The Contact Center in 2018: Helping Customers Help Themselves

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“People are leaving phone and email and going to chat because it’s a natural progression of how they deal with things in their consumer lives,” Ragsdale says. “They like the convenience of chat. You can have a chat while you’re on a conference call, you can have a chat while you’re browsing the web or checking email. Chat is not new in the consumer world, but for B2B companies, they’re finding a lot of these consumer capabilities absolutely have a place.”


Chatbots really only entered the vernacular within the past year or so, but the hype surrounding them is not expected to die down anytime soon, according to experts.

Nancy Jamison, a principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan, has seen a lot of confusion and few successes so far. “Everyone’s talking about adding AI and virtual assistants” to their operations, she says. “But not many people are doing it very well, or if they are doing it, they are very individual deployments that are tuned specifically to a vertical market like travel, for example. There’s not at all a widespread use of successful virtual assistants and bots yet.”

Experts also need to distinguish between simple bots and sophisticated ones. Donna Fluss, president and founder of DMG Consulting, says intelligent virtual agents (IVAs) will play a large role in contact centers of the future and become the “next generation” of self-service solutions.

While many bots are typically programmed for one task, IVAs are far more advanced, leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language technologies to help agents move from channel to channel, read the context of interactions, and provide agents with advice.

Greenberg expects 2018 to witness an increase in the adoption of both bots that use AI and ones that don’t. The simple bots, he says, accept simple questions and provide simple answers, answer questions in a sequence, or follow through by providing customers with a number of options.

American Express has successfully deployed one of these “very simple chatbots” via Facebook Messenger, according to Greenberg. The bot can notify customers through Facebook Messenger of new charges on their AmEx credit cards, allow them to see the details of the transactions, and help them complete a number of other possible queries and responses. “That’s not AI; that’s just a process that’s in place, and it’s a somewhat robotic process,” Greenberg says.

However, Greenberg anticipates the development of chatbots that do leverage AI to learn and become more powerful. Such a chatbot will work to determine the best option for a customer, but allow the customer to correct it, and it will take into account many other data points that will help assess what the user is trying to accomplish. “We’re going to see this in near-real-time and real-time responsiveness,” Greenberg says.

Jamison likens bots to interactive voice response (IVR) systems. “We’ve had IVR for 30 years or more, and we still have bad IVR out there. You can have great IVR, great speech-enabled IVR, but you can have bad IVR if you don’t implement it right, if it doesn’t have proper error recovery, if it doesn’t answer the question or do the transaction for the caller,” she says. “Having a virtual assistant isn’t any different. It’s got a different interface and perhaps more knowledge in the background, but if you poorly implement it, then you’re going to insult your customer. You’re going to make your customer mad.”

Jamison expects to see problems with bots until the industry comes together to iron out a set of best practices. That, she says, is likely to start in the coming year. “So I think there’s going to be a big focus on how to go about developing those best practices.”

Ragsdale and others have also noted that while chatbots have been fairly common among B2C firms, the B2B world has been slower to embrace them. “I think that machine learning component is what’s really critical, and some of the core chatbots really don’t incorporate that,” Ragsdale says.

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