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Botman vs Superagent: Dawn of the future contact centre?

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26 October 2017

Dr Nicola Millard

Blogs by author:  Dr Nicola Millard , Head of Customer Insight and Futures, BT

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Cinemas have been packed to the rafters with superhero movies lately. Whether it’s Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, they pop their underpants on over their trousers and battle the big and the bad (often a rogue robot, or an intergalactic weapon of some kind). But can the same be said for the contact centre industry? Are we about to witness a similar clash of the Titans between Botman (automation, self-service and chatbots), and Superagents (our front line employees)?

Arguably, contact centres have always been at the forefront of automation. Pretty much anything that can be automated, has already been automated – through interactive voice response (press 1…), to self-service and apps. Has this made the contact centre redundant? No, arguably it’s made them more strategic, becoming the human aspect of the brand. The question many are debating is whether this will continue as the industry faces the onslaught of artificial intelligence.

The most hyped technology of the moment is the chatbot. In our latest Digital customer 2017 research, 73 per cent of customers thought that chatbots would help organisations enhance their customer service. However, the average chatbots’ superpowers are still well below their current hype, and future potential – especially where scintillating banter is concerned. The underlying technology will undoubtedly improve in 2-3 years but right now, chatbots are only really at the level of a slightly turbopowered “IVR for digital” (and we all know how much customers like IVR!). They are only as good as the data that they have access to – bad data means a bad robot.

The bigger superpower currently lies in the hands of customers.

We have smartphones, apps and self-service that supercharge us to do a lot more ourselves. Whether it’s Google, Netflix, or Amazon, algorithms work hard behind the scenes to create personalised and proactive experiences that are unique to us. But we are lazy superheroes. We only like using our powers if it doesn’t drain us of energy (i.e. it’s easy), and we feel like we are in control. If this doesn’t happen, we usually decide to put the bat signal out and get some help.

Evidence shows that we are doing this less frequently – there is less demand coming into many contact centres. However, when it does come, we tend to need someone who can take on the complex and emotive stuff that we can’t do ourselves. We’ve called these people “agents” – I prefer “networked experts”, but “superagents” will also do.

Do these superagents need to have a lasso of truth, leap across tall buildings and have X-ray vision? Probably not – but they do have something that “Botman” doesn’t; a human brain.

Machines are good at following rules, repetition, and spotting patterns in large data sets – we aren’t. However, we have many superpowers that we do better than machines. We can be empathetic, creative, caring, innovative, intuitive, have meaningful conversations, and we can negotiate with customers to get a win:win situation. We don’t always need data, or rules. All these will be the kind of super powers that we need in our agents – and they are uniquely human ones.

In fact the key skill for a superagent is to NOT be a robot. They need to be exceptional communicators across every channel they deal with. They need to wield a trident of power to stick into the spaghetti of back end process on behalf of the customer. When they need to jump in and save the day, you don’t just want them to respond fast and then decide that they can’t do anything – they need to be able to take things on. They may also need the tools to collaborate with other superagents to save the day (what are the Avengers without the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, or Batman without Robin?)

Do we need to gather all of these superpowers in one place?

Probably not, because many of the tools that can help a superagent can be acquired from the cloud (which sounds like a place a superhero might like to live). Simply having a browser and an internet connection means that a greater number of superagents with the right powers can join the squad – they don’t have to be constrained to a contact centre anymore but can swoop in whenever and wherever they are needed.

We’re also seeing contact centre managers evolving into the guardians of the customer experience. It is undeniable that, if you want to understand what is going on in your organisation, the contact centre is a good place to start. Rather than just counting calls, managers need to have that all-seeing eye (e.g. analytics tools) to spot patterns in contacts and leap into action to alert the rest of the organisation if things are going wrong. Is a new product launch a disaster? Are customer bills confusing? Is there a massive service outage in this area? All of these are questions that the contact centre manager could answer if they are given the tools and imbued with the required powers from the supreme beings (a.k.a. your board).

So this epic battle between Botman and Superagent in the contact centre will probably result in an alliance, not a war. That’s why I prefer to call “Artificial Intelligence”, “Augmented Intelligence”. Smart people plus smart technologies are better together than as adversaries. Smart technologies can take away the mundane stuff, “speed date” (or precision route) complex issues with the right superagents, allow agents to switch channels seamlessly, and make things easier for customers to get to their goal.

Is it time for the dawn of a new model for contact centres?

Nicola’s latest whitepaper explores the relationship between man and machine in the context of customer experience. Read her paper to find out how far machine learning has come and how organisations can use it to strengthen both their customer and employee experience.