higher-value careers for employees and better experiences for the customer.

As such, customer services of the future will become a hybrid of technology and algorithms (artificial intelligence) and people (human intelligence). 

One reason for this is that brands are increasingly focusing on customer service as a way of standing out from the competition. According to research from Deloitte, 62 percent of companies now view the customer services as a competitive differentiator. The result is that they are becoming a central part of the brand experience, and high-quality customer service is being prioritised across more and more product lines and channels. With such focus on improving quality, the human element of experience must remain at the forefront. 

Customer service roles will change, however, as more of the transactional work is automated, particularly in back office functions. Dealing with simple queries and handling frequently asked questions will be picked up by chat bots integrated with AI and more intuitive self-service platforms – a trend that’s already in motion. Yet, when it comes to strategic areas like customer retention, which require discussion and negotiation skills, humans will continue to play the primary role.

But it will be one that is supported and augmented by technology. For example, when talking with a customer, the advisor may have access to a series of recommendations or actions through their AI-driven CRM system, to help steer the conversation in the right direction. These will be created by predictive analytics and based on previous customer actions. Alternatively, they could be prompted in real time by certain keywords that the customer uses in interactions and are picked up and interpreted by AI.

Naturally, a more technology-enabled working environment will change the type of employees that brands need to hire to deliver customer service. Digital skills will be key, but because advisors will routinely deal with more high-value tasks, there will also be a greater emphasis placed on a more empathetic, problem-solving approach, creating demand for more experienced workers. While this will raise the cost-per-head for providers, it will return productivity gains.

The customer service industry has proven itself to be highly adaptable. Employees now typically work seamlessly across multiple channels, including voice, social media, email and webchat, and interact with sophisticated customer relationship management (CRM) systems. For example, the average contact centre now supports nine different channels, according to Dimension Data.

Adapting to a new landscape of AI and automation will require a great deal of training and development, but as brands continue to focus on delivering exceptional experiences for customers, new technologies will enhance the capabilities of human advisors, rather than diminish them.

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