By Mandy Reed, Global Head of Marketing
For years automated self-service tools like chatbots and virtual agents have been criticised as being a cold and impersonal way of supporting customers. Opponents of these conversational AI solutions claim they remove the human touch from the customer experience and keep companies from being able to build real relationships with their customers.
As conversational AI technologies have improved and customer preferences have shifted more towards self-service options, some of these critiques have become less relevant. Certainly, over the past two years with the pandemic making in-person interactions less possible or desirable, there has been a significant uptick in the acceptance and expectation of digital support. Many companies have found their virtual agent solutions to be a lifesaver for both their customers and their business over that time.
Yet, it’s also clear that technology can’t fully replace the need for real human interactions. No matter how advanced and integrated your conversational AI tool may be, some support issues are best handled by a contact centre agent. And some consumers will always prefer to talk to a human even when self-service options are available. Any conversational AI vendor worth their salt will never advocate for their technology to completely remove the human from the experience for these reasons.
In addition to the push to digital, the pandemic has also brought a crushing load of personal and professional stresses for your customers – financial concerns, deaths of loved ones, long-term health issues – added on top of their usual day-to-day stresses. This has made the human interactions they have with your company even more significant and potentially challenging for your employees and agents.
Gartner has predicted that by 2026, 75% of customers who call customer service and support will do so because of loneliness, and not because they have an actual service issue. That alone will have a massive impact on your contact centre. It further highlights the fact that you need to equip your agents and employees with the right tools and training to properly support vulnerable customers.
Unfortunately, for some businesses all this compounds an already existing struggle to properly assist vulnerable customers. Recently someone I know tragically lost everything in a house fire – thankfully she, her dogs, and her neighbours are all fine! Most of her interactions with her utility companies were fast, smooth, and empathetic. However, the call she had with one provider was horrible and made an experience that was already traumatic even worse. After a 45-minute wait to connect to an agent, she was pressured to pause her service (at a monthly cost) even after being clear she wanted to cancel, told she had to go into the house to recover their equipment (or be charged for it) despite her saying everything in the house was a total loss, and pushed for a new address for them to send her final bill even though her account had been on autopay for 10 years.
It was very clear that this agent did not have the proper training or tools to deal with a customer needing assistance after a catastrophic loss. This company missed the opportunity to build a stronger relationship with a long-standing customer through a supportive, empathetic human interaction. Instead, they have both lost a previously loyal customer and delivered an experience so bad that she’s shared it with her family, friends, and followers on social media.
One of the CX trends Gartner has identified for executive leaders in 2022 is increasing the capability for customer empathy at all levels of the organisation. For some companies, a focus on trust and empathy is long overdue. For others, this is already a priority and part of the internal culture.
In fact, some forward-thinking companies are using conversational AI to make their customer interactions more human and empathetic.
Conversational AI solutions designed specifically for the contact centre have been creating better experiences and improving agent performance for years. A perfect example of this is Motability Operations, an organisation in the UK that provides cars, wheelchairs, and scooters to more than 630,000 customers with severe disabilities. They have used a virtual agent tool in their contact centre since 2007 to support their advisors taking incoming calls. They have won numerous awards and recognitions over the years for their tool, including a 2015 Customer Contact Innovation Award.
The judges selected Motability Operations because their “approach to knowledge management builds trust and supports effective conversations, getting it ‘right first time’, optimising call length and – above all – helping advisors give customer confidence.” The conversational AI tool gives every agent in the contact centre access to all the information at their fingertips, so they don’t need to worry about how they are going to find the right answer. Instead, their focus can be on listening to the caller and engaging with them in a human and empathic way.
Virtual agent solutions are also helping other company employees outside of the contact centre improve their human interactions with customers. Some organisations have deployed internal conversational AI tools to give employees easy access to information on products, services, and processes. With the right integrations, these tools can even allow employees to submit forms, check on account information, and update orders all in one place.
One major financial services group, after seeing the benefits of using internal virtual agents for years, deployed a new conversational AI solution designed to help employees provide specialist support for potentially vulnerable customers. Employees can use search terms such as ‘job loss’, ‘autism’, and ‘anxiety’ to access tips on how to support the customer’s needs sensitively and effectively. The tool also includes a glossary and links to practical and helpful resources.
Think about how much better my friend’s interaction would have been after the traumatic loss of her home if the agent she spoke with had access to that kind of conversational AI tool. A quick search for ‘house fire’ could have provided him with the proper questions to ask and special accommodations that could be made for a customer in that situation to create a supportive, empathic experience at such a vulnerable time.
As your organisation works to increase customer empathy this year and provide better support for vulnerable customers, consider how conversational AI technology can help you do that. Instead of removing the human touch from your CX, conversational AI can make your engagements with customers more human and empathic.