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Bots Should Be in Your Contact Center’s Future
The technology emerges as businesses look to artificial intelligence to improve customer service
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Science fiction has long promoted intelligent computer systems, either empowering humans, like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or terrorizing them, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. While current systems have not yet reached the level of sophistication where they act like humans, they have been gradually getting “smart” enough to do more than handle rote, mundane tasks. In fact, bots are gaining functionality and changing how companies interact with customers through their contact centers.

“In the 30 years that I have been in the industry, bots are the technology that has taken hold the fastest,” proclaims Liz Osborn, vice president of product marketing at [24]7, a customer experience software and services company.

As evidence of the high growth, research firm Tractica expects the number of enterprise users interacting with bots to grow from 155 million worldwide in 2016 to 843 million by 2021.

So where have bots—those specially designed programs that take over various functions typically done by humans—come from? The software is an offshoot of the artificial intelligence (AI) movement (see sidebar) that first surfaced in the 1960s.

Bots are automated software applications that can help company employees and their customers complete various tasks. Like AI, bots are horizontal tools, broad suites of software that can be integrated into any application, rather than vertical solutions, like payroll systems, that are focused on specific functions. So, it would seem, the potential uses for bots are virtually limitless.

Recent technical progress has enabled vendors of bot technology to begin to realize some of AI’s early promises. “In the past three to four years, a number of technology advances have helped businesses begin to use AI to improve their operations,” says Mark Beccue, principal analyst at Tractica.

In a recent study, Tata Consulting Services found that the biggest adopters of AI today are, not surprisingly, IT departments, with two thirds (67 percent) of survey respondents using AI to detect security intrusions and user issues and to deliver automation. However, almost a third (32 percent) of companies believe that by 2020, AI’s greatest impact will be in sales, marketing, or customer service.

AI integration is already happening in a range of industries, including automotive, financial services, energy, healthcare, life sciences, industrial manufacturing, and retail, according to Tata’s research, which highlights AI’s workplace impact as an important supplemental force over the next few years. One example it cited was guiding customer service representatives to more quickly resolve customer problems and anticipate future purchases.

“As companies begin to gain a better understanding of AI’s application for business, they will realize the significant impact of this transformative force.… Forward-thinking companies are beginning to make major AI investments,” said K Ananth Krishnan, chief technology officer at Tata, in a statement. “Given the increasing digital disruption across every industry and the public sector, AI should become a key and integrated component of an organization’s strategy.”

Bots are gaining traction because computer infrastructure has gradually become more sophisticated, better able to support more sophisticated applications, and more powerful, able to support the hardware, lightning-quick networks, and oodles of data that companies have at their disposal.

Bots have also expanded in the contact center because voice recognition, a key element, has become more accurate, robust, and mature due to countless innovations in natural language processing and machine learning.

THE EARLY DAYS

The first wave of bots was built on mobile device messaging and texting platforms. However, the goal now is to enable information to be entered as text or through natural language and from a variety of systems.

In fact, bots can already be found in many contact centers. Chatbots, also dubbed virtual digital assistants by some, operate as next-generation online chat apps, supercharged interactive voice response (IVR) solutions, or automated Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) web links. In all of these cases, companies write scriptlike software that walks customers through routine transactions, such as entering their names and addresses into a “Contact Us” field.

Today’s bots, though, have the potential to do so much more. They can, for example, streamline development, lower support costs, and improve the customer experience. By building bots that run on mobile messaging systems, companies circumvent the expensive development work needed to design mobile solutions and build and manage app stores. Bots can be launched from existing email or text clients without requiring consumers to find and then download apps, make space for them on their smartphones, or create user names and passwords to log in to them.

Bots can reduce expenses by automating mundane tasks that previously were handled by salaried employees. This also helps workload issues, as human sales assistants and contact center personnel are in short supply.

And, like IVRs, bots can present consumers with an interface for entering data and then, based on what they entered, route the interaction to the right person or system capable of addressing it. They can also provide product suggestions, schedule meetings, or send follow-up emails to customers.

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