A.I. Will Not Replace Customer Service Agents

By Jennifer Lee

There’s a common misconception that technology will disrupt customer service the way it disrupted manufacturing. Using robots to assemble more cars or blenders per hour than human labor solved a mechanical problem, and it did displace workers. 

But customer service is a human activity, not a mechanical one. Call center agents solve problems for an endlessly varied stream of human customers thanks to their uniquely human capacity for empathy and situational dexterity—traits that no robot has today or will have anytime soon. 

We should think of technology as a boon to human agents, not a threat. Customers need to feel understood, and technology can help by liberating and amplifying agents’ uniquely human skills. The right technology—more specifically, artificial intelligence (AI)—empowers agents to apply a stronger “human touch” and solve customer problems faster and more efficiently. 

Technology and Artificial Intelligence

It’s important to make a distinction between technology and artificial intelligence. AI is an advanced form of technology capable of learning and applying that learning to subsequent challenges. Assembly line robots can be programmed to perform predictable tasks repeatedly, but they can’t learn how to deal with a dynamic task. Most robots are technology, not AI.

Technology is also a mechanism that delivers the product of AI. Take the automated call distributor (ACD) system, for instance: Technology delivers an incoming call to the first available agent, but with the addition of intelligent capabilities, AI dynamically matches agents and customers to achieve the most optimal outcome. 

Technology has improved efficiency and performance over the years, but the emergence of AI-powered intelligent automation is raising the bar for contact center performance even higher. These centers generate massive quantities of time-sensitive data each day. Human labor could potentially process that data, but it would take hours, days, or even weeks, and by that time it wouldn’t be useful anymore. 

Intelligent automation is capable of processing all that data in real time and leveraging it to take immediate actions to solve problems that agents, managers, and administrators were previously unable to identify, let alone solve. 

Satisfied Agents, Satisfied Customers

Until now, technological innovation has focused overwhelmingly on customers. That’s obviously a good thing, but resolution of customer problems is no longer enough. 

Intelligent automation goes a step further, solving problems that frustrate agents and impact the service they deliver. When a call comes in just before an agent’s break is due, the agent’s frustration at losing that break may have a negative impact on the caller’s experience. 

But intelligent automation will take that pending break into account, prompt the agent to go to break a few minutes early, and update the WFM schedule—all automatically. By removing this underlying driver of agent dissatisfaction—something no technology has thus far been able to do—intelligent automation safeguards agent satisfaction and contributes to more consistently positive customer experiences. 

The pandemic proved that robots cannot and will not replace human customer service agents. The hunger for human contact remains strong, as evidenced by the fact that call volume has risen sharply since the start of the pandemic and increases in call handle times as customers seek a comforting voice during turbulent times. 

No robot can engage in discussion about critical health insurance or financial issues with a distressed customer; only a human is capable of the kind of empathy needed to properly handle these sensitive issues.

Long Live the Human Touch

We’ve seen that when people have tough problems to solve, they prefer dealing with people. This is confirmed by the existence of a popular website, dialahuman.com, which explains how to circumvent the maddening IVR systems used by so many organizations and reach a human more quickly. 

Moving forward, organizations must equip their contact centers with the flexible technology necessary to support customer service operations under new circumstances created by the pandemic. That technology should be cloud-based, scalable, accessible, and easy to use. This will allow companies to pivot to remote agents and continue to support customers under the tough circumstances of the past eighteen months, and it will also allow them to manage the hybrid workforce likely to dominate contact centers in the coming months. 

Powered by AI, intelligent automation delivers a consistent work experience to both remote and in-center customer service teams. It strengthens agent engagement by removing traditional sources of frustration and makes it easier for agents to deliver all the flexibility and empathy necessary to solve the tough problems of their human customers. 

AI is not a job killer; it’s a customer service enhancer. Contact centers should embrace its ability to make the agent’s work more engaging and the customer’s experience more satisfying.

Jennifer Lee is the chief strategy officer at Intradiem. She has twenty years’ experience in the contact center industry. Throughout her career, Jennifer has served in a variety of roles in the contact center space, including operations, quality, workforce management, and client services. For the last four years, Jennifer led the customer success organization at Intradiem, where her team was pivotal in achieving the historic milestone of one billion automation actions.

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