5 Steps to Get the Agent-AI Blend Right

It's hard to find an article about the future of technology that doesn't mention artificial intelligence. It's also hard to find an article about AI that doesn't include the word "inevitable." Humans don't like that word. It makes them feel as though they have no freedom of choice. People want to feel as though they're autonomous and indispensable. This is the opposite of how they feel about having to train their job replacement—a replacement with no body and a brain borrowed from the minds of real people, like themselves, who are still, apparently, less valuable to the organization than the disembodied interloper.

From a business perspective, there are many reasons that replacing human employees with digital ones would be an improvement (though why the boss would be the only human allowed to benefit from this remains a mystery). Digital employees can work faster, harder, and longer than live employees without getting sick or taking vacation. They have no needs, no desires, and no opinions. They also have no creativity, no compassion, and no common sense. Their best points have been borrowed from real people. This is why many CEOs believe that human employees truly are irreplaceableand that the role of AI should be to assist, facilitate, and improve rather than to replace human beings.

When seen as assistants rather than as replacements, agents don't feel threatened by emerging technology and are happy to hand mundane, routine tasks over to virtual assistants. AI can even improve enterprise workflows and increase live-agent productivity and initiative, giving them the confidence to handle assignments that are more complex.

Within contact centers, AI can be implemented via emerging technology known as interactive text response (ITR), a form of robotic process automation (RPA) that differs from interactive voice response (IVR) as much as crème brûlée does from Jell-O. Many people are familiar with this technology in the form of in-web/in-app chatbots, which take the words right out of people's mouths, so to speak, by removing spoken language from the communication equation. In action, chatbots are adept at handling a variety of non-reasoning tasks (such as greeting customers and gathering pertinent preliminary information), which can help live agents solve customer service interactions that are beyond the digital agent's pay grade (such as issues that require logic or tact). Giving consumers the freedom to choose their preferred mode of contact with the option of live-agent backup achieves the best of both worlds.

There are five overarching things that CEOs, chief digital officers, and other executives tasked with digital innovation can do to create this optimum blend.

1. Get Everyone on Board.

The importance of including everyone in the transition can't be overemphasized. Validate the natural fears that your employees have about their job security in relation to AI and try to alleviate them. Let them know that the digital agents are designed to make everyone's lives easier.

2. Assess Your Company's Digital Comfort Level.

Knowing your company's digital comfort level is the key to integrating emerging technologies. In your contact center, for instance, use your company's call disposition codes to assess how much human empathy is needed to resolve a given issue and assign tasks that require a high level of empathy and relatability to live agents. Once you've established which responsibilities they're comfortable entrusting to digital agents, give the latter tasks that everyone agrees are too boring or repetitive to be handled by live agents.

3. Treat Digital Agents Like New Hires.

AI is designed to mimic human behavior. It's about developing and implementing strategies and completing tasks the way that a human would. Without being absurd, treating digital agents like new hires can help facilitate their integration into the company culture. Name them, if it helps; include them in meetings; and delegate tasks to them accordingly. You'll find that your company's digital comfort level increases over time.

4. Keep Your Digital Employees on Their Toes.

There's no point in keeping employees who don't do their jobs well. This is particularly true of digital agents, which are only useful in proportion to their ability to outperform their human counterparts in the routine tasks that you've assigned them. Train them thoroughly and teach them new things to prevent stagnation. Don't make the same mistakes as companies did with their IVRs, deploying phone options designed once and then never touched again.

5. Give People the Freedom to Choose.

As has already been said, people appreciate freedom of choice. Sometimes, all it takes to illicit their cooperation is the ability to refuse or reject one suggestion in favor of another. Similarly, forcing AI onto people who aren't comfortable using it will only make them more resistant to the change. Give customers the choice of using a chatbot or interacting with a live agent. The demographic that feels comfortable with AI will increase as generations continue to age.

Following these five procedures can help secure your company's future with the optimum blend of live and digital agents.

Tobias Goebel is vice president of product mMarketing at Sparkcentral, a software and solutions company that turns messaging apps, SMS, chat, and social media into customer service channels on one universal messaging customer service platform.

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