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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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Another benefit of bots is that they can provide consumers with more input options. This is particularly appealing to younger customers, who prefer electronic interactions to phone calls.

Longer term, companies will be looking to their contact center systems to identify the context of interactions, determine their customers’ needs or intentions, and then give them what they want, all with the personalization that they so desperately crave.

TAKING THE FIRST STEPS

While bots’ potential impact is significant, the technology is still very much in the embryonic stages of development. Building bots is a complex task because a lot of infrastructure software needs to be put into place. “Bot deployment cycles can be long,” says Tractica’s Beccue.

In essence, for bots to perform their function, the necessary front-end applications that consumers use, the back-end systems that house the company information needed to perform the required tasks, and the bots that link them all need to be integrated.

The first element, the user interface, is the software that sits on various systems (smartphones, tablets, laptops, PCs, and IVRs) and provides the consumer with an entry point into the system.

Facebook made waves in this area in April 2016 when it launched a bot software ecosystem, enabling third-party developers to build apps that the approximately 1 billion Facebook Messenger users worldwide can access.

Illustrating the area’s potential, more than 11,000 developers flocked to the Facebook platform in the first three months. And competition to Facebook Messenger has come from many directions, with suppliers like Kik, Microsoft Skype, and Slack also building messaging bots.

Another input modality, voice, is also becoming a common way for users to access information and services. Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana are just a few of the projects that vendors have launched to enable users to enter information via voice.

Chatbot ecosystems geared specifically for contact center systems are also taking shape. IBM’s Watson and Salesforce.com’s Einstein are two heavyweights that are making their mark in this segment, but a bevy of smaller companies, including Assist, Astute Solutions, Chatfuel, Cogito, Kasisto, Msg.ai, [24]7, X.ai, and XOXCO, are all vying for attention.

And because bots need to be tied to back-end CRM systems, vendors like Aspect Software, Creative Virtual, LivePerson, Salesforce.com, Sparkcentral, Synthetix, [24]7, and Zendesk are among the countless vendors that have been enhancing their CRM solutions to work with various chatbots and digital assistants.

A GENERATION GAP

Even though the market is young, two generations of bot software have taken shape. In general, the first-generation solutions, which were put in place within the past few years, perform simple functions and operate like IVR scripts. These include the basic financial service bots that let customers check their account and credit card balances, examine recent transactions, and determine when payments are due.

Autodesk, a provider of software for the architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing, media, and entertainment industries, was at the forefront of this wave of adoption. As vice president of operations, Gregg Spratto constantly searches for ways to improve Autodesk’s contact center, which operates with 250 company employees and another 200 outsourced individuals. It soon decided to automate routine product activation queries, which number between 25,000 and 30,000 a month.

In the fall of 2015, the firm evaluated solutions from Digital Genius, IBM, and Kasisto. “Our system is complex, and IBM’s Watson enabled us to build what we needed quickly,” Spratto says.

After piloting the system for product activations, Autodesk extended the system to 40 other common requests. The changes have had a significant impact on the contact center, which handles about 1 million calls a year. Efficiency improved, but the biggest impact was on costs, which average about $50 per transaction for internal resolutions and $13 for those handled by the outsourcer. Interactions handled by the bot cost just $1.

Now a second generation of solutions is starting to take shape. These solutions promise to leverage analytics, AI, and eventually machine learning to dramatically transform the customer experience. They have the potential to provide businesses with more insight into customer desires to shape how they service and market to them. “What corporations would like to do is monitor customer interactions and have the system determine if is appropriate to try to upsell the client,” Tractica’s Beccue says.

The potential improvements are vast. A financial services firm could use a bot to make its mobile site searchable, connect customers to live support, provide help with product and account questions, or supply maps to branch locations. A flower company could use a bot as a gift concierge, issuing special occasion reminders, answering customer questions, making gift suggestions, processing orders, and sending out shipping updates.

GETTING STARTED

While bots have tremendous potential, they also present companies with many hurdles. First, any company looking at bots needs to decide which department (marketing, sales, IT, or the contact center) will drive development and which business processes could stand to be improved. When examining their options, firms need to be like Goldilocks, holding out for systems that are just right, according to Ian Aitchison, CEO of the Asia Pacific region for COPC, a global consulting company.

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