Why We Need AI in the World of Telephony

The past decade has seen an explosion of new avenues for customers to connect with companies, from text messaging to chatbots to social media. Compared to these digital channels, the telephone can seem decidedly old-fashioned. But voice-based customer service is far from dead. In fact, a recent Salesforce survey of global service leaders found that the phone, along with email, is still the leading service channel, used by 95 percent of service teams.

Voice remains dominant because most customers are familiar and comfortable with it. It's viewed as the easiest way to capture a representative's full attention and get a personalized response. Customers are often seeking human connection and empathy when faced with thorny or complicated customer service issues, which can be difficult to achieve when communicating via text. These advantages suggest phone-based queries aren't going anywhere and might actually continue to grow in volume.

But if companies want to continue to deliver great service on the phone, even as their customer base grows and those customers demand increasingly better service, they will absolutely need to figure out how to harness the power of artificial intelligence.

Customer service organizations have been deploying artificial intelligence to automate routine work and empower agents, but these capabilities have largely been limited to text-based interactions, such as web chat or messaging apps. Now, forward-looking companies are realizing that leveraging AI in telephony is equally critical. Just as AI has drastically improved text-based interactions, if done right, it can help companies achieve the scale needed to handle a growing number of incoming customer service calls. It can reduce resolution time and increase customer satisfaction by arming agents with the information and recommendations they need to solve problems. And it can break down the silos that exist between voice- and text-based channels, providing the data needed for a consistent and seamless customer experience.

Let's examine some of the key ways AI can transform phone-based customer service.

It can automate simple requests.

AI is already automating routine queries for many text-based channels, like chatbots. Today's interactive voice response systems only go so far, but the technology is evolving rapidly. Before long, customers will be able to have smart AI-based interactions over the phone to resolve straightforward problems (e.g. changing orders, checking balances, resetting passwords) quickly and painlessly. And given how comfortable the vast majority of customers are using the phone, they will likely gravitate toward this channel if it provides resolution with minimal effort, improving their overall satisfaction with the company. This in turn will free up agents from handling lower-level, repetitive queries and give them the space to focus on more complex issues that require critical thinking and emotional intelligence.

It can break down silos in the contact center.

Phone calls are often completely disjointed from other channels in the service center. An agent handing off a text-based interaction over to a phone agent typically cannot effectively share the call context due to technology and process silos, resulting in customers having to repeat themselves. By bringing text- and voice-based interactions into the same workflow by having AI automatically transcribe voice calls into text, every service agent has the same level of insight into the customer's situation and can provide a consistent level of support. Transcriptions of all past interactions, whether they originated on the phone, in an app, or on a website, can be housed in the same location. That goes a long way toward delivering the seamless and personalized experiences that customers crave.

It can speed up time to resolution.

By transcribing and processing the content of phone conversations as they're happening, AI tools can immediately scan a vast volume of information to call up relevant resources or recommend paths to resolution. Agents have to do less hunting to find the information they need. Instead of spending time furiously transcribing what the customer is saying, they can listen with empathy and provide more human-centric customer service. Plus all agents get the same AI-powered guidance, leading to consistent responses regardless of how experienced agents are or who the customer is. Many organizations will start down this path with a rule-based model that makes suggestions based on specific keywords. Once they have amassed enough data, they can train the AI based on prior successful conversations so that it only gets smarter in interpreting context and knowing the right resolution paths over time.

Even as AI is making its way into other service channels, very few companies today are bringing machine learning to the voice channel. The fact that most AI technology is text-based, not audio-based, plays a role in this. Yet a vast opportunity exists to embed AI in telephony tools to not only scale and supercharge this channel, but also leverage business-critical data to deliver great service across every channel.

Many service leaders want to draw on the power of AI but are intimidated. The most important thing is just to get started. Pick a specific business use case that is a good fit for automation and AI, measure your results, and your AI-driven service will improve and grow over time. The companies that are experimenting with AI today will be poised to take full advantage of it tomorrow — in voice and beyond.

Bill Patterson is executive vice president and general manager of Salesforce.com's Service Cloud.

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According to one study, the market size is projected to grow from $2.6 billion in 2019 to $9.4 billion by 2024, a rate of 29.7 percent. A separate study found that the market is expected to grow 24 percent during 2018-2022.

Posted November 22, 2019