Pandemic-driven adoption of VAs set to become a customer service norm

Johannesburg, 10 Aug 2021
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Sebastian Reeve, Strategy Director, Nuance Communications.
Sebastian Reeve, Strategy Director, Nuance Communications.

One of the most profound lessons learned by customer service professionals from the COVID-19-induced lockdowns is that the provision of digital channels for customer interactions can no longer be regarded as an optional extra or nice-to-have. Instead, international experience indicates that customers want a prompt and efficient service regardless of how this is delivered. 

So says Sebastian Reeve, Strategy Director at Nuance Communications, who points out that one of the first casualties of the lockdown was the conventional call centre with its banks of agents fielding calls from customers.

“Almost overnight, just as companies were facing a tsunami of queries from anxious customers who could no longer visit their brick-and-mortar outlets, call centres were forced to close or soldier on with significantly reduced agent numbers. Most agents were sent home to try and continue servicing clients over hastily deployed virtual call centres and unstable internet connections.

“While customers were generally understanding of the difficulties businesses faced in dealing with the sudden disruption, more than 16 months later, they are becoming increasingly less tolerant of poor service. They don’t want to constantly be put on hold because of a shortage of available call centre agents, or – after finally being connected to an agent – have the call drop,” he says.

However, international experience has shown that companies that have coped best with the lockdown fallout are those that rapidly deployed effective digital channels, including the use of conversational or intelligent virtual assistants (VA).

Additionally, a recent international survey by OnePoll exploring humanity’s changing relationship with digital technology and experiences discovered that tech savviness has soared post-pandemic, but we still want the personal touch.The majority of consumers (58%) believe that, even after the pandemic, they’ll have more digital interactions than they did previously.

Powered by artificial intelligence (AI) technology, VAs deliver an intuitive, automated and consistent experience to digital self-service customer service channels by engaging with customers in natural, intelligent and human-like conversation using voice or text. Advanced VAs have the ability to understand complex queries, ask clarifying questions and personalise responses, and even react appropriately to customer frustration, thus helping to deliver a superior customer self-service experience. Where necessary, however, the VA can also provide a smooth transition to a live agent.

“Virtual assistants help organisations to reduce costs and increase call deflection and containment, while improving the customer experience and reducing pressure on the call centre and its overstretched live agents,” Reeve explains.

He points out that although the term ‘call deflection’ implies that voice calling is the customer’s first choice, this is not necessarily the case. Often, when companies start to offer digital engagement options to customers, many will naturally shift away from the phone channel.

In fact, Nuance research has found that 84% of customers try to find the answer to their question using an organisation’s self-service application first.

However, Reeve emphasises, it’s important not to force customers to use a particular channel.

“Let customers choose how they engage with your organisation,” he says.

In addition, while either a live assist platform with human agents or VA can both deliver high levels of customer satisfaction, Reeve maintains the two technologies are even stronger together.

The VA could act as the first point-of-call for customers who choose to engage digitally, capturing their intent and offering answers to simple questions. This can significantly help to manage the volume of customers reaching human call centre agents without compromising customer satisfaction.

“Nuance’s experience around the world has shown that VAs are able to resolve around 80% of customer queries. But what about the remaining 20%? The inability to answer customers’ questions can quickly drive them away. Delivering prompt live assistance is therefore essential to make customers feel their needs are being met. It’s therefore essential that live (human) chat is integrated into the digital customer engagement platform,” he adds.

It’s also possible to use business rules on websites to target the right visitors with the right engagement tool at the right time. For example, a company could use VAs to engage the broader audience and answer repetitive questions, and then use human agents to answer complex enquiries and assist high-value customers.

However, Reeve warns against taking a “big bang” approach to adopting VA technology.

“There’s a lot to consider when adopting VAs. Start small: decide which topics the VA should cover. Try to limit this to providing automated answers no more than 20 questions. Then decide when the VA should hand customers over to a live agent. It’s also necessary to determine how much content the VA needs before deployment. Only once this has been fully bedded down, should the VA platform be expanded,” he says.

“Although many companies that shifted to digital channels did so in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, many report that VAs are delivering long-term benefits for the company’s contact centre. Because of these uniformly positive experiences, we anticipate that VAs will become standard technology in most contact centres in the months and years ahead,” Reeve concludes.