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Conversational AI to help with high demands in contact centers

Replicant and Nuance Communications have announced tools aimed at curbing the influx of calls during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has limited the number of customer service reps.

Call centers have experienced an influx of calls with limited staff due to COVID-19 lockdowns worldwide. As a result, companies are turning to conversational AI tools such as interactive voice response systems and chatbots.

For example, Nuance Communications recently announced Voice to Agent Messaging, a new capability in the Nuance Intelligent Engagement Platform. Rather than forcing customers to wait for an available agent or leave a number to receive a call back, the feature lets them leave messages, then transcribes the calls and uses natural language processing to analyze and direct the transcript to a customer service agent or messaging channel.

"[Call centers are] dealing with massively increased demand. What the solution in its simplest does is it asks the consumer why it is they're calling. It captures that information by a speech, and we can apply some natural language processing to that," said Seb Reeves, intelligent engagement market development manager at Nuance.

According to Ian Jacobs, principal analyst at Forrester Research, tools like chatbots and interactive voice response systems help better balance the workload. "It is trying to shift the volume away from the phone … and see if some digital conversational AI experience can resolve the customer's issue," he said. "Essentially, they create a case or a work item for an agent to handle when they are free to do so. It's that same underlying concept here of 'How do we shift the volume from this crazy-high volume and expensive channel to a less expensive channel where it can handle multiple interactions?'"

Replicant Solutions also recently announced a new conversational AI tool designed to help agents mitigate long hold times and high call volumes. AI Voice Responder is able to not only take customer calls but also answer a variety of frequently asked questions. The calls are then prioritized, and more complex or urgent issues are handed over to live reps.

"One of the interesting challenges that we face today the challenge we face in the customer service space is just this elastic capacity. Because call volume changed dramatically because of the coronavirus, agent capacity changed a lot as well. And I think today there's 'I have an emergency, I need more capacity; can you help me with it?'" said Gadi Shamia, CEO of Replicant. "I think in the future the customer service world is going to change quite dramatically, because it's learned this really interesting lesson about the inability to balance supply, which is number of agents and demand, which is number of calls."

In the past, conversational AI has been seen as impersonal to many end users, given the tool's inability to convey empathy. However, companies are beginning to innovate how AI can sound and interact with end users in a way that is more human-like, according to Brent Kelly, president and principal analyst at KelCor Inc.

"The thing that's been really remarkable for me as I've learned about the [Replicant Voice Responder] is the conversational way that the voices are that it uses," Kelly said. "They're very good and it almost makes you feel like you're talking to a real person. I think that's a differentiator; the other differentiator that they've got is how fast the intelligent virtual agent is. This artificial intelligent bot can figure out what I say and how fast it can respond to me, those are the two differentiators."          

Although the situation is unique, it gives an opportunity for enterprises to implement this technology even after the pandemic. Chatbots can take on menial tasks to save customer service representatives time.

"The other reason that the agents are going to need help is, we're now deploying a lot more conversational AI, so it's going to handle a lot of simple things," Jacobs said. "All brands are going to be relying on humans for more complex issues or issues that really require a good degree of human empathy or compassion."

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