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Working in perfect harmony: AI and the contact center

by Annette Franz

Problem statement: The agent experience drives the customer experience. But when agents get bogged down with mundane, repetitive tasks, it takes them away from what’s important, interesting, and impactful – and both the agent experience and the customer experience suffer. Is using AI in the contact center the right solution to get agents back on track?

There’s a lot that’s been written about reducing customer effort to ensure customers have a great experience with your contact center when trying to get questions answered or issues resolved. It’s an important topic because customers’ expectations about the experience are constantly evolving and, today, they expect interactions with your brand to be simple, effortless, easy, convenient, personalized, and much, much more.

But there hasn’t been much written about agent effort and the impact that it has on both the agent experience and on the customer experience. I’m not referring to the (discretionary) effort that agents put into their work every day; I’m talking about the effort it takes for them to do their jobs, i.e., are there processes or outdated tools that hinder their ability to do their jobs in an efficient manner?

Why is that important to consider? First, if you want to ensure that your agents have a great experience, making it easy for them to do their jobs and to do them well is a good place to start.

Second, there’s this concept called the spillover effect, i.e., the tendency of one person’s actions and emotions to affect how other people around her feel. So think about the effort that your agents must put forth in order to do their jobs – and then how that impacts the experience customers on the phone have with them. If it’s painful or frustrating for agents to do their jobs, then the customer is going to feel that pain; they won’t get the best version of the agent they’re interacting with, now will the agent be efficient in the interaction with the customer.

So let’s think for a moment about agent effort. How do you reduce the effort for agents and then, ultimately, for customers?

  • How can you simplify workflows and processes?

  • Can you cut four steps from the nine required to do something?

  • How can you become easier to do business with – internally?

  • How can you make it easier for agents to do what you ask them to do?

  • How do you make it easier for agents to deliver a great customer experience?

  • What complexities, complications, and bureaucracy can you remove?

  • Are agents working with outdated tools and data?

For many, AI and automation are the immediate go-to solutions to address these questions and to reduce both agent and customer effort. That’s not wrong, but you’ve got to do some due diligence to ensure that you’ll not only acquire the correct technology but also use that technology efficiently and effectively, so as not to make things even worse for agents and for customers!

The first step, then, is to identify where the effort is occurring for your agents – and where it’s impacting them and customers the most. Don’t waste time reducing effort in one part of the experience if it’s much more of a deal-breaker in another part. You’ve got to prioritize where you’ll reduce effort. And then you can solve for it.

Identifying the Effort How will you do that? How will you identify the sources of effort? There are four important things that you must do.

  1. Listen to agents

  2. Walk-in your agents’ shoes

  3. Listen to customers

  4. Walk-in your customers’ shoes

Let’s go through each one of these briefly.

1. Listen to Agents This is absolutely the first thing you must do. Don’t think that you know where agents are expending excessive effort and then try to solve for it without getting their input. It happens all too often that companies bring in new tools or develop new policies and processes without actually talking to the people who are going to use them. Find out from agents what their pain points are, what’s missing from their toolbox, where they spend an inordinate amount of time, repetitive or menial tasks that become a time suck, processes or policies that are outdated or broken, and no longer make sense, etc. Your agents want to be heard. They want to come to work and do a great job; provide the opportunity for them to tell you what they need in order to do their jobs well.

It’s also important to understand the agents who are experiencing the greatest effort and frustration. There may be a certain type of agent who finds the experience to be more painful than others. Having a better understanding of who is most impacted by the experience today will certainly go a long way to designing a better experience for tomorrow.

2. Walk in Your Agents’ Shoes There is no better way for agents to explain where they put forth needless effort to do their jobs than to map the agent experience. A journey map is a visualization of the steps an agent takes as she does her job. It’s created with agents, from the agent's perspective, and will include not only what the agent is doing but also what she is thinking and feeling as she interacts with customers or goes through some other aspect of her work. It will also include other information, as well, including the people, the systems, and the documents that the agent interacted with during the experience, as well as how long each step of the journey took. Create journey maps that outline specific interactions or tasks that they undertake each day in order to identify where things are broken – for them and for customers. This begins to paint a picture of where friction and effort occurred for the agent.

3. Listen to Customers Ask customers for feedback about the experience. Listen in other places (e.g., social media, online reviews) where they may share details of their experiences. And capture the breadcrumbs of data they leave behind as they interact or transact with your brand. There are so many valuable insights to be uncovered from the feedback and the data about where the experience is going well or not so well.

Remember, when customers provide feedback that their issues were not resolved promptly or properly or that agents seemed hostile and unwilling or unable to help, this is on you. Perhaps this is due to processes set forth within the organization that create that friction in the experience. Perhaps it’s due to inadequate tools or training for your agents. Perhaps there are other root causes that hinder the agent’s ability to support the customer in the manner in which she should. Don’t just ask customers for their feedback, listen – really hear what they are saying.

And use that information to conduct root cause analyses to get to the heart of the problem. And then, fix it!

4. Walk in Your Customers’ Shoes Mapping the customer journey is a great way to identify pain points for customers and for agents. Map with customers, but ask stakeholders from various departments to observe in order to hear where the work that happens upstream impacts the customer – and then the contact center – downstream.

Journey mapping is not just about the map, it’s about the process. And that process includes not only the maps but also the corresponding service blueprints, which capture the people, tools, systems, policies, and processes that support and facilitate the experience the customer is having.

Basically, you cannot fix what’s happening on the outside if you don’t fix what’s happening inside. The service blueprint will identify broken policies and processes, agent training and missing resources opportunities, and more. It will highlight where waste and operational inefficiencies are happening that are creating a frustrating experience for both agents and customers.

Solving For It Using those four tools will allow you to identify where the effort is occurring for your agents. Once you’ve confirmed that, now you can start to talk about AI and automation and when, where, and how to best incorporate that into the workstream. Importantly, you’ve got to include agents in those discussions, too, because their biggest fear about automation is that they’ll be automated out of a job. But that’s just not the case.

In 2021, companies are not looking to automate people; they’re automating processes. There’s a big difference. Automating processes is about taking the menial, mundane, and repetitive tasks, and procedures off agents’ plates so that they can focus on doing more mission-critical and value-add tasks, like building customer relationships, innovating and creating for the customer’s benefit, and handling more difficult issues or projects that require human thought and decision making. Think about the call/contact volume and the productivity levels of your customer service team – and the impact that productivity has on the business. And think about how it would feel if that call volume was reduced – how much more productive your agents could be, not to mention the cost savings due to a lower call volume.

And don’t forget, agents are critical to automating processes because they’ve got the skills and the knowledge needed to (a) identify the repetitive tasks and (b) teach the robots how to do them.

On the flip side, automating people is exactly what you think: replacing people with robots. This may have happened in some assembly lines or warehouses, but again, that leaves the human to do mission-critical work, to ensure that the outputs are of superior quality and meet customer expectations.

Agents and AI can work in perfect harmony, a saying that means that two different people or things are working together in unison. That’s how AI should be viewed – working in unison with your agents to allow them to be more efficient, more productive, and more engaged. Think about the various contact center AI tools:

  • Voice and chatbots

  • Virtual agents/assistants

  • Speech recognition/natural language processing (NLP)

  • Speech/text/sentiment analytics

  • Predictive/prescriptive analytics

  • Behavioral analytics

  • Robotic process automation (RPA)

  • Intelligent automation

  • Machine learning (ML)

  • Web/mobile self-service

Can you imagine using these without human input, interpretation, interaction, or common sense? A human will always create and train these tools. These are important tools that are becoming more and more prevalent in contact centers and throughout the organization, but they work best when they work in harmony with agents. They augment and improve the experience as they take over repetitive tasks, introduce operational efficiencies, and help agents be more productive – but they won’t eliminate or take anyone’s job. On the contrary, with the introduction of more and more of these tools, related yet different types of jobs or careers will be created, opening a new world of possibilities for agents and other employees alike.

Specific Use Cases Let’s take a look at a couple of specific ways that AI and automation can help reduce agent effort in the contact center, and, in turn, make for a better customer experience, as well. It’s important to note here that training employees on these new tools and how to interact or react to/with them is an important first step. They’ve got to know how and when to use them and how the tools will impact the work they do today. For example, you’ll likely need to drop the script at this point and train and empower your agents to think on the fly, as the AI tools feed them real-time information and insights about the customer, which then overrides any script from which the agent is working. This can take some time, so work closely with them to adapt their way of thinking and working; the time and effort to do this will pay off huge in the end.

1. Increase Agent Efficiency When agents are taking a call with a customer, they may have as many as 15 screens open in order to have access to the details and the information they may need to address the customer’s concerns. You’ve heard the “my computer is really slow today” line from every agent you’ve ever spoken with, and now you know why. They’re looking for information and flipping through a bunch of screens to find it.

Imagine if AI gathered information from the customer before the customer is transferred to the agent, assimilates and shares that information with the agent, and then runs parallel to the agent’s conversation with the customer, helping the agent find answers much more quickly than they can on their own while perusing 15 screens. With AI to help the agent finds answers faster, she can then help the customer more quickly and deliver value for the customer, which makes for a happy customer. AI can also handle all of the post-contact work, again freeing up agent time to do more interesting work or to move on to the next call more quickly.

When an agent can resolve issues quicker, it also then frees her up to either take more calls or to spend time on more complex, higher-impact issues that require more human interaction than automated help, which keeps the employee engaged, interested, valuable to the organization, and employed.

2. Increase the Value of Agent Contribution Using tools like voice and chatbots, virtual assistants, and robotic process automation not only helps to reduce agent effort but also to reduce the amount of time agents spend on repetitive, menial tasks and issues. These tools address some of the simpler tasks and questions agents may have to deal with, putting the onus on the customer to try to solve issues or answer questions on their own before speaking to an agent. This then frees up agent time to only handle more complex issues or to do higher-level work, leading to increased agent satisfaction and lower agent turnover because they’re doing work that makes a greater impact – on customers and on the business.

Another way that AI can help to increase the value of the agent’s contribution is through intelligent routing, where customer calls or inquiries are routed to the appropriate agent based on information about the customer, like personality or behavioral traits and previous contact history. This sets up the customer to be matched with the right agent – and vice versa – ensuring that both agent and customer don’t expend more effort than necessary. It also allows the agent to personalize the interaction and more easily deliver a great experience because she’s prepared with the information she needs to not only resolve the issue but also to potentially build or strengthen the relationship with the customer.

In Closing… Agents working in harmony with AI and automation will find they are spending their time on more meaningful, more interesting, and more value-add types of work. That’s a common theme that reinforces the fact that AI and automation will not replace people or eliminate jobs; it will actually do quite the opposite, making their lives easier, supporting them in the work they do, reducing agent boredom and effort, and even creating higher-value roles and responsibilities that contribute to greater employee engagement. The bigger challenge then becomes, do we have the right agents on board to take on those higher-skilled roles? Are they ready for that? And you’ve got to consider if you’re ready to train them for the new era of contact center roles.

Still questioning if AI and agents can work in perfect harmony? Check out these stats from research done by Aberdeen in June 2020. Companies using AI in their contact centers have:

  • 3x greater annual increase in customer retention rate (10.5% vs. 3.2%)

  • 4x greater annual increase in agent productivity (7.4% vs. 3.1%)

  • 5x greater annual improvement (decrease) in-service costs (4.6% vs. 0.4%), and

  • 9% annual improvement in time supervisors spent assisting contact center agents, compared to 0.1% worsening by others

Those are all very promising findings! One caveat to keep in mind as you consider how to use AI in your contact center. Don’t forget that AI is data-driven. AI tools can comb through tons of data at a much faster rate than any human can. Data is at the heart of designing and delivering a great experience. But first, the data must be available, accessible, and of good quality. Garbage in, garbage out.

To learn about all 10 reasons for using AI in the contact center, be sure to check out the replay of the 10 Ways AI Can Improve the Contact Center Experience webinar, which is available now OnDemand. In that webinar, Laura Bassett and I talk about 10 outcomes of using AI in the contact center. You’ll hear lots of great insights, and you’ll get some additional resources to help get your contact center started with AI.

Annette Franz Annette Franz, CCXP is the founder and CEO of CX Journey Inc. Having started her career in this customer experience profession at J.D. Power and Associates in 1992, she has 30 years of experience (both client-side and vendor side) helping companies understand their employees and customers and identify what drives retention, satisfaction, engagement, and the overall experience – so that employees, customers, and businesses reap the benefits and achieve their desired outcomes.

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