Will Robots Replace Agents?

Many people are asking if live agents are going to be replaced by robots, and the answer is an inevitable and unqualified yes. While there are always at least two sides to an issue, DMG believes this a good thing, as smart and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled bots can perform low-value and routine tasks more accurately and quickly than most human beings. This frees agents from mind numbing (boring) tasks like giving balances, checking on payments and orders, and scheduling appointments, and lets them instead spend their time on high-value activities where they use their cognitive problem-solving and sales skills to work with clients who need and benefit from their assistance.

Unquestionably, there is a concern about the impact of lost jobs on the economy, but based on recent economic indicators, the U.S. unemployment rate is at a 19-year low at the same time as the adoption of robotic process automation (RPA) and bots is at its all-time high. Adoption of attended and unattended RPA and bots is growing by approximately 80 percent to 120 percent per year. This hockey stick growth is a trend that DMG expects to continue for the next five years, as there are many activities that will benefit from automation in the private, public and non-profit sectors around the world. Furthermore, within the next few years, DMG expects to see a new generation of robotics that is smarter and faster than what is currently available, which will create additional opportunities and a refresh cycle.

The RPA revolution is also contributing to the economy by creating new job functions, including automation specialists, RPA administrators, exceptions processors, and other analytics specialists. (This is in addition to all of the work being done by AI and machine learning PhDs, scientists, and mathematicians.)

Bots in Customer-Facing Functions

Contact centers have used bot-like interactive voice response systems (IVRs) for decades. Earlier versions were not popular with the public because they forced people to think like computers and work their way through ineffective and difficult-to-maneuver scripts and user interfaces and made it hard to reach a live agent. The new generation of intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs)—another form of robotics—is conversational and allows for an open dialogue with consumers. While there is a long way to go before these solutions will be mistaken for humans (although this has already happened), a growing number of consumers prefer them to live agents. DMG expects to see major growth in IVAs to provide a consistent self-service experience in an increasing number of channels, as well as expanding use of robotics to automate tasks that do not require human empathy or complex decision-making.

While the number of agents in customer-facing functions, like contact centers, will decrease, the remaining jobs will be higher-level and more sophisticated and rewarding. Self-service has become the channel of choice for consumers with simple and easy-to-address transactions (as long as the systems work well), but there will always be a need for human beings to help customers with sensitive and challenging issues.

At the risk of sounding silly, within 10 years DMG predicts that there will be more robots than people in many organizations. We also expect employees to have their own personal robots that will perform certain tasks on a standard basis and be customizable. At the same time, DMG predicts that the substantial benefits of robotic automation and AI will drive companies to expand their opportunities and be more competitive; as a result, they will need more employees than ever before. This is an environment in which everyone who adapts and adopts robotics comes out a winner.

Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting, is an expert on contact centers, analytics, and back-office technology. She has 30 years of experience helping organizations build contact centers and back-office operating environments and assisting vendors to deliver competitive solutions. She can be reached at donna.fluss@dmgconsult.com.