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What’s the “Next Normal” for the Call Center?

The world of February 2020, before COVID-19 became a global pandemic, no longer exists. No one knows exactly what a “new normal” will look like, but we can predict the next normal for the call center based on how the most successful companies are responding.

AI helps cut costs and improve capacity as call centers downsize

COVID-19 caught many call centers flat-footed, unprepared for a sudden flood of calls and unable to train new agents fast enough to meet demand. According to an April survey of 250 business leaders, 64% of call centers reported downsizing their operations in response to COVID-19 — even as customer issues increased. Call centers who were able to temporarily boost capacity now find themselves overstaffed as customer service calls have leveled off. 

Companies with existing investments in Voice AI, however, found themselves in a prime position. Unlike human agents, Voice AI offers elastic capacity — the ability to ramp up quickly in response to demand and scale back just as fast. Replicant’s Voice Responder can quickly scale from answering 10 calls an hour to answering 1,000, a pure ROI impossible for human call centers. Pre-coronavirus, one company with voice AI reported an ROI of $39 million and a 30% reduction in misrouted calls, which means even more savings as call volumes increase due to the crisis. Some of the world’s largest call centers, including Vodafone, Verizon, and AT&T, were already using Voice AI to reduce costs. 

Leaders know that traditional call center layouts, which often require agents to sit near each other in open-office floor plans, put people at high risk for coronavirus —  as shown in South Korea, where one employee infected 97 other in a single-floor call center. Remote call center operations, meanwhile, have difficulties of their own, including customer privacy concerns and legacy technology that makes remote work difficult. As call centers face higher demand than ever, Voice AI can step in and bridge the gap.

Voice AI can help boost revenue, too

But as businesses face the world’s biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, cutting costs alone isn’t enough: they still need to drive revenue. AI can help there, too, by improving sales and payment collection rates. 

In the same survey of 250 executives, 40% of businesses reported that sales would benefit the most from improved customer self-service, while 20% said that payments would benefit the most. If payments are difficult to make and answers hard to find, customers are less likely to pay their existing bills and much less likely to purchase again from the same company. By investing in self-service technology like Voice AI, which 78% of executives expressed as a priority. businesses can bolster their revenues in a time of economic uncertainty. 

As Amy Allen of CSG notes, there are also situations where humans prefer virtual assistants to humans who may judge them, like when discussing payment plans. Instead of feeling ashamed to call, customers are more likely to set up a plan and pay on time when they can speak to a helpful Voice AI.

Voice AI means higher-value, happier human interactions

Just as self-checkouts haven’t replaced grocery store workers and ATMs haven’t replaced bankers, Voice AI won’t fully replace humans. Instead, it will enable higher value human interactions, making human employees happier with their jobs and less likely to quit. Instead of answering the same questions on repeat, human agents will be empowered to deal with complex issues.

The extra call center capacity offered by Voice AI will also make human to human interactions more pleasant: a customer who’s been on hold for an hour is more likely to be confrontational than a customer whose problem was quickly diagnosed and routed to an agent. And when human agents have more time to help each customer, they can display the kind of human emotion and empathy that Voice AI can’t. As so many of us are grieving lost loved ones, lost opportunities, and the loss of life as we know it, a caring human on the other end of the line can make a real difference. 

Good customer service is like toilet paper: you only notice it when it’s gone. In the early weeks of the pandemic, as demand for toilet paper spiked, customer service calls spiked, too, resulting in unhappy customers around the world.

In the next wave of the crisis, Voice AI can’t help with the toilet paper — but it can make sure there’s no shortage of great customer service.

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