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An AI-enabled workforce is the future of customer engagement

Here are three ways brands can use artificial intelligence to build stronger bonds with consumers

Even before the pandemic, customers frequently contacted brands using all manner of digital channels. But when COVID made it impossible to swing by stores, consumers increasingly turned to messages, emails, chats, and calls to engage with companies—creating a heavy influx for customer engagement teams.

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This trend has continued, even as stores have reopened, and the question now is: How can employees continue to serve customers’ evolving needs without burning out? Technology like artificial intelligence-based software may assist, and appropriate engagement strategies can strengthen customer loyalty—while keeping employees’ well-being top of mind. Experts discussed this topic recently in a panel at Fast Company‘s Most Innovative Companies Summit. The session, entitled “The Future of Customer Engagement: the AI-Enabled Workforce,” was sponsored by Five9, a leading provider of enterprise cloud contact center software and AI-powered solutions. Here are three key takeaways from that discussion.

1. Customers are reaching out across multiple channels and expect seamless experiences.

According to Sherry Comes, managing director of Deloitte Consulting’s Service and Digital Transformation Practice, the pandemic catalyzed digital outreach, which spurred multichannel conversations with customers. Consumers might send an Instagram message, follow with an email, and/or make a phone call too. “It’s creating ‘zombie architectures,’ where conversations come alive on one channel, then die, and come alive again on another channel,” she said. “[Companies must] aggressively chase that user engagement, regardless of where people [contact] them.”

This has forced companies away from a single-channel focus and from building siloed teams for each channel. Instead, Comes added, businesses are “trying to build around that zombie architecture [in order] to have a seamless, natural conversation across many different channels…. What’s changed the most is just how rapid that change came along.”

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Callan Schebella, executive vice president of Product Management at Five9, believes this influx of customer contact will be the most notable COVID-fueled change for retailers. “People started engaging with companies in ways that they hadn’t done before,” he said. “They started buying groceries and clothing [online]. These types of industries have fundamentally changed.”

About two out of every three people surveyed by Five9 began to “source items differently” during the pandemic, Schebella added, and he doesn’t expect that to change. “That’s probably the big, lasting shift over the past 24 months.”

 2. AI can help engagement professionals on the job—and even before they accept the job.

How can companies help their teams manage that onslaught of outreach? Tech tools are evolving to answer that question, says Joseph Fuller, professor of Management Practice, Harvard Business School. Historically, AI-based engagement tools such as chatbots “were much more about efficiency than they were [about] maximizing user experience,” Fuller noted, citing their ability to handle tasks like starting a return or tracking a payment.

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“The types of technologies that will be very impactful introduce a more human and dynamic element into interaction with customers,” Fuller said. Recounting his own experiences with two-factor authorization, he added, “[the tech] understands this phone number is associated with an account, so there’s a 99.99% likelihood that this is Fuller, and this is [what we know] about Fuller.”

For Schebella, current software tools fall into two categories across a spectrum. On one end is “true automation technology” like intelligent virtual agents—a chatbot or smart speaker device. The other is the type of “agent-assist technology” Fuller referenced, “where interactions are happening between a customer and a human agent, but they’re enhanced by artificial intelligence,” Schebella said.

AI becomes a customer engagement employee’s copilot, he added, “popping information onto the screen about the customer, [giving] them sort of superpowers.” Some current tools can even “listen” to a conversation and encourage the agent to empathize at a particular point, change their volume, or try a joke.

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That type of support can improve both the customer experience and engagement in the workplace, Comes pointed out. Years ago, Deloitte deployed a platform in a client’s contact center that recognized, for example, when an older person called in. “We can then use gentrified language, slow down, repeat…. It’s using AI to build emotional intelligence.” On the employee side, too, attrition declined as reps enjoyed their jobs more: “Agents would say, ‘I have the answers now!’ People aren’t yelling at me anymore!’ ”

In another employee churn-reducing example, Fuller mentioned technology that gives reps the opportunity to try the job before accepting it. Skillset, an Israeli startup, creates virtual reality-based simulations, exposing the applicant to several scenarios. “If at the end they take off the Oculus (VR headset) and say, ‘I never want to do that again,’ you reduce the possibility of false positives,” Fuller said.

3. Social skills are no longer soft skills.

These customer-support positions can indeed be challenging and even unpleasant at times, Fuller noted. Where qualities like empathy, emotional intelligence, and strong communication may once have been downplayed as “soft skills,” they’re increasingly valued in workplaces at large, and particularly in customer engagement.

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What’s more, Fuller added, today’s customers want a lot of interaction, especially for important transactions like mortgages. “Technologies that allow companies to either identify job candidates or incumbent workers with higher-order social skills, or to use…more empathetic dialogue with a customer are going to be quite important,” he said.” A lot of that is cutting edge, but if I were a venture capitalist I’d be looking to invest in those avenues.”

That human interaction can’t be usurped by a computer, Schebella pointed out, adding that he sees software as complementary to live customer engagement rather than duplicative. “[People worry,] thinking I’m going to be replaced,” he explained. “What actually generally happens is the type of work subtly changes over time, and you end up doing higher-value activities for your organization…. All the ‘easy stuff,’ if you like, has been automated.”

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