Guest Blogger

 The relationship between artificial intelligence (AI) in contact centres and the changing work of contact centre agents. 

Laura van Beers, Head of AI at ContactEngine explores how companies can prepare their workforce for the introduction of these techniques and whether there indeed is a lot of friction between employment opportunities (or a lack thereof) and the introduction of smart machines.

We’re constantly flooded with think pieces and news stories about Artificial Intelligence taking over the world, with human beings hoisted out of their roles and chucked aside for a take-over of machines. It paints a frightening image of employment prospects for customer support teams, especially when a new article on chatbots is published nearly every other day. Anxiety levels are skyrocketing and technologists – or doomsday enthusiasts as I’m sure customer service staff calls them – don’t spare us a single week without waxing lyrical about how Artificial Intelligence is so much better than humans in performing yet another task.

Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, has recently said that 80 million US and 15 million UK jobs might be taken over by robots. For all contact centre staff, the predicted likelihood of their roles disappearing because of automation is as high as 75% – a frightening futurescape.

If the call centre team looks carefully at the main criteria for the occupations that are most at risk, they would be even more disheartened. Is there a level of repetitiveness in your work? Is the work predictable? We wouldn’t be too far from the truth in saying a customer service representative would probably tick ‘yes’ for both questions.

However, with so many people jumping on the AI wagon, there are two fallacies in our thinking that no one appears to address. The first is quite well known and called the Luddite fallacy. This fallacy is the simple observation that new technology does not lead to higher overall unemployment in the economy. New technology doesn’t destroy jobs – it only changes the composition of jobs. While some work will require less human intervention, other roles are created. For example, 10 years ago, no one introduced themselves as a ‘Deliveroo rider’, ‘social media manager’, ‘driverless car engineer or ‘drone operator’. Today, not an eyebrow is raised when a LinkedIn profile reads ‘app developer’.

The second fallacy lies is thinking an entire job will be taken over with nothing left to salvage. When we deliberate over our prospects in an AI world, our evolutionary fears for survival go into overdrive and we end up giving a fair bit of weightage to the parts of our role that are a bit repetitive. So, inevitably we start to think we’re doomed. The truth is in the last 60 years, automation has only eliminated one occupation completely: elevator operators.

A better way to look at how Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will change the way we work today is to look at the separate tasks that belong to a role. McKinsey used this perspective to find in a study of the labour force in 46 countries that less than 5% of occupations could be fully automated using today’s technology, but 30% of tasks involved in 60% of occupations could be.

So, now the ‘Artificial Intelligence will take over our jobs’ fracas gets more nuanced. We have to look at it from the perspective of tasks rather than entire occupation.

On top of that, Artificial Intelligence taking over customer service roles may be a good thing. Because AI takes over the tasks that humans don’t like to begin with.

We don’t like repetition. Doing the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way is stifling. Humans like to be creative, learn new things and gain fresh experiences. And while some people might enjoy pouring over enormous heaps of data, most humans really don’t. So why not let a computer take on the trite, dull aspects of a role? Why not have an Artificial Intelligence chatbot answer all the simple questions our customers ask our companies, for example, where can I find my PIN code? When is my order delivered? Can I change my payment type?

Rather than forcing customers to spend time in a calling queue, call centre staff make them happier when they have a chatbot answering the ‘simple’ questions quickly and efficiently.

In doing so, Artificial Intelligence will free us to do what we are really good at and where computers are awful. We can actually help people. We can be creative, add humour in a conversation, show empathy and build a true emotional connection with our customers. Without having to spend our time acting as glorified FAQs, we have the more time to be truly helpful.

So, does that alleviate some of the AI panic?

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