When Royal Bank of Scotland introduced an online chatbot to the public in 2016, executives were keen to present the technology as an aid for hard-pressed call-centre agents. But it was clear the chatbot’s powers would grow and perhaps, in time, could come to rival those of its human colleagues.
Artificial intelligence, RBS said, lets the chatbot — first named Luvo but now called Assist — handle routine web chat requests from clients, such as queries about address changes or asking for a bank card to be authorised. This would free human advisers to help customers with more complex questions.
The initial trial that began in December has been limited to 10 per cent of RBS customers in Scotland who use web chat to communicate with the bank. Queries that Assist cannot understand or process are passed to human advisers.
But Assist’s “cognitive” capabilities, provided by IBM’s cloud-based Watson platform, mean it will learn to handle a greater range of more complex tasks. IBM executives suggest this could even reach the point where it might be able to understand how a customer is feeling — dissatisfied, frustrated, happy — and change its tone and actions accordingly.
The rise of AI in handling customer inquiries across a range of industries — from retail to energy companies — strongly suggests that human jobs in call centres may eventually be whittled away, but that those who remain in employment are likely to be handling more complex inquiries, says Shamus Rae, head of innovation and investment at management consultancy KPMG.
“AI is already making its presence felt by its ability to handle web chats, and over the next 18 months we expect to see the same automation of simple transactions happen with voice calls too,” he says. “That, to my mind, can only lead to the replacement of some call-centre staff, but there will still be a need for human-to-human conversations to work through more complicated issues with customers.”
Whether that adds to staff stress levels, by leaving them to focus only on difficult customers with serious problems, or makes the job more interesting will probably depend on the attitude and aptitude of call-centre workers. In job satisfaction terms, AI could be a good thing, suggests Graeme Gabriel, a former call-centre agent and manager who now works as a consultant at call-centre software company Verint.
“As a call-centre agent, it’s those more complex inquiries that are the more rewarding part of the job,” he says. “After several hours straight on the phone, taking calls about simple things like a change of address, you actually look forward to someone calling up with an issue, even if they’re having a bit of a moan, because that brings into play your customer service skills, the stuff you’ve been trained to handle.”
Like many in the call-centre industry, he sees a role for AI not just in automating the mundane and routine, but also in assisting human workers to solve complex and challenging problems.
Much of the training that call-centre agents receive, Mr Gabriel, says, focuses on managing customer “hold times” — the amount of time someone has to wait on the other end of the phone listening to music or company messages — while staff search for information or type in data. Lengthy hold times can make customers impatient.
Instead, AI could be working in the background, acting as a smart assistant to call-centre agents, feeding them accurate, up-to-date information, prompting them to ask the right questions and guiding their responses to queries.
Sheryl Kingstone, analyst at emerging technology specialist 451 Research, thinks this kind of AI “intelligence layer” is overdue. “Typically, staff use a trial-and-error script to question the customer and gain a better understanding of the request or problem, but this is time consuming and inaccurate, increasing fatigue and frustration both for the employee and the customer.”
By guiding interactions, AI could help humans focus more on meeting customers’ needs, building relationships with them and increasing revenues through selling additional products and services, according to Stian Westlake, executive director of policy and research at innovation agency Nesta.
“AI also makes it easier to connect customers to call-centre workers with particular skills, such as problem resolution or sales, making call-centre jobs more differentiated, since it makes it easier to deploy talented call-centre staff to calls where they can really add value,” he adds.
This shift is already under way, says Chetan Dube, chief executive of IPSoft, the company behind AI virtual agent Amelia. Amelia is assisting call-centre staff rather than interacting directly with customers in about 10 of the 30 IPSoft clients who have deployed it. These include a Swiss bank that is using Amelia to guide call-centre agents through the process of helping customers with their retirement planning.
Mr Dube says: “There are two aspects to the use of AI in call centres. One is through the displacement of mundane chores that represent a waste of the brains and talents of call-centre agents. The second is as assisted intelligence, which leads to an augmented experience for agent and customer. I’d argue this makes the job of call-centre agent more fulfilling. It elevates the worker.”
Joe Gagnon, chief customer strategy officer at technology company Aspect Software, says the ability of AI to take on routine matters will benefit staff. “As a result they will be happier, of greater value to the company, and develop a more positive perspective on their role.”