Why More Companies Are Turning to Virtual Agents for Customer Service

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought vast swaths of the global economy to a virtual standstill, but while many industries lie dormant, others have found themselves suddenly overwhelmed by new business activity. For a fortunate few, this has resulted in surging sales and a rapidly growing customer base. Consumer purchasing habits have changed dramatically in response to global lockdowns, and this has led to an unexpected boon for certain retail categories.

Unfortunately, most businesses have not benefited from the pandemic at all, and instead are scrambling to address the unprecedented chaos and uncertainty that it has caused. COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains, canceled events, and put all manner of projects and contracts on hold, forcing many to adapt on the fly.

For those of us working in the customer service industry, it's been a bit of a mixed bag.

With stay-at-home orders interrupting business as usual in nearly every sector, more consumers have turned to customer support centers for technical help, order cancellations, bill payment negotiations, shipping updates, and other pressing needs. Much like the video conferencing services, streaming platforms, breadmaker manufacturers, and others that are seeing growth during this time of crisis, customer support organizations have found themselves in high demand.

However, these organizations are far from immune to the effects of the pandemic. Many have been forced to shut down brick-and-mortar call centers and scale back operations as employees become ill or navigate the limitations of remote working. This, in turn, is leading to the accelerated adoption of automation technologies that can help fill those gaps.

COVID-19 has driven an influx in customer support inquiries across industries, while also impeding the industry's ability to field those inquiries. In March, Netflix was forced to temporarily suspend all phone customer support, providing only live chat and online support. That same month, Google brands like Pixel, Chromebook, and Google Drive all found themselves struggling to respond to customers in a timely manner while operating with a limited team.

In the telecom industry, researchers predicted that COVID-19 will bring a sharp uptick in customer complaints, spurred by the increasing prevalence of remote working and the vital importance of communications networks in the midst of a public health emergency. At the same time, telecom companies like Verizon were busy enabling their own customer care teams to work remotely, undertaking a gargantuan coordinated effort to distribute new workflows and tools and to help employees quickly adapt to distributed networking and collaboration.

The economic upheaval caused by business closures and mass unemployment has meant that even major banking institutions are facing a customer support crisis. In May, The Wall Street Journal

reported numerous instances of jammed phone lines and overwhelmed lenders as borrowers raced to seek debt relief and other assistance.

Meanwhile, industries that have fared well during the crisis are still struggling to keep up with the growing stream of support requests. One report found that weekly e-commerce sales in categories like sporting goods, vehicles, automotive parts, and hardware had all more than doubled year over year. However, those sales increases also brought significant spikes in support requests for nearly half of those retailers.

AI-Powered Chatbots Step Up to the Plate

Customer service professionals working on the front lines of a rapidly shifting business landscape are facing unprecedented challenges, and need new tools to surmount those difficulties. A recent study found that average global support requests have increased 19 percent in 2020, and when you pair that with more than 60 percent of U.S. consumers preferring automated self-service, accelerating or broadening adoption of chatbots and other automation technologies to give employees some much needed backup is a must.

According to Venture Beat, support automation companies have reported substantial increases in volume on their conversational platforms. Even government agencies and healthcare providers—both notoriously slow at adopting emerging technologies—have been propelled by the COVID-19 crisis to experiment with AI-powered support services.

For those who have observed the rapid progression of conversational AI technology over the past decade, it's clear why these organizations are moving so quickly to adopt them. Incredible advances in natural language processing have created a new generation of chatbots and other conversational agents that are easy to deploy and remarkably responsive to user needs. With the right data sets and oversight from human subject-matter experts who can train the system over time, these virtual agents can continually improve in their ability to independently handle customer needs.

For most organizations, the vast majority of customer support inquiries are simple questions that arise frequently. It might take a human user hours to respond to thousands of customers all asking the same question. A well-programmed chatbot can take care of that busy work in mere seconds, freeing up human agents to field more complex inquiries. Virtual agents can also make human agents more efficient by automating basic tasks, like customer information collection, and can help organizations improve accuracy and compliance by eliminating human error.

It's often said that necessity breeds innovation. Clearly the hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing businesses to adopt new technological solutions. It's unlikely that virtual agents will ever replace human contact center employees entirely. Some customer needs will always require the human touch, but make no mistake: the support automation revolution is here to stay.

Antony Brydon is a co-founder and vice president of platform at Directly.