Conversational AI eases burden of rising customer experience expectations

Johannesburg, 26 Oct 2020
Read time 4min 20sec
Sebastian Reeve, Director of International Go-To-Market, Intelligent Engagement, Nuance Communications
Sebastian Reeve, Director of International Go-To-Market, Intelligent Engagement, Nuance Communications

As South Africa – like the rest of the world – settles down to adapt to the post-COVID-19 pandemic era’s “new normal”, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of the consumer behaviours adopted during the lockdown are likely to continue.

This includes a growing expectation by consumers for a customer experience that incorporates the highest levels of customer service, including prompt, efficient response to queries, ease of business interactions and flexible yet reliable delivery.

Sebastian Reeve, Director of International Go-To-Market, Intelligent Engagement at Nuance Communications, says the lockdown accelerated the move to what can be termed the “on-demand” age – the expectation by consumers who increasingly use always-on, location-agnostic digital channels to interact with organisations to have their queries responded to and resolved quickly and accurately.

“This shift was starting to become prevalent before the pandemic. However, the lockdown generated an unprecedented flood of queries from uncertain and worried customers who were rapidly adapting to a new way of interacting with organisations they might well have dealt with for years. This placed customer service teams under enormous pressure, with ‘traditional’ physical contact centres having to become virtual and their limited resources having to find their way in the newly remote working environment,” he explains.

Business have scrambled to adapt, well aware that they cannot afford to let their customer service levels drop, because delivering a superior customer experience is key to driving customer retention.

As Paul Greenberg, strategist and author of the best-seller “CRM at the Speed of Light” noted: “If a customer likes you and continues to like you, they will do business with you. If they don’t, they won’t.”

Recent Invesp research revealed that it costs five times as much to attract a new customer as to keep an existing one, and that increasing retention rates by 5% can increase profits by 25% to 95%. Despite this, and the fact that 70% of companies acknowledge that it’s cheaper to retain than acquire a customer, most companies (44%) are more focused on customer acquisition than retention (18%).

Reeve predicts that the easing of the lockdown won’t reduce the pressure on customer experience delivery – if anything, it will increase. Existing customers will remember those that delivered superior service during the height of the pandemic, and new customers will come with heightened expectations of what constitutes acceptable customer experience.

“Companies that are unable to meet this demand will put their businesses at further risk at a time of significant market uncertainty,” he adds. “Every organisation, from an SME to a corporate giant, has to deliver a customer response experience that relays the information clients quickly, conveniently and securely.”

One way in which this need could be addressed is through the adoption of conversational artificial intelligence (AI) technology. While companies have been automating parts of customer service for years using applications and Web pages, conversational AI takes this to a whole new level.

Conversational AI is the use of chatbots, messaging apps and speech-based assistants to automate communication and create personalised customer experiences. Using the most intuitive interface available – natural language – long-running interactions can be undertaken with large numbers of individual customers simultaneously.

AI-powered virtual agents enable businesses to install chatbots that can respond to queries 24/7, across any channel – chat, voice and social. More sophisticated “virtual agents” are now sufficiently advanced to be able to comprehend the intention behind customer queries and requests, keep track of a customer’s entire conversation history, and are even able to interact with a customer in a natural, near-human tone.

AI also allows contact centres to quickly adapt to unexpected demands and provide updated information on the fly, without having to retrain human agents. For example, the global retailer H&M is deploying a combination of virtual assistant, live chat and Google’s Business Messages to assist customers through their shopping experience and provide real-time answers to inquiries. This confluence of technologies can help alleviate some of the call volume in contact centres, so that live agents can focus on customers’ toughest challenges without affecting other customers' wait times, giving consumers more choice and flexibility while shopping online, as well as a positive customer experience.

According to Reeve, the AI-driven agents and software won’t replace humans – it could free human agents to deal with the most pressing, complex and far more meaningful emotion-driven interactions, as well with “after-hours” queries, thus easing pressure on the contact centre.

“AI-driven contact centre solutions can assist in ensuring that today and during future disruptions and surges in customer service requests, the efficiency and effectiveness of customer service operations can continue unaffected,” he concludes.

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