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April 29, 2021updated 28 Jun 2022 6:30am

AI is helping call centre staff handle a tide of angry customers

Businesses want to build a more empathic customer experience, and AI can help in problematic situations.

By Claudia Glover

Call centre staff are dealing with more angry customers than ever before as commerce moves online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Artificial intelligence is increasingly being used to assist staff in identifying clients who are upset and to de-escalate problematic situations, but it must be deployed with care to ensure customer service representatives (CSRs) do not feel patronised by their machine helpers.

AI in the call centre

Call centre staff are increasingly turning to AI for help with serving tricky customers. (Photo by Chainarong06/Shutterstock)

Research from Forrester, carried out on behalf of CX software firm CallMiner, found 67% of call centres surveyed are dealing with more complex customer requests than at this time last year, with 70% facing an increase in calls from emotionally charged consumers. As a result, 65% are planning to boost customer experience with an emphasis on empathy, and it is hoped machines can help. Customer care and support is already one of the leading use cases for AI technology, and 73% of industry leaders polled by MIT expect AI’s role in this area to grow in the coming years.

AI is playing a growing role in the call centre

So far AI in customer service has been most commonly used to answer basic questions and direct more complex queries to the appropriate CSR. But as the technology develops, it is increasingly being deployed to advise the human representative and even to prepare them for angry customers. “You can have the AI assist the CSR in the background,” says Dimitris Vassos, founder and chief architect at Omilia, an AI customer experience company. “It can do sentiment analysis on the way that customers are talking to an agent. For example, if they’re interrupting the person that they’re talking to, if they’re using a lot of negative language, these are typically cues [that the customer is disgruntled].” This information is then presented to the CSR in the form of pop-ups on their screen, along with advice on how to effectively de-escalate the phonecall. “So they see a pop-up on their screen alerting them that they’re talking over the customer for example, advising them to slow down,” Vassos explains.

While significant progress is being made in this area, the use of chatbots and automated services still irritates customers. A study by Forrester into customer service online found 54% of US shoppers polled expect negative interactions with customer service chatbots, with one disappointed respondent quoted in the report as saying “chatbots will run you in circles and then tell you to call customer service in the end”. According to Vassos, a chatbot must be advanced enough to understand exactly what a person wants. “You have to be very careful how you apply technology because you are dealing directly with consumers,” he says. “The emotional intelligence aspect of that is very important.”

How to make AI in the call centre more ’emotionally intelligent’

While machines have yet to master emotional intelligence, a greater level of sophistication when it comes to customer experience can be achieved with clever design that includes human and machine elements. “I think the major pitfall of using technology in customer service is when companies try to remove the human aspect of it,” says Karine Cardona-Smits, a senior analyst at Forrester. “You need to look at the entire customer service journey and how those two can be combined to be better together, so the human can do their human job and the technology can support the agent.”

But there are trade-offs. As AI technology becomes more advanced, some of the better CSAs find the AI suggestions condescending, says Cardona-Smits. “Some vendors have realised that agents do not react so well to the fact that [machines] are telling them what to do,” she says. Those “who are passionate about their jobs and who really take pride and pleasure in helping and supporting customers” are most likely to feel patronised by their AI assistant, Cardona-Smits adds.

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Vassos believes the scale of the business is important when deciding whether to implement customer service AI, and says at the moment bigger companies are better suited to robot interventions. “If you have 200 agents or more in your customer service centre, that’s when you start to see the benefits of this kind of technology,” he says, adding that for smaller companies, where supervisors have time to train their staff, offer advice and oversee their progress, a human led-approach is still preferable to dealing with disgruntled clients.

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