Most of the recent media coverage of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has focused on the possibility that jobs will be completely replaced by AI. During the Covid pandemic, the relatively sober âEconomistâ featured a headline suggesting that robots may be about to take your job. IBM announced a freeze on hiring where AI could replace the open position – potentially thousands of roles will be replaced.
Most of the media coverage is hyperbole, particularly in jobs where human empathy is still valued. Although there are many sections of the customer journey that can be handled by self service, when a customer really needs urgent help there is still nothing better than a reassuring voice. Many customer service interactions still require this human engagement, so we are not about to see a widespread replacement of contact centre agents just yet.
However, there are some interesting ways that AI can help agents in the contact centre. It can become a virtual assistant, taking notes and summarising calls. It can monitor customer sentiment and the quality of the interaction, so all calls can be checked for quality rather than just a random selection. AI can access information that the agent and customer are talking about, so there is no need to place the customer on hold while the agent performs a manual search.
All this can boost productivity and improve the customer experience (CX). However, I think there is another area that could be extremely positive for remote agents that are working from home: coaching and personalised guidance.
Remote agents will naturally not have a team leader by their side. Their managers are probably monitoring most of their activities through dashboards and real-time reports, rather than listening to a large number of the actual customer calls.
This can create a gap for the coaching process. Detractors of home working often say that it does not facilitate in-person learning or coaching and it isnât possible for a team leader to spot when problems are developing.
But this is rather different with AI. The content, context, and sentiment of each call can be analysed and the agent can be guided to specific training workshops that will help them to boost any weaker areas of their performance. This can also be a useful way to monitor mental health, to see if the agent is behaving unusually or has a different attitude to normal.
Some might think that this monitoring and real-time guiding and coaching has an air of âBig Brotherâ – an all-seeing intelligence that misses nothing. This is a natural concern and some companies do have form – remember all the web cams deployed during the pandemic because paranoid managers were unsure how to manage people they could not see?
Companies are already exploring how AI monitoring can help to reduce stress at work. Software already exists to help identify when remote workers may be feeling isolated – it automatically connects people to their colleagues if they are identified as lonely.
Some may fear a new era of control and supervision, where AI can read brain patterns and know what you are thinking. However, this is over-analysing the situation. Just like many other tools, AI can be used productively or in a more controlling fashion.
Think back to those webcams. They are great for remote agents that want to feel more connected to their team. Audio-only calls now feel a little odd for many office workers – we are used to talking with our colleagues on camera and engaging in meetings where we can see multiple colleagues on camera.
This connectivity and team-building is positive. Taking still photos at random times to check your employees are at their desk is not. It shows a lack of trust and an inability to manage people using tools such as a virtual office – see our LiveDesk for a good example.
Likewise with mental health monitoring. If companies start scanning every spoken or typed word for signs that their employee is under stress then it should only be driven by the desire to help employees when they are stressed.
AI – and in particular generative AI – can play an important role in supporting employees and helping them to cope with periods of stress or anxiety. In a contact centre environment it can be used to identify stress triggers and can offer coaching that may help to avoid difficult situations – all personalised for the individual.
Some companies deal with stress by running training sessions on âmanaging stressâ rather than dealing with the root cause of the problem. We are now creating technology systems that are becoming smart enough to identify when there are problems and what may be the cause.
Enlightened companies and managers will see this as an opportunity to support their team. There will be some less principled use of these technologies as monitoring systems, but the companies that deploy technology in this way will soon realise that they are driving their own employees away.
We have a choice how to use tools such as AI. Where it can offer support and positive individual coaching we should embrace it and look to the future.