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Retail Industry Updates

How Conversational AI Will Take Retail to the Next Level in 2021 and Beyond

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Heading into 2021 — and with the pandemic still not under control — many retailers will continue to tout online shopping and curbside pickup as alternatives to brick-and-mortar retail. While those offerings are great substitutes for traditional commerce, they lack the face-to-face interactions that normally occur at a physical establishment. Without that aspect, the importance of customer support has never been greater. Organizations must now lean on their call centers to make up the difference.

But this is easier said than done. Even without a global pandemic, call centers often hire and fire based on the needs of the moment. This isn’t good for customers or for employee morale. Other firms have turned to simple chatbots to help fill the void, creating new frustrations for customers who struggle to communicate with these robotic, unintelligent solutions.

Businesses are catching on, however. They are beginning to recognize the difficulties of relying on outdated technology to circumvent the challenges of operating a call center, which has become such an important part of the retail world. Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, call centers have the power to redefine how consumers feel about retail — and with the right technology, they can ensure that experience is a positive one.

In Call Centers of the Future, Man and Machine Will Unite

While humans will remain an important part of the call centers of tomorrow, they will no longer be required to take the lead and answer the same repetitive questions over and over again. Instead of allocating their time to the simplest and most basic tasks, they will be free to focus on higher-value work by serving customers with more complex issues that can only be resolved with a human touch.

Conversational artificial intelligence (AI) will instead take the lead as the first point of contact, fielding inquiries with consistent speed and professionalism — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In a world of round-the-clock online shopping and on-demand expectations, conversational AI is the technology call centers need most.

When a problem is too complex for conversational AI to resolve on its own, or when a question is simply too new or an edge case, the digital assistant will pass the conversation to a human agent. The digital assistant may continue to help the human agent by providing background information regarding the customer’s call or previous inquiries and assist in retrieving other tidbits as needed. This can speed up the entire process and allow newly hired human agents to get to work sooner with less training and ultimately improve their efficiency in servicing customers.

Intelligence Is the True Power Behind Automation

While there are a lot of claims regarding what automation can and cannot do, the truth is that organizations will not be able to automate a significant amount of processes without intelligence. This is where the rudimentary chatbots — often used initially due to COVID-19 by many organizations — have faltered. They often fumble and repeat the same questions until an answer is provided. In some cases, chatbots simply have no idea how to proceed when faced with the unexpected, irritating customers who may already be frustrated by a problem they’re having with a product or service.

This is why a growing number of businesses are upgrading their simpler chatbot and interactive voice response (IVR) systems for a more cognitive digital agent that can handle deviations, understand context and genuinely empathize with humans who don’t like to follow scripts. What these firms have realized is that by relying on ineffective technology, they would not be able to achieve the desired results.

For example, customers are used to receiving busy signals and “we are unavailable” notices, so they’ve grown accustomed to leaving voicemails. However, without the right technology, businesses are forced to manually listen to each voicemail, figure out what customers want, document it, enter it into an enterprise system, and then call them back or send an email. This is a horribly time-consuming process that reallocates important resources by taking human employees away from higher-value work.

In 2021, businesses will come to recognize that by utilizing intelligent automation — specifically speech-to-text, natural language processes (NLP) and natural language understanding (NLU) — they won’t have to manually perform these tasks, like listening to voicemails. Conversational AI can do it automatically, determine the number of the caller, extract important information and carry out actions without actually involving a human.

AI Will Guide Us Toward a Better Future

Call centers are being forever changed by intelligent solutions, particularly conversational AI and AI-based recommendation engines, which have the power to automate several aspects of the job. Instead of relying on a human staff to handle fluctuating call volumes, many businesses initially had turned to chatbots for a quick fix. Organizations have since realized that the technology is seriously lacking and will struggle to handle human who won’t follow scripts.

Humans and conversational AI can handle these situations but chatbots cannot. As call centers embrace higher-value solutions, their customers will receive better service and their human employees will be empowered to focus on more meaningful objectives.

Allan Andersen is the global director of enterprise solutions at Amelia, an IPsoft Company, a New York City-based company that builds and delivers advanced automation and conversational AI platforms.

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