Is Artificial Intelligence (AI) Making Inroads to Outsourced Customer Support?

A robot sitting at a desk

Rethinking overseas outsourcing is on the cards for a while. For years, Westerns have had their service calls on credit card bills and broken cell phones handled by customer service agents in the low cost locations. A decade ago, it made a lot of sense to outsource customer support overseas. But that’s changing. Increasingly, companies that want to outsource their customer service are happy with domestic arrangements.

As we are aware of there is still a cost advantage of handing customer support by a Filipino vs an American, but the differential is shrinking and also few companies along the learning curve are experiencing the adverse impact on customer loyalty and retention rates. While cost arbitrage vis-a-vis customer loyalty is a food for thought, the good news is that, as the global outsourcing industry matures, more and more companies are turning towards leveraging advanced technologies for providing customer support services. While there is still a need for a human intervention to answer a customer support call, the actual point of human contact is constantly being pushed further and further down the chain of engagement.

Historically, the automated call distribution (ACD) system would route a call to the first available agent (first in, first out or FIFO). That approach was augmented by skills-based routing (SBR), in which calls would flow based on organizational logic such as subject matter or issue type. These traditional approaches rely on relatively straightforward, tangible and objective decision criteria, and have only marginally been updated in the past two decades. More recently, advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and big data have enabled routing based on more complex bases. Chief among these is personality, or behavior influenced by following sets of attributes.

  • Customer’s behavior, modeled on demographic data from public sources as permitted by local regulation
  • Agent’s behavior, based on the same modeling and enhanced by optional survey responses
  • Company’s customer support center charter and objectives, including but not limited to maximizing customer satisfaction or retention, minimizing call handling time, or making sales

Given the diversity of industries in which companies operate customer support centers (ex: banking and financial services, insurance, consumer products, telecom) as well as the types of centers (collections, service, telesales etc.), the organization through which the customer and agent connect heavily influences the outcome.

Experts are evangelizing the following specific predictions for how intelligent self-service will continue to transform customer support in the coming years.

  • Conversational IVR will become the new standard for automated phone experiences
  • Reactive virtual assistants will become proactive virtual advisors
  • Self-service and assisted service will converge

For example, virtual assistants have received quite a bit of attention lately with the introduction of Siri, the virtual assistant on iPhone 4S. By enabling natural language and voice as input to a customer support center, the virtual assistant makes it easier and faster for the user to interact with the customer support program and benefit from its databases and knowledge. Instead of experiencing long waiting times or punching ill-fitting selections with dial-pad numbers, customers can immediately begin a digital but verbal interaction with the virtual assistant, which can answer questions, identify potential sales and marketing opportunities, solve moderate-to-sophisticated problems, and determine when a live assistant is best warranted.

In the evolution of personality/behavior driven customer support, AI’led software increasingly paving path to handling the earlier levels of engagement between the user and support desk. Highly sophisticated system/software using artificial intelligence and extremely elaborate decision logic trees are improving overall customer service results. Moreover, this reduces the overall cost footprint of outsourcing companies. This means companies have an alternative to people intensive customer support and rather hire few high-end resources with higher wages in exchange for higher skill levels, subject matter expertise and work quality.

Does this mean AI to replace the human being in customer support? Absolutely not. The good news is that core sales/service cannot be outsourced. There will always be a need for a flesh and blood human being who can read the signals that the prospect is sending out over the phone to increase the chances of a sale/success of touch service. That is never going to go away. While artificial intelligence has been used to simulate human response, its real power lies in optimizing the interactions between two humans, and enterprise behavior matching is one such application that is already achieving results in contact centers today. AI can elevate outsourcing to new heights pushing enterprise’s profit margins to the next level. Don’t be surprised if artificial intelligence continues to make further inroads in the world of outsourced customer support.

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