Within the Contact Centre and Outsourcing industry, Digital Disruption is big news. Deep learning, Artificial Intelligence and chat bots are on everyone’s lips. But at the sharp end, where our services are actually delivered, what impact is really being felt?
To separate the facts from the forecasts, we spoke to two leading industry experts about the current state of digital disruption and the reality of dealing with these transformative technologies.
Eihab Mohamed has built on a successful career in customer engagement and contact centre outsourcing which included migrating huge multi-site, multi-language customer operations projects, and working across some of the largest sectors and clients in the industry. More recently. as Customer Engagement Director at The Telegraph, Eihab’s was the first senior role charged with owning “Customer”, helping to shape a new outlook, in a digital age! Now Managing Director of Lighthouse Consulting Europe, Eihab brings together experts in engagement to advise major brand name clients throughout Europe and is a board director at Yourcentre, a contact centre service provider. He is also closely involved with Sentient Machines, specialists in Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data and machine learning who use cutting edge research and natural language processing techniques to empower Contact Centres.
Graham Brown is responsible for Sales and Marketing in Europe for HGS (Hinduja Global Solutions), a leading exponent of digital advancements, working from 7 countries to bring innovative solutions to clients, without the legacy issues that can be all-too-common with large contact centre providers. HGS believes that customer expectations are common across different sectors, therefore helping customers to have better experiences is key to recognising that, in Graham’s words, “the customer is no longer king, they are dictators!”
What is the state of play for AI and Digital the Contact Centre Space?
Graham Brown, HGS: “Robotic Process Automation (RPA) already impacts front and back office in some operations. Automation supports voice interactions as well as “modern” channels like in-app messaging, webchat and social media. However, RPA is at a bit of a crossroads: there is a lot of hesitancy in the market, fuelled by lots of legacy in the infrastructures and processes of big, established businesses.
“We don’t expect to see the disappearance of voice. Personal voice communication will always have a place for complex and emotive cases. However, RPA will continue to increase its share of interaction through bots, as machine learning is more able to recognise repeatable, programmable processes to deliver the right customer outcomes.
“Most cases come back to the question: How good is your knowledge base? If your knowledge base is poor, results in automation will also be poor. Improving and continuous machine learning will continue to improve the results of RPA.
“It’s less visible to customers, but back office is where automation is already more prevalent. For example, in healthcare a lot of the decision-making activity is rule-based and follows a set process. A lot of that work has already moved offshore, initially to reduce costs using human agents, but latterly automation has been successfully introduced once processes are tied down, minimising the scope for human error and increasing processing speeds too. The result of RPA implementation is quicker, more accurate AND cheaper processing with consistent outcomes.
“For contact centres through, there’s a BIG challenge with digital disruption: most pricing and buying decisions are based on peoples’ time. Therefore automation in a time-based pricing situation actually reduces a supplier’s income! Reducing processing time and headcounts through efficiency actually reduces profitability, which is counter-intuitive. This is what holds back many big outsourcers: why would they want to re-engineer and improve if it results in reduced revenue for them? In turn, this presents a big opportunity for organisations like HGS, where helping new clients introduce digital efficiencies is a benefit to both HGS and the client.
Eihab Mohamed, Lighthouse Consulting: “The reality at the moment is that most big outsourcing organisations tend to introduce technology and AI when clients demand it, rather than driving it themselves. For example, speech analytics has been around for a couple of decades but large players are still very slow to adopt it, whereas new entrants are using it to carve out a position in the marketplace.
“Remember when CRM (Customer Relationship Management) was the buzzword in the noughties? So many organisations were system-led and the important “C”, the Customer, became forgotten! It’s the same challenge with the latest tech and AI: utilising the new tools whilst putting the customer at the centre, is the imperative.
“AI is being over-hyped. It needs to be demystified. Artificial Intelligence in our context is about applying machine learning and deep learning to improving customer experiences and profitability. There are lots of potential applications and opportunities, but there is a concern that companies claiming to have AI solutions do not, muddying the waters : a recent study reported in the FT showed that there was no evidence of AI being used in 40% of 2,800 start-up businesses. So as a first step, organisations must understand what AI is, and isn’t.
“AI in the contact centre space is definitely a real opportunity. Contact centres have access to tons of data – every customer interaction generates data that can be used to learn from. The repeating nature of contact centre communications means that machines can learn from the swathes of data collected. Not just form and key-press data either: natural language processing is now accessible to businesses when it wasn’t practical before, thanks to it becoming cheaper and easier to process.
“Gartner recently said that only 4% of contact centres have deployed conversation bots in real situations, but 38% plan to. This indicates both the growth potential and the real desire by contact centres and brands to move with the times. However, it’s important to know what you’re trying to achieve with AI and automation. What problem are you trying to solve or prevent? Customer experience, revenue generation, cost efficiency, product improvements? Understanding the data is paramount.
“Also, it’s important to have good leadership in your programme to adopt any new technology, then ownership without which your plan will go nowhere. Contact centres typically have a range of stakeholders from sales, marketing, customer service and sometimes other departments. By giving someone ownership and authority, you can drive a culture of innovation where priority is given to finding new and better ways of getting things done. Following a process of Pilot, Test, Adopt in manageable parts of your organisation, successful projects can be made to work in a controlled way before being rolled out to the main business.”
Where will the effects of Digital Disruption from new technologies be felt in the next few years?
Graham Brown, HGS: “There’s an important competitive force at play in the coming years. Tech companies with new models for delivering solutions and generating income will force contact centres to rethink how they charge their clients. A new tech business might charge a flat fee to implement a technology, whilst a more full-service outsourcer might charge a share of savings, for example. The key to success might be a more holistic view where the ability to implement new technologies is an integral part of a full-business solution, which is linked to customer service outcomes as a whole.
“From an operational point of view, RPA will drive out a proportion of live agent volume. This will mean less voice, chat and email communications. However, live agents will be handling significantly more complex interactions. These will have a more significant influence over metrics such as customer lifetime value, because the customers dealing with live agents will tend to be those with more complex, risky issues. It’s an exciting future where great contact centres with a mix of great tech and excellent agents can really add value in protecting and enhancing brands. At the moment many contact centre agents might not feel that they make a big difference: that will change.
“There will be a move away from the ‘bums on seats’ models we’ve become used to. The industry will be able to value people more, people who will generate more value and be able to justify higher price points for the value-adding services they deliver. This won’t be easy though: it will mean re-skilling a lot of people.
“For customers, self-service will improve thanks to machine learning and most interactions will be better and quicker. The days of 20 minute on-hold times should be numbered!
“Many new tech companies are great at the automation part, but not at the complex part or the handover between the two systems. Good contact centres will take a holistic look at contact volumes by channel for 100% of demand, growing new channels whilst taking care of those interactions which still need expert human involvement.
“A simple view is that volumes of voice and human interactions will steadily decrease, whilst RPA volumes will steadily increase at the same time. This won’t happen. Being able to handle the flow between automated and human channels will be vital, and it’s important to realise that other factors will influence the volumes. What if there’s a sudden product recall? A seasonal stock-shortage? How will your automated and human resources cope?
“In the short term, bots can be used to help human agents. At a recent industry event, I found that no clients felt that they had a robust bot solution available. This sounds like bad news, but bots can be used to help human agents find the right solutions for customers. Think about IT professionals: we often frown at them when they use the internet to find the solution to our computing problems, but the fact is they know where to look, while we don’t! Human agents can find answers using AI techniques to help, which leads to improvements in the AI automations which can be rolled out to customer-facing situations once they are robust enough.”
Eihab Mohamed, Lighthouse Consulting: “It’s very difficult to predict when and where the effects of Digital Disruption will be felt most strongly, because the industry is being driven so hard. £1bn is being pumped into AI and related technologies in Britain alone, so things will move quickly! New challengers and established players are involved, so we will have to adapt to change as it happens. Talking about how new technologies will achieve what outcomes is key. This will decide the priorities for the industry.
“Too much star-gazing can lead to navel-gazing though… so action is important!
“Customers don’t worry about the technologies too much. They just want answers, so the most successful businesses will be the ones who find better ways to get to those answers. If you’re going to deploy AI the greatest effect you can aim for is to improve outcomes. Using AI to analyse sentiment data, for example, will enable organisations to filter out noise quickly and identify insights to drive action. If you trust the data, you can confidently build a business case for the technology and the systems to handle repeatable interactions. These could have the capability to remove 20-30% of human contact to self-service.
“Analysis, then application of lessons from data is key. For example, to identify where best to use bots to augment human interaction rather than fully replacing it. There’s definitely a place for AI and humans alongside each other.
“Strategies have to remain fluid. Change and challenges happen quickly and, as processing power becomes better, cheaper and quicker with time, it will open up new opportunities for the businesses who are ready to take them.”
Is AI, Automation and Digital Disruption a Threat or an Opportunity?
Eihab Mohamed, Lighthouse Consulting: “Being objective, this depends on your outlook or where you sit. It’s important to understand that people will still remain your greatest asset. You still need humans to think, to strategise and to provide the creative thinking.
“There is a threat to some low-skilled roles, which are repetitive or easy and AI can replace, but successful adoption of AI technologies is all about augmenting what goes on in customer service. So, customer service roles can be made more rewarding and fulfilling without the repetition of many current processes.
“This is going to happen, the question is when. So the consideration for contact centres is about redefining roles for people who will be affected by the introduction of technology. Build roles for the future.”
Graham Brown, HGS: “Don’t be a Kodak, a Comet or a Woolworths. If you see new technology as a threat you will become irrelevant in the market. As a contact centre you have to embrace the inevitable change and understand how it works commercially. Critically, you have to find a blended way that AI and digital provides part of a whole solution.
“Digital improvements will enable us to do what we really want to do: give great customer solutions. Google killed the old Direct Enquiries service. This is not as much of a seismic shift but change is happening.
“We will probably see more large players consolidating to drive out cost reductions, but this is a short term solution which arguably protects the old business models, so it can’t last forever. The new successes will come from players who can deliver great technological solutions married to excellent human involvement.”
What do Contact Centres need to do to be successful in this rapidly-changing world?
Graham Brown, HGS: “To stay ahead of the game, contact centres need to embrace the opportunities presented by AI, machine learning and the tools that they make possible. Embed the tools and show the value that they can bring to your clients.
“This will not be easy! The way customer service is delivered will change as a result of these new technologies. You will need to change your culture, your people and your commercial arrangements to make the most of the future… but it’s not impossible.
“Surround yourself with excellent technology partners, take ownership of the future and always keep a total view of the ultimate customer experience. After all, it’s that customer experience that determines whether you’re delivering success or not.”
Eihab Mohamed, Lighthouse Consulting: “We probably have never had access to data in the way, and at the scale, that we have now. It’s impossible for humans to get through it all. Start to explore the massive amounts of data you have available and take advantage of the new ways you can analyse it to find new solutions for your customers. Get the data organised, work out what you’ve got and then work out what questions you can answer with it. Develop an insight-driven culture beyond the data department.
“Work with a partner who can help you find the answers and the strategies to take your business forward, not just to sell you the boxes to make it possible. Then think about where you might want to take the solutions forward, such as chat and voice bots for example. The costs of entry are much lower than even a few years ago. It’s possible to implement some of these technologies on a pay-as-you-go model now.
“Decide whether you are an innovator or an imitator. First-mover advantage can be massive, but some organisations can be successful by learning from other people’s mistakes! But don’t get left behind.”
The experts we’ve spoken to are in no doubt that Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and the new tools that are being made possible by the analysis of Big Data are already changing the landscape in the Contact Centre sector. Your organisation has to be ready to operate in the Brave New World of automation.
If you’re not sure whether your Contact Centre is embracing the future, talk to us here at The Contact Centre Panel for an unbiased review of your current status – just contact us by email or call 0114 209 6120 to talk about your needs. We won’t push: we will only help if you need it.
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