AI, Chatbots, Customer Service Transformation

Integrating Intelligent Virtual Agents (IVA) to transform CX for the Contact Center

By 7 Minute Read

The Role of AI-powered Intelligent Virtual Agents (IVA) in Today’s Contact Center Operations

Today’s emerging technologies are fundamentally changing the way customers interact and transact, shaping a whole new set of expectations that are forcing customer contact centers to transform how they deliver their services and strive for superior customer experience. The growth of mobile and messaging apps has created consumers who are used to having everything connected 24/7 and with single swipes. This generates increasing volumes of customer interactions that need to be handled, as well as higher user expectations on the immediacy of service delivery. Without modern technology and approaches, the operational costs associated with servicing the new digital customer are prohibitive. 

As the focus of contact center strategy shifts from customer service to customer experience, it is no longer enough to chip away at lowering call or live chat volumes, reducing average agent handling times and missed chats, and making agents more productive if overall customer experience takes a back seat. For sure, operational improvements help deliver customer service faster and cheaper but that doesn’t always translate into a better customer experience.

In the face of rising complexity in managing customers across multiple and ever-changing digital channels and meeting more demanding expectations for convenience, speed, and ease, today’s contact center must evolve and look to emerging artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to support a shift from customer service to customer experience. This blog examines the dual role of Intelligent Virtual Assistants (IVAs) in transforming customer experience and boosting contact center performance.

An Integrated Approach to Human and Virtual Agents Improving Customer Experience and Operational Performance

Today’s IVAs have morphed into more than just the early-days of basic chatbots that earned a bad reputation for their limited capability in responding correctly to customer queries. Instead, these intelligent virtual agents can be deployed in contact centers using a collaborative model, either acting as a smart buddy or assistant to a human agent or as a frontline to respond to routine queries and handoff to a human agent if needed.

When leveraging conversational AI in a contact center, these AI agents need to be integrated into the customer’s experience and into the workflows and systems used by human agents. Adopting an integrated and collaborative approach to using IVAs helps strike a good balance between automating highly repetitive and routine tasks using AI chatbots and managing more complex and sensitive customer issues via human agents. 

No matter how human-like a virtual agent is, the role of the real human agent in customer experience cannot be fully replaced. The beauty of smart virtual agents is that they can handle busy chat or call queues, respond to customers out of hours, support agents throughout a customer interaction, and help human staff add higher value to customer interactions by taking on and automating routine tasks.

6 Contact Center Performance Improvements from Implementing Intelligent Virtual Agents

There is plenty of potential for the adoption of IVAs in customer service centers and for the expansion of use cases beyond simple customer interactions. According to the 2019 Salesforce State of Service survey, just under a quarter (23%) of respondent service organizations had implemented AI chatbots, with their primary focus on reducing manual workloads for human agents by gathering initial case information and enabling self-service in simple scenarios. 

The impact of IVAs in automating manual workloads and being available 24/7 yields multiple business benefits for a customer service organization, as well as improving the overall satisfaction of both agents and customers. 

The following are six examples where traditional contact center metrics are positively impacted by the deployment of AI bot solutions. Together these have the ability to raise tight margins by lowering costs and increasing revenue potential. 

1. Eliminate Wait or Hold Times  

Customer waiting on hold

Today’s consumers are accustomed to immediate and fast responses across multiple aspects of their daily lives. Packages can arrive within 24 hours of ordering. Messaging apps give us information and responses in real-time. 

So why does any customer service organization think that waiting on hold is acceptable? One shocking example from the Canada Revenue Agency revealed that wait times increased from an average of 2 minutes to 15 minutes in the four years since 2016.

The reality of contact centers, however, is that there are peak periods that are not always predictable. Agents can become maxed out responding to a flux of inbound requests, requiring incoming customer calls or chats to be placed in a queue. As a queue grows and waiting times lengthen customers can abandon, indicating frustration, poor experience, and potential lost business. 

The implementation of a chatbot can help alleviate, if not totally eliminate wait times and abandonment by intercepting customers both at peak periods and out of hours. It can be designed to handle these interceptions through different workflows e.g. scheduling an appropriate callback time from an agent and/or responding to their queries and executing specified workflows.

2. Reduce Missed Chats and Abandonment Rates

Call abandonment rate

Contact center and live chat abandon rates are important metrics that represent missed business opportunities and poor experience. Many times the connection to the live chat agent breaks down, requiring the customer to launch the chat window and start from scratch. The premise of live or web chat is session-based, leading to sessions that time out or are abandoned as consumers get distracted or interrupted. 

Chatbots are different as they can operate in an asynchronous mode where sessions don’t drop. For example, a customer can start a conversation, pause, and continue a conversation hours later without having to start all over again. So an interaction or transaction can be brought to completion using the chatbot but without forcing a customer into an asynchronous conversation.

Also, since chatbots can work 24/7 and intercept customers when the center is at peak capacity, the volume of missed calls or chats can be dramatically reduced.  For example, an insurance client deployed a bot to help customers get policy quotes. Not only did this bot increase sales conversion rates but missed chats into the contact center were reduced by over 80%. This was achieved with no additional labor cost so it represented a significant impact on the bottom line.

3. Shorten Average Agent Handling Time (AHT) 

Agent Average Handling Time (AHT)

There are different ways that AI bots help reduce handling times on customer engagements, a key performance metric used in contact centers. Firstly, a bot can be used to assist an agent through a live chat engagement, providing them with suggested responses or information and automating the underlying tasks that better support the agent in responding faster. Because the bot can also detect customer intent, it can act as a virtual buddy to the live chat agent, speeding up access to the correct information and automating the live chat interaction. This is key to making agents more productive, resolving customer issues faster.

Secondly, chatbots can replace the need for human interactions on routine queries, thereby eliminating, or at least reducing, the need for live agents to handle mundane requests and workflows (e.g. FAQs, activations, status updates etc.), allowing them to focus on higher-value interactions.  Additionally, where a customer has already interacted with a bot and is then passed to an agent for further action, it’s more likely for the average handling time to be shorter as the chatbot has already handled part of the request. As proof, one of our insurance clients witnessed a 40% decrease in agent handling time from the implementation of one of their chatbots.

4. Increase Accuracy and Consistency of Responses

Accurate and consistent responses

Once a customer gets through to an agent there is still the problem of not obtaining the right information or getting incomplete information. In the case of the Canada Revenue Agency, mentioned earlier in this post, 40% of answers employees gave to customers were either wrong or incomplete. This has a critical impact on resolution rates but it also can lead to serious consequences for the business and their customers. 

Agent training and support are important in providing consistent and accurate responses but it can be difficult for agents to keep up with ever-changing situations, regulations, number of different channels, and customer requests. However, this can be improved by implementing AI bots that support the agents throughout a customer engagement regardless of their communication channel, understanding the customer’s intent and providing the correct responses within the chat. 

Use of a virtual agent alongside a live chat agent can often bring the best of both worlds together, where a virtual agent responds to routine requests and automates underlying workflows while the live agent can respond with the emotional intelligence and tackle more complex issues within the engagement. Chatbots can also work alone to provide consistent and correct responses to customers across multiple touch points, for example, updating a customer’s order status, providing account information, or accessing a knowledge base to provide product or other information. 

5. Enhance Customer Experience and Retention

Enhance Customer Experience

The application of AI within customer service and contact centers delivers even more than the benefits cited so far. Chatbots do much more than handle simple customer requests and workflows. They have the power to engage across multiple touch points and automate complex customer journeys such as customer onboarding, membership or subscription renewals, and claims management. They are instrumental in transforming traditional clunky processes, leveraging the power of digital messaging and voice channels, natural language processing, and machine learning.

In doing so they deliver substantial commercial benefits such as higher retention and renewal rates, increased sales conversion rates, faster resolution times and more. Critically for today’s consumer, however, is that the enhance the overall customer experience,  improving customer reach, convenience, and satisfaction,  all at a lower cost of service delivery.

6. Improve Agent Productivity and Satisfaction

IVAs and Agent Performance

Chatbots can work alongside agents, automating routine workflows and allowing agents to handle more complex customer issues. As the agents are relieved from mundane tasks their work becomes more interesting and fulfilling. This can greatly increase their individual value-add and boost their satisfaction levels.  

Agent satisfaction and morale also increases when pressure is taken off the contact center by the bots intercepting customers in busy periods and handling their requests.  

Conclusion: Introduce AI to the Contact Center via Intelligent Virtual Agents

Contact centers and Business Process Outsourcing providers (BPO) are under increasing pressure to drive down operational costs while meeting increasingly demanding customer and client expectations. But as digital technologies enable growth in customer self-service models, some of the traditional operational approaches that focused on chipping away at agent handling times, the average cost per call or live chat, and other agent productivity measures may not alone be sufficient benchmarks for competitiveness and customer experience. 

As self-service increases, replacing some call or live chat interactions, contact centers will need to increasingly look to innovative technologies that can combine operational efficiency with improved customer experience across complete customer journeys. 

Artificial intelligence technology will play a pivotal role in customer service transformation and one place where there is a lot to gain in the short term is by adopting intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs) to support human agents, automate routine tasks, and offer around-the-clock availability.

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