GUEST POST by Omer Minkara, Vice President, Principal Analyst at Aberdeen

Providing customers with outstanding customer service is a major priority for many business leaders, and it shows. According to the 354 businesses participating in Aberdeen’s recent customer service survey, the top objectives influencing customer service executives’ agenda — in order of importance — are:

  1. Addressing client demand for better service
  2. Decreasing operational costs
  3. Making better use of data
  4. Reducing the impact of agent churn

In addition to these insights, the survey revealed the processes and technologies CX leaders are using to accomplish their goals. These teams have a rich technology toolbox that can help them achieve CX objectives. Savvy organizations regularly monitor changes in customer behavior and expectations as well as industry trends to ensure they are using the right technologies to meet and exceed customer expectations.

One of the top technologies companies plan to incorporate within their CX technology toolbox in 2019 and beyond is virtual agents. Data shows that while 36% of companies currently use this technology, another 32% of firms also plan to incorporate it, leading to an annual increase of 89%.

Virtual agents are AI-enabled technology tools that analyze voice or text data to determine the context of a customer’s issue for intelligent self-service. Once the context is determined, they follow the designed workflows to pull information from relevant enterprise systems to respond to customer issues. For example, when a customer asks their current credit card balance, the software uses the customer ID and follows a workflow to find the balance in the company billing system. Therefore, by definition, this process involves automating certain processes so the virtual agent can execute designed workflows after determining the context of the customer issue.

Virtual agents work especially well when applied to less complex issues such as account balance checks, checking flight status, and order delivery status inquires. Customers can interact with virtual agents through voice or text; Data from our recent survey shows that 23% of businesses enable consumers to use voice as the input when interacting with virtual agents while 21% rely on text, and 56% use both.

Now, let’s now look at why companies plan to increase their adoption and use of this technology. Figure 1 shows the year-over-year performance gains observed by companies using virtual agents to deliver customer service and those that don’t. Data shows that companies with virtual agents enjoy 77% greater annual improvement in customer satisfaction rates. This is important as it aligns with the number one goal influencing customer service programs: addressing client demand for better service. The improvement in customer satisfaction results enjoyed by firms using virtual agents means that this technology is linked to creating happier customers.

Figure 1: Virtual Agent Users Observe Improvement in CX and Financial Results

Figure 1 shows that firms with virtual agents enjoy 2.1 times greater annual improvement (decrease) in average handle times. This means that using AI capabilities such as machine learning and automation help these firms more quickly determine the context of simple customer issues, such as an account balance check, and address them effectively.

When dealing with complex issues, virtual agents also help companies capture contextual insights into customer needs. Providing this information to the contact center agent through the agent desktop helps agents with necessary background needed to seamlessly handle the customer’s issue, helping to increase agent productivity, decrease handle times, and minimize customer effort.

This latter point about using virtual agents for simple issues and agent-assisted support for more complex ones is crucial. The findings from our new survey show that the number one reason why self-service interactions fail in addressing customer needs is that the interaction is too complex to be handled through self-service. While AI capabilities bring a certain level of intelligence to help companies address client issues, they are not yet sophisticated enough to handle more complex issues, such as insurance claim disputes.

Hence, it’s vital for CX leaders to first determine the context of a customer issue when using virtual agents. If it’s determined that the issue is complex, the virtual agent technology can be used to capture some background information and then route the customer to a skilled agent. If, however the issue is less complex, it can then automatically execute the relevant workflows to address the customer’s needs.

Besides complexity, another factor companies should consider when determining whether an issue should be handled through a virtual agent or a human agent is if the issue requires empathy. Despite recent advances in AI capabilities, technology tools are not yet fully capable of showing empathy toward humans. They can detect emotions such as happiness or frustration, but virtual agents can’t yet hold empathetic conversations.

With this in mind, we recommend using virtual agents for customer conversations where consumers don’t require or expect empathy. Interestingly, these conversations are also often less complex interactions, such as checking the status of a flight. For issues that require more empathy, such as requesting a payment extension or insurance claim disputes, it’s recommended that companies route these issues to humans who can empathize with customers as they try to address related questions.

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