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Will AI Replace Contact Center Agents?

Contact centers are adopting artificial intelligence (AI) solutions to automate customer service, provide better self-service options, improve first call resolution, and help lower operational costs.

AI tools such as intelligent virtual agents (IVAs), and conversational AI are expected to define the near-future contact center. While management sees these technologies as effective ways to deliver better CX and mitigate costs, agents are asking: will AI replace us? The short answer is no. 

Agents, breathe a sigh of relief. And, managers introducing AI technology, feel free to let go of the fear that automation will replace your valuable agents. Here’s why. 

What AI is designed to do in the contact center

As AI has matured, it’s become evident that its non-human nature limits its ability to replace humans in roles that require connection and relationship building. Automation has long inspired humans to offload work to machines that can be done faster, more accurately, and with more ease.

AI in the contact center is designed to automate aspects of customer service that machines can (and probably should) be doing. 

When AI was in its infancy, there was speculation that it would have the ability to eliminate many human jobs entirely. While there are roles that AI will replace in various industries, for the most part, AI engineers are focusing on how AI can assist and augment humans to work more efficiently. 

For the contact center, AI serves to: 

Increase call deflection and lower costs Agents typically spend an inordinate amount of time fielding the same questions, performing the same mundane transactions, and handling Tier-1 issues that lead to boredom and poor agent engagement rates. High agent turnover is often a reflection of the tedious nature of the work. 

AI tools are designed to automate rote, transactional work like Tier-1 issue resolution, manually update customer information, log call summaries, and answer common questions. This increases call deflection rates, which lowers operational costs

AI is also designed to enable call centers to scale customer service without having to add more agents or schedule more shifts. With AI handling Tier-1 issues, at scale, contact centers can improve customer experience — if the AI technology delivers a great experience (not all do). 

AI improves customer satisfaction on Tier-1 issues Because AI is able to handle up to 90% of Tier-1 issue resolution, it improves first contact resolution (FCR) rates — a key indicator for customer satisfaction and contact center performance. By automating their ability to resolve common issues and using AI to offer more self-service options for customers, call handle times go down and FCR goes up. 

It should be noted that AI itself does not guarantee a positive customer experience. It must be thoughtfully designed and applied according to customer expectations of the brand. Industries where customers expect high-touch, human service, such as luxury brands, will find that AI is less likely to generate a positive customer response unless it delivers a nearly-human interaction capacity (like Replicant Voice) and can connect to an agent quickly.

Industries that have more transactional customer service issues like retailers that process returns, order updates, and answer common FAQs can leverage AI that handles a majority of customer engagements in lieu of agents. However, AI still needs to deliver a nearly-human experience for it to deliver a great customer experience. 

AI supports and enhances agents Lifting Tier-1 issues off agents not only helps the business, but it frees agents from repetitive work. It gives them the opportunity to handle higher-level issues that require empathy, complex problem solving, and relationship building. Voice AI is designed to do this. AI is also designed to assist agents with fast access to customer data, relevant product information, and offer best-next-steps recommendations. Tools such as Agent Assist use AI to help agents deliver better CX, reduce agent stress, and take the guesswork out of handling evolving customer needs. 

The ultimate success of AI is its ability to support agents, free them to leverage the best of their human qualities, and help them deliver faster, more accurate, more personalized customer experiences.

What humans can do that AI can’t

AI is an amazing technology that improves solutions, but as we’ve pointed out, it’s not human. There are key things that only humans can do, no matter how smart AI gets.

  • Be empathetic in relating to the customer. Empathy, the ability to emotionally relate to another being’s feelings and situation, is highly valued in agents. Customers need a listening ear, someone to understand their disappointment, anger, or frustration; and only a fellow human with a caring heart can do this. AI can offer empathetic responses, but it cannot convey emotion — and humans need emotional connection to build trust, loyalty, and affection. 
  • Use humor to diffuse tense situations. Very often great agents will use a bit of humor to help diffuse tense moments with frustrated customers. This shift in emotion can help convert negative sentiment to positive — a key agent ability as customer service is often where customer relationships are saved or lost. 
  • Understand broader contexts and complexities. Customer situations and stories can get complex and detailed. While AI can understand the factual information provided by a customer, they cannot understand the emotional impact those facts have on the customer. Again, requiring empathy. Very complex customer situations are also high stakes for customer retention and may require agents to go the extra mile or do something out of the ordinary to save the relationship. 
  • Build deeper customer relationships. AI can solve customer issues, but it cannot build and grow a relationship with the customer. Agents are needed to create connection, trust, and loyalty. While AI can resolve an issue, agents are able to understand what that resolution means to the customer and build rapport. Deepening customer relationships is a growing requirement of agents in many contact centers and is expected to continue to be so. 

All that said, as AI handles work that once occupied much of agents’ time, contact centers are rethinking the role of agents and creating new opportunities to leverage human talent with the help of AI. 

AI creates new jobs for humans

With AI serving as an additional workforce and assisting agents, many contact centers are evaluating the role that contact centers play within organizations. If agents aren’t needed for Tier-1 issues, they are free to be retrained and upskilled for higher value work. Many are being trained to support sales, do proactive outbound service, and engage in highly complex issue resolution, transforming the contact center into a center of excellence. With these changes, the day may soon come when the role of the contact center agent becomes professionalized and elevated within the business. 

AI is paving the way for improved customer and agent experiences and together, AI + humans can deliver optimal customer service. Learn more about conversational AI.

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