Welcoming Conversational AI into Contact Centres – Will it Trigger Job Losses or Job Transformation?
CONTACT CENTRE / 07 Sep 2023
We’re experiencing a great shift in the way that we work
The power of AI chatbots to assume the role of a customer service agent is staggering. Conversational AI has blossomed in the customer engagement space over recent months, especially as this tech now stands front-and-centre after the explosive interest in ChatGPT. The reaction to this is often fear – human agents fearing that their jobs are at risk. We look a little deeper at the question, “Is AI going to give rise to job losses in contact centres?”
A McKinsey report released in June 2023 finds that generative AI will automate 60% to 70% of staff workloads, and customer operations will be one of the top industries where AI will flourish, along with sales and marketing, R&D and software development.
During a Washington review on the risks of AI tools, Sam Altman of OpenAI, stated outright: “There will be an impact on jobs.”
Predictions like these can well instil anxiety into people whose jobs can be done by AI more cost-effectively and more efficiently. Undoubtably, conversational AI in contact centres has brought many significant improvements: 24/7 access, reduced waiting times, better customer engagement and quicker service, to name a few.
But let’s address these fears by looking at a more promising alternative.
Role Changes, Not Redundancies
Bringing conversational AI in to automate contact engagement means you’re automating tasks, not replacing people. It means the nature of the job changes, and this change can well be for the better.
Where once an agent was stuck answering the same questions again and again, and doing mundane tasks such as ID&V or checking account balances, they can now redirect their energies into handling the more interesting cases that require more thoughtful human intervention. The result is a happier employee who gets to do a more satisfying job.
A study from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) concluded that AI will change the quality of jobs by automating tasks and won’t eliminate these jobs entirely, with clerical jobs being most likely to be exposed to automation.
Take IKEA for example. “IKEA is training call centre workers to become interior design advisers as the Swedish furniture giant aims to offer more home improvement services and hand run-of-the-mill customer queries to an artificial intelligence bot called Billie.” Source: Independent.ie
The bottom line is that there are certain tasks in contact centres that AI is good at, especially those tedious, repetitive, time-consuming jobs that require a high level of accuracy. Since they are time hungry, they cost companies in human resources, while they could be done more cheaply with AI automation and self-service. (For more, see: Evolving Role of AI in Contact Centres: A Copilot for Customer Service Agents)
With the advancement in conversational AI sophistication, AI chatbots can interact with customers in a natural way that is supplemented by data-based personalisation. They also eliminate the embarrassment factor felt by customers when talking about their debt. The end result is better customer satisfaction and reduced costs. So you can seee why, conversational AI is attractive to contact centres.
Augment and Assist: Synergy of Human Agents and AI
But the question still remains, will conversational AI replace agents in contact centres? The general consensus is ‘not entirely’. We will always need human agents on hand to talk to people. Rather, AI is an empowering tool, not a replacement.
People who are in debt are usually anxious and emotionally fragile and talking to a live agent can be therapeutic. The onus is therefore on the collections companies to train their agents how to act as advisors and counsellors. The trick is to balance automation with empathy, and the reality is that humans are still more emotionally intelligent than AI, even though AI has been taught to simulate empathy by teaching it the right kind of language to use in these situations.
Paul Sweeney, Chief Strategy Officer at Webio, said, “Human’s are a really great interface. Humans are very good at tasks involving unstructured data, and are better at context-specific and highly variable tasks. We used to refer to these as ‘organic roles’. Generative AI and Large Language Models are very good at this first level sensing. There are ‘organic jobs’ that take a heavy emotional toll on people or have high levels of boredom, but now LLM’s can be trained to perform these tasks.”
Managing the Shift to AI
Technology causing shifts in how we work is not new, nor is the fear that accompanies them. We all know about the Industrial Revolution and the dire predictions that machine automation sparked, and we think back to the Luddites in 19th century England who violently protested against machines replacing workers in textile mills. At the beginning of the 19th century, 35% of workers in UK were in agriculture, down from 74% in 1500. Now, only 1% are in agriculture (INCHOS paper & statista.com). But that doesn’t mean farm workers all became unemployed, but rather that they found other types of work.
It’s a natural progression that benefits workers in the long run as their work situation improves and space is given for more innovative thinking in jobs. And not everyone is afraid that AI will replace them. A large percentage are welcoming AI with open arms as this Work Trend Index Annual Report (Source: Will AI Fix Work?) shows:
“While 49% of people say they’re worried AI will replace their jobs, even more—70%—would delegate as much work as possible to AI to lessen their workloads.” The findings went on to reveal that business leaders are twice as interested in increasing productivity with AI (31%) than using it to reduce the headcount (16%).
When it comes to adopting AI and the subsequent changes in roles that this brings, companies have to prioritise training their staff. The Future of Jobs Report 2023 found that across industries 6 out of 10 workers will require training before 2027, and that an average of 44% of a worker’s skills will need updating.
This fluid nature of work has always been with us. For example, when Cloud computing became the go-to way of operating, the IT employee who used to take care of the on-site servers now transitioned to being a Cloud engineer.
“Much like the move to the Cloud was a fundamental shift, AI will herald a complete shift in the way we do things. It is one of those momentous technologies that draws a line in the sand: before AI and after AI.”
Sweeney went on to say, “It’s much like when broadband came on the scene. People thought this would really change the way we consumed media, such as streaming movies, which it did do. But, the greatest change was unforeseen. Fast internet speeds meant that we could work remotely, have video conferences and distributed collaborative working. This also had an impact on families, with the parents working from home and being much more available to their children.”
The impact of AI on our society is yet to be seen.
The ultimate effects of generative AI and conversational AI chatbots on contact centers is still uncertain, however, these technologies have the potential to improve customer service and efficiency. It is important to carefully manage the transition to these new technologies to ensure that human agents are not displaced but are rather presented with open doors to new opportunities and ways of working. The shift is here – and contact centres are embracing AI for the better.
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