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Call center agents interested in, but wary of, automation

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Forty-one percent of call center agents say that they want AI to tackle complex calls. Yet 40% fear that AI will one day take away their jobs. That’s the finding in a survey released today by AI customer service startup Asapp and the University of San Francisco’s Master of Science in Marketing Intelligence program, which dives into industry use of AI, the kinds of abuse chronic callers dish out, and the policies agents want from companies in response.

The $600 billion contact center industry has a major problem: Every year, 1.2 million U.S.-based call agents leave their jobs. Turnover is the largest expense for the customer experience industry at roughly $40,000 a head. But some experts believe that by automating the mundane processes agents must do to serve customers, AI will reduce churn by leaving the more engaging and satisfying types of interactions to agents.

The report found the opposite to be true — at least in edge cases. While 44% of agents told Asapp that AI will improve their efficiency, 72% say they feel motivated when they solve simple customer problems — highlighting the balance that must be struck between automation and “the human touch.”

“For AI to be successfully implemented, companies will need to ramp up education and communication on what, and how, AI will augment and improve agents’ daily work lives,” Asapp indicated in the report. “Seventy-eight percent of agents surveyed want policies to handle this issue. Poor training was cited as an issue, which can lead to poor performance and burnout. Over half of agents that are poorly trained are pessimistic about their career and 45% stated that technological advancement in contact centers is behind the times.”

Trend toward AI

While customer service agents working in call centers have a mixed view of automation, companies are increasingly embracing it as the pandemic spurs digital transformations. A survey from the Harris Poll found that 46% of customer interactions are already automated, with the number expected to reach 59% during the next two to three years.

A recent McKinsey report notes that call center AI can combine customer demographic and past transaction data with social media monitoring to generate personalized product recommendations. “Next-product-to-buy” suggestions that target individual customers can lead to a twofold increase in the rate of sales conversions, the firm estimates.

“Improved speech recognition in call center management and call routing as a result of the application of AI techniques [also] allows a more seamless experience for customers — and more efficient processing,” McKinsey wrote in a recent report. “The capabilities go beyond words alone. For example, deep learning analysis of audio allows systems to assess a customer’s emotional tone; in the event a customer is responding badly to the system, the call can be rerouted automatically to human operators and manager.”

The goal is to minimize the estimated $75 billion lost every year on poor customer service experiences. But as the Asapp data shows, the desires of agents and management — particularly where AI is involved — can often come into conflict.

“Agents stated three options would improve their jobs: Training, [the] ability to end calls with difficult customers, [and] career growth opportunities,” Asapp wrote. “The impact of training at the start of the job and throughout their career directly impacts agent happiness.”

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