It is now more and more common to come across a robot when calling customer support. These have advantages, such as 24-hour availability to handle requests without queue time. But the widespread use of these new types of call center agents also raises questions, particularly in terms of customer experience and the way employees are treated. What should we think of this fundamental transformation?
We've all had a bad experience when calling customer service. Long queue times, difficulty in reaching the right person, the need to repeat oneself... Customer support too often leaves much to be desired.
But the world of call centers remains poorly known. What do we really know about this universe and its structure? Of its realities and challenges? And why are robots expanding in contact centers?
1. Call centers, a still unfamiliar sector
On a daily basis, call centers are discreet. From the outside, it's hard to imagine the buzz of activity that unfolds in these buildings of hundreds of square meters, often located on the outskirts of metropolitan areas or spread out across the country.
Contact centers employ 760 000 people in the UK
Yet contact centers are a major pillar of employment in the UK, representing more than 760,000 jobs in the country. A minimum, when you consider that English companies receive nearly two billion requests every year, whether by mail, over the phone or other channels (website, email, etc.).
The development of these new contact channels has led call centers being called "contact centers".
Contact center agent, a difficult job
In customer service, this abundance of requests makes for intense days: speed is important, as is pressure. During critical periods such as Christmas, advisors are often on the warpath for several weeks at a time to deliver a satisfying experience to the many customers who contact them.
Unfortunately, this intense pace leads to high turnover in contact centers, and many of them experience recruitment difficulties.
This difficulty in recruiting competent personnel is one of the primary reasons for contact center robotization.
2. Massive repetitive demands
The telephone remains the preferred communication channel
Among the millions of requests received each year in customer service, the telephone continues to account for the overwhelming majority of contacts (approximately two-thirds of interactions in 2019). For many people, picking up the phone and calling a customer service department is the first reflex when contacting a company.
Calls are the most difficult flow to manage
Paradoxically, calls are the most difficult format for companies to manage: everything happens in real time! Therefore, an agent must be available to answer, almost immediately, and must have the necessary skills to help the customer solve his problem.
In call centers with several thousand positions, managing these flows is a highly complex exercise.
3. New technologies help companies to better absorb customer sollicitations
Customer service has always used technology to relieve call center agents of parts of their workload, and thus reduce the pressure on them. These technologies can operate in the background (back-office), and be invisible to the customers, or be able to interact directly with them (front-office).
Invisible technologies to increase productivity
Absorbing flows of several hundred thousand calls per year requires impeccable organization, which combines human and technical skills. Various tools can be used:
- queueing and routing systems (to prioritize the processing of incoming calls and estimate queue time)
- CRM software (database gathering the history of customer relations and past requests)
- robust phone call architecture (to absorb several hundred or even several thousand phone calls simultaneously)
Automated time-saving tools
Alongside these back-office software applications, the use of automation by customer service is not new. As early as the 1980s, IVRs (interactive voice servers) became popular, the famous pre-recorded messages offering to type 1, 2 or 3 to move forward and be connected to the right agent.
Even regarding the front office, users have thus become accustomed to interacting with a company without agent intervention. For the company, this saves time in processing calls, and delegates the work of identifying the nature of the problem to the customer.
4. Robots are the next step in this transformation
In this context of alliance between human and technology, the wave that has been reshaping contact centers in recent years is robotization. Its emergence is linked to the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and in particular the field called conversational AI.
Chatbots, first witnesses of customer service robotization
The latest technological developments pushed by GAFAM companies indeed allow them to reach unprecedented performance in the understanding and processing of human language.
The first witnesses of this transformation were chatbots, those small chat windows that are frequently displayed when you browse a company's website. Today, more than a third of companies are equipped with a chatbot.
Going from text to voice
As the phone remained the preferred communication channel for customers, conversational AI quickly began to develop over the phone channel. The emergence of chatbots was followed by the emergence of voicebots, a generic term encompassing all the robots you can talk to (think of Siri or Alexa).
Some voicebots are now programmed to be able to answer the phone and interact with humans: these are the callbots, AI-powered voice agents available by phone.
5. The human-robot combination, the future of the customer relationship
Because they save more and more time for call center agents, robots are now expanding quickly in contact centers. In addition, they offer many advantages for the customer: available 24/7, without queue time, and immune to call spikes (for example, before Christmas for many retailers).
Chatbots, voicebots and voice agents handle low value-added tasks
In this context, which role for the call center agent? Robotization frees him from repetitive tasks, but at the same time, it raises the fear of job destruction. However, most companies relying on robotization are aware of the system’s limitations, and are not planning to replace humans with robots before long.
In fact, automating an entire conversation with a human is only possible under certain very specific conditions: the robot can perform the tasks for which it has been programmed, and can process a simple request in a standard way, as would a human agent who has to follow a scripted conversation. It is estimated that these conversations account for 40 to 50% of requests.
At the customer level, the development of these technologies allows them to solve their problem autonomously, at any time and without having to explain it again to a call center agent. In short, the voice agent can offer a customer space available over the phone.
Call center agents are refocused on complex tasks
Complex problems and emotionally charged situations are not meant to be handled by robots, which do not have the necessary skills to deal with these special cases. On the contrary, the need for empathy and initiative gives its full place to the human agent.
Tomorrow's customer service agent will put his skills and human qualities at the service of the customer to help him solve his problem.
The rise of robots in customer service necessarily goes hand in hand with call center agents upskilling. Thus, tomorrow, this sector, which is experiencing high turnover and recruitment difficulties, will be able to become more stable and more sustainable.
More than ever, the future of customer relations will be based on the collaboration between humans and robots.