By Dr Nicola J. Millard, BT Global Services
Local cinemas have been packed to the rafters with superhero movies lately. Whether it’s Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, they pop their underpants on over their trousers and battle the big and the bad (often a rogue robot, or an intergalactic weapon of some kind). But can the same be said for the contact centre industry? Are we about to witness a similar clash of the Titans between Botman (automation, self-service and chatbots), and Superagents (our front-line employees)?
Arguably, contact centres have always been at the forefront of automation. Pretty much anything that can be automated, has already been automated – through interactive voice response (press 1…), to self-service and apps. Has this made contact centres redundant? No – arguably it’s made them more strategic, becoming the human face of the brand. The question many are debating is whether this will continue as the industry faces the onslaught of artificial intelligence (AI).
The most hyped AI technology of the moment is the chatbot. The growth of chatbots is largely fuelled by the popularity of chat as a communication channel for customers. In our latest Digital Customer 2017 research , 73 percent of customers thought that chatbots would help organisations enhance their customer service, and 80 percent were open to using chatbots for quick and simple queries. However, the average chatbots’ superpowers are still well below their current hype, and future potential – especially where scintillating banter is concerned.
Conversation is a surprisingly complex superpower to automate. A McKinsey study  on the future of jobs estimated that it has a low potential for automation, at just 20 percent. This is because conversation typically requires not just linguistic and cognitive capabilities, but also social and emotional. Natural language processing (NLP) has come on leaps and bounds in terms of recognising what is being said. However, it is still a victim to the vagaries and ambiguities of human language – which evolved somewhat chaotically as a way for humans to communicate and build relationships with other humans, not with machines. Humans find it far easier to have a chat to each other – as long as they are not constrained by too many rules, or by a script. The underlying technology will undoubtedly improve in 2-3 years but right now, chatbots are only really at the level of a slightly turbo powered “IVR for digital”.
As with IVR in the past, too many chatbots have been deployed with little attention to customer interaction. The conversation often results in dead ends, or the dreaded “sorry I didn’t understand your request”. Options must be simple, and in the customer’s language. There also needs to be an option (which could be initiated either by the customer, or the chatbot) to connect through to a human agent with the right skills to solve the issue. If that happens, the conversation with the bot also needs to be transferred across. This means that customers won’t have to repeat themselves, and the human agent can pick up where the machine left off.
The bigger superpower currently lies in the hands of customers.
We have smartphones, apps and self-service that supercharge us to do a lot more ourselves. Whether it’s Google, Netflix, or Amazon, AI works hard behind the scenes to create personalised and proactive experiences that are unique to us. But we are lazy superheroes. We only like using our powers if it doesn’t drain us of energy (i.e. it’s easy), and we feel like we are in control. If this doesn’t happen, we usually decide to put the bat signal out and get some help.
Evidence shows that we are doing this less frequently – there is less demand coming into many contact centres. However, when it does come, we tend to need someone who can take on the complex and emotive stuff that we can’t do ourselves. We’ve called these people “agents” – I prefer “networked experts”, but “super-agents” will also do.
Do these super-agents need to have a lasso of truth, leap across tall buildings and have X-ray vision? Probably not – but they do have something that “Botman” doesn’t; a human brain.
What skills do “Super-Agents” need?
Machines are good at following rules, repetition, and spotting patterns in large data sets – we aren’t. However, we have many superpowers that are better than machines. We can be empathetic, creative, caring, innovative, intuitive, have meaningful conversations, and we can negotiate with customers to get a win-win situation. We don’t always need data, or rules, and we are far better at recognising context, filling in the blanks, and interpreting sarcasm. All these will be the kind of super powers that we need in our agents – and they are uniquely human ones.
In a world of automation and self-service, it’s clear that talented agents can make all the difference. They need to be exceptional communicators across every channel they deal with. They need to wield a trident of power to stick into the spaghetti of back end process on behalf of the customer. When they need to jump in and save the day, you don’t just want them to respond fast and then decide that they can’t do anything – they need to be able to take things on. They may need intelligent technologies to help them do this. They may also need the tools to collaborate with other super-agents to save the day (what are the Avengers without the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, or Batman without Robin?)
Agents cannot be drones who follow rules and processes – because machine learning can easily do that – they need to deliver the “human factor”, think on their feet, tackle the tough stuff, and get involved in improving the customer experience. In fact, the key skill for a human super-agent is to NOT be a robot.
This means that investment can’t simply be in the technology. In Harvard Business Review Dixon, Ponomareff, Turner and DeLisi  pointed out that companies which have focussed on new self-service technologies have tended to then underinvest in the human frontline. Whilst the digital experience has evolved, the contact centre has changed very little. This has created a yawning gap in the service that customers expect, verses what they get from the contact centre.
It makes sense to put the most experienced, talented and innovative agents in front of challenging customer issues. But, to do that, technology needs to take away the routine, simpler issues that often eat up their time. They may also need to become the “trainers, explainers and sustainers” of the technology (according to MIT Sloan ). They will need to teach it, provide quality control to check whether it is providing the right answers and also ensure that those answers are fair and ethical.
It can also be beneficial to less experienced agents. It can rapidly increase their time to effectiveness by augmenting their skills and hand holding them through unfamiliar processes, products, or services. It can also free up time for them to train and upskill.
So, this epic battle between Botman and Super-agent in the contact centre will probably result in an alliance, not a war. That’s why I prefer to call “Artificial Intelligence”, “Augmented Intelligence”. Smart people plus smart technologies are better together than as adversaries. Smart technologies can take away the mundane stuff, “speed date” (or precision route) complex issues with the right super-agents, allow agents to switch channels seamlessly, augment agent skills and make things easier for customers to get to their goal.
Don’t think ‘Terminator’, think ‘Iron Man’ – with a cool head up display and the ability to fly! What’s wrong with being a superhero for your customers?
 Hickman, M. & Davies, J. (2017), Chat, Tap, Talk: Eight key trends to transform your digital customer experience, BT/Cisco white paper. https://www.globalservices.bt.com/uk/en/point-of-view/chat-tap-talk-transform-your-digital-customer-experience
 Manyika, J., Chui, M., Miremadi, M., Bughin, J., George,K., Willmott,P. and Dewhurst, M. (2017), A Future that Works: Automation, Employment & Productivity, McKinsey Global White Paper.
 Dixon, M. Ponomareff, L., Turner, S. & DeLisi, R. (2017), Kick-Ass Customer Service, Harvard Business Review, January-February.
 Wilson, H.J., Daugherty, P.R, and Morini-Bianzino, N. (2017), The Jobs That Artificial Intelligence Will Create, MIT Sloan Management Review Magazine: Summer 2017, March 23rd.