How AI and advanced self-service are changing the face of customer support

How AI and advanced self-service are changing the face of customer support
William Gray is CEO of Macfarlane. He is an innovator of contact centre systems. Inspiring companies to manage conversations with their customers.


Web and phone self-service are attractive options for most service operators.  That’s clear when you consider that the cost of facilitating a web self-service interaction is negligible and the average cost of a self-service phone session is just 65p (compared to £3.87 for a live agent call and £3.00 for a web chat).

However, it’s not always as effective at delivering great customer experiences (CX) as a live agent service.  While it’s relatively straightforward to design automated systems that give perfect answers to predictable questions, they’re not typically as effective when it comes to understanding detailed questions, providing complex (technical) answers or being empathetic to customer needs and behaviours.

Here are five ways that these shortcomings are now being addressed:

Natural language interfaces are becoming commonplace

Speech recognition technology is transforming customer contact with advances in natural language understanding.  This enables customers to speak to an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system/service in a natural way rather than having to provide one word answers to specific questions.  For example, a person could say “I want to pay my bill” or “could I please settle my account” and both would be recognised as the same request.  Natural language interfaces are playing an increasingly important role in:

  • Accurately and quickly routing inbound callers to the right resource;
  • Ensuring more information requests can be handled end-to-end via self-service;
  • Enabling speech verification;
  • Improving the effectiveness of speech analytics.

Self-service systems are better at understanding customer needs

The latest self-service technology represents a huge step forward in understanding and responding to customer requirements:

  • Speech-enabled IVRs (as above) enable callers to define their queries, and receive answers, in a much more flexible and natural way than fixed menu IVRs;
  • Intelligent web technology can now spot when visitors are experiencing difficulties online (e.g. dwelling for a long time on pages, not completing shopping baskets) with appropriate assistance then offered on-screen;
  • Web-based avatars, or chat bots (see point 5), enable online customers to ask questions in a natural way, creating a highly user-friendly dialogue;
  • ‘In-app’ customer service is becoming more widely available, enabling customers to click for help within a PC, tablet or mobile application. Often personal and account information, together with details automatically captured about the problem experienced, can be sent along with that service request.

Technology is also being deployed more intelligently – with great strides being made in understanding customer journeys, and deciding when, and how, automation is best deployed.

WebRTC is increasing communications possibilities

WebRTC, or web real-time communications, is a new communications standard that allows browsers (and other HTTP-based applications) to send and receive real-time media with the aim of allowing browsers, mobile platforms, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to communicate via a common set of protocols.  WebRTC was developed by W3C and supported by Google and others.

In 2013, Amazon launched its Mayday ‘video contact centre’ for Kindle HD, a single-click WebRTC-based solution that enables users to see remote tech support engineers in a small window on their screens – and those staff to see users’ screens on their computers.  Remote staff can not only watch what users are doing online but also co-browse, annotate their screens and tap through their interfaces.

WebRTC can also improve self-serve experiences by:

  • Integrating multiple data streams and sharing screens to facilitate greater collaboration;
  • Enabling customers to browse a website and initiate a chat or call with an agent by clicking a single button;
  • Enabling incoming calls initiated from a browser to be automatically matched with customer data (personal details, account history etc.);
  • Turning text chats into calls or video chats by sending URLs to customers via text;
  • Closing the ‘context gap’ – i.e. the gap that exists when customers have to re-explain issues to one agent (or resource) after providing the same details to another, or previously entering them into an IVR, web site, or CRM system;
  • Creating in-app customer service features (see above).

Self-service is embracing personalisation

No two customers are the same.  Some start their interactions in-store, others online.  The decisions of some are driven by price, others by CX.  Their goals, spending power, behaviours, channel preferences etc. may also be very different.

In a competitive business world, service personalisation is clearly a must if businesses hope to deliver positive CXs.  In a complex omni-channel world, however, delivering that service personalisation without the use of automated technology systems is almost impossible.

The proliferation of standards-based communications and conversation management technology is now making it easier to integrate diverse contact handling and back office systems – enabling organisations to automatically identify customers when they make contact, route their contacts to appropriate resources and deliver higher quality and more personalised CXs.

Chatbots are opening up new service possibilities

The use of chatbots, is currently creating much excitement in the service world (they’ll be speaking about it soon at the upcoming Customer Contact Expo in London).  These are artificial intelligence (AI) agents that can be accessed via messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and are specific to particular products/services.

Chatbots are designed/programmed to understand specific phrases in written requests, and then respond to customers accordingly.  They self-learn as they receive further information and customer requests, enabling them to improve accuracy and conduct conversations more naturally.

Via chatbots, customers can now ask about the weather, check into flights, check bank balances and send flowers – all without downloading apps or talking to human beings.

Chatbots clearly represent an ideal self-serve solution for millennials and others comfortable with the use of messaging apps.  However, for the time being, their use will probably be restricted to simple, routine enquiries – rather than the myriad of possible customer scenarios that could be presented in a complex omni-channel contact centre. 

This is evident from the problems experienced by early chatbot developers as technologists continue with their tricky mission: to create machines that can adequately cope with the nuances of the written language.

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