IVAs Provide Much-Needed Support During COVID-19 Crisis

Contact centers around the globe have faced unexpected, unprecedented challenges amid this pandemic. They're fielding questions from customers about subjects they've previously never had to handle. Many of them are doing this while short staffed or with agents now working remotely.

At the same time, customers expect the same level of support they would receive in normal times. In many cases, contact centers are experiencing spikes in call volume, stressing their operational capacity. Businesses and organizations are adjusting resources to meet these needs with the help of conversational artificial intelligence.

Increasingly, contact centers are deploying conversational AI in the form of intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs) to quickly and accurately provide information about how operations or services are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We've seen how enterprises have quickly updated their current IVAs to handle pandemic-related inquiries. They've also put AI to work within their organizations to support employees adjusting to a new work environment and minimize the effort needed for agents to find the right information.

As the pandemic quickly led to a flood of event cancellations, closed borders, and other restrictions, the travel and transportation industries were hit especially hard by customer service inquiries. Within a matter of days, travelers around the world were looking to cancel or rebook their trips. They needed to know how these businesses were handling the pandemic and what processes to follow.

By working closely with them, we saw firsthand how a large U.S. transportation company found itself understandably inundated with questions from customers. These customers needed to know about how services had been affected and what options were available. Fortunately, before the volume of calls could even hit a crescendo, the transportation company was able to put its digital IVA to work answering coronavirus-related questions and providing customers with the information they needed.

This IVA was updated with new natural language understanding intents that were specific to the virus and the related travel restrictions. The company used the IVA to direct visitors to a landing page containing a wealth of information about service impacts, cancellation policies, as well as ongoing updates for this rapidly changing situation. The IVA was able to provide empathetic, personalized interaction to direct website visitors to the landing page, a resource that some customers might not have been able to find on their own. Not only did this process make for a warm, friendly hand-off to the page, but the IVA also remained visible on the screen to field any additional queries that might have arisen as consumers read the updates.

The company was also able to develop language models for the voice channel to help customers get virus-specific information they needed when calling. These automated strategies resulted in timely, accurate customer service that provided clarity in a time of uncertainty.

Using an IVA from the Inside Out

Contact centers aren't the only teams using IVA technology to help their customers. Organizations are also using it to help other employees who find themselves in a new work-from-home environment without in-person guidance and access to regular feedback.

During the recent and widespread transition to remote work, we've seen businesses successfully deploy IVAs as an internal resource to support employees. As local governments and company policies mandated the transition to a work-from-home model, IVAs quickly helped contact centers adjust to this new way of doing business. Employee-facing IVAs have helped offload lower-level questions and provided access to knowledge in real time without relying on a manager or HR resource.

When used internally, IVAs can also provide employees assistance in setting up technology and accessing accounts and solve common problems like video conferencing and other IT needs. A large pharmaceutical company quickly demonstrated these capabilities when it leveraged an IVA to support employees as they transitioned to working remotely. The IVA demonstrated how conversational AI can also provide HR service, including providing information about unemployment benefits, insurance, sick time, and other changes related to the pandemic. The pharma company's IVA also cut down on the time HR and IT teams spent handling routine tasks, freeing them up to handle the unique challenges these departments currently face.

IVAs Going Forward

The rapid onset of several unprecedented disruptions affecting contact centers has proven how vital IVAs can be for customer service in a time of crisis. When automated solutions are already in place, contact centers can confidently provide excellent customer service regardless of disruptions. Additionally, they can do so as efficiently as possible and sustain those service levels even when call volumes reach an all-time high.

Too many businesses assume that operational efficiency cannot be achieved during a crisis. Yet, as we've seen in the past few months, when IVAs are answering thousands of queries at once, a contact center can scale both its response and its human touch. IVAs can prioritize which questions need the attention and empathy of a human agent, making the most of agents' time and talents. IVAs can also evolve to meet new needs, all without requiring a costly, complex, all-hands-on-deck sprint to make changes to critical software.

This is precisely what the travel giant did in updating its IVA's natural language understanding (NLU) with COVID-19-specific user intents. A single NLU update met the needs of thousands of customers.

While we hope the world doesn't see another crisis on the scale of this pandemic, most contact centers will be much better prepared next time, with an IVA at their side, to weather the storm. Of course, the embrace of IVAs will not merely focus on crisis preparedness. For many businesses that already had IVAs set up, it served as an early warning system that helped discern, long before their competitors, how customers were affected and how their needs were quickly changing.

This is called conversational intelligence—a real-time analysis of customer intents, queries, and even tone while using IVAs. It allows businesses to marshal resources to the greatest areas of customer need without engaging in a months-long, interdepartmental data science project. Most experts suggest we’re still only in the early innings of this pandemic, and that we’ll go through several new phases of operation until we reach a new normal. This is precisely the environment that conversational intelligence helps businesses navigate.

The richness of dialogue and the bidirectional nature of conversation makes it possible to serve and learn at the same time. That's particularly valuable when a pandemic lays waste to your supply chain or an act of God suddenly disrupts critical operations. But it's also the recipe for success when the business environment is comparatively calm.

More broadly, this is the fundamental value proposition of intelligent technologies. Their adaptive, scalable nature frees the contact center from the impossible task of predicting the future, while empowering employees to do their best work when the moment calls for it.

Jen Snell is vice president of product marketing for Verint Intelligent Self-Service. As a recognized marketing leader for emerging technology and enterprise artificial intelligence, Snell leads marketing strategy and user engagement programs.