Contact centers have evolved consistently over the past two decades and always seem to be utilizing a mix of both old school voice technologies and newer solution elements. My exposure to contact centers has been as a customer, product manager for related connectivity products and as a contributor to an important SIP-based IETF standard for standardizing collection of user information. I also get to hear war stories on a regular basis from people I know who work in call centers.
One of the newest trends is to add Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the mix. Google has recently announced their Cloud Contact Center AI solution and it’s described in some detail within a blog post on the Google web site.
Google themselves aren’t in the Contact Center solution market (yet!) and this solution is designed to complement solutions from other providers. There is a rich history of solutions provided by companies such as Avaya, Genesys, Cisco and many others that were originally all premise based, but contact center solutions increasingly have been moving to the Cloud in recent years. A review of the blog post noted above shows an interesting mix of how AI is injected into the fray. Contact centers are a people intensive business, as agents take incoming calls and customers get queued up until an agent is available. Google’s Diagflow development tool enables contact center providers to create automated virtual agents who can take incoming calls and use a combination of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) tools and access to databases to start interacting with incoming callers. There are limits at this point, but the tools such as Virtual Agent (shown as being in a Beta status) can start analyzing the caller’s needs, answer some questions and determine if a handoff to a live agent is needed.
Another new tool is called Agent Assist. Assuming that some of the incoming calls eventually do need to connect to a human agent, this tool (shown as being at Alpha level) can augment the agent’s progress through the conversation by providing tips such as relevant articles or other shortcuts.
The big picture here is fascinating. There’s been a long term debate about whether AI should replace human roles or augment human capabilities. Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators, has some interesting discussion about this from AI experts on both sides of this argument. Google AI pursues both directions. At the business level, contact centers employ a lot of humans and need to assist many customers via tools which can include voice, chat, speech recognition and much more. Customers want answers or perhaps want to make a purchase. So whether AI is used to deal directly with the customer needs or help an agent to get to answers more quickly, it’s a win for the customers. For the companies who deploy contact centers, AI offers another approach to get more productivity out of the investment they have already made in contact center solutions and in agent resources that utilize these solutions. Human call agents do add value in this equation, particularly when the issues are complex or emotions come into play, so don’t expect these virtual assistants to eliminate those roles, but over time, the trend is likely to be toward making more use of AI at various stages of the customer interaction.
If you or your company is active in the contact center eco-system, feel free to weigh in with your comments. If your company would like advice on how trends like AI will affect strategies for providing contact center solutions, you can reach me on LinkedIn or at our web site.