IBM Thailand predicts AI upheaval in customer service this year
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IBM Thailand predicts AI upheaval in customer service this year

IBM says more than US$1 trillion is spent on 265 billion customer service calls each year.
IBM says more than US$1 trillion is spent on 265 billion customer service calls each year.

The next 12 months will bring huge shifts to the call centre and customer service industry, says IBM Thailand. After years of lagging behind customers' needs and expectations, the future of call centres and customer service is being shaped by artificial intelligence (AI).

Kittipong Asawapichayon, country manager of the software group for IBM Thailand, said more than US$1 trillion (32.2 trillion baht) is spent on 265 billion customer service calls each year, but the call centre industry is underperforming and struggling to evolve, relying on ageing analogue systems and interactive voice response technology.

Kittipong: Chatbots are in demand

Only 36% of contact centres are able to track a customer journey that spans multiple channels, and a mere 17% can locate problem hot spots that negatively affect the customer experience. Existing customer service automation solutions have significantly reduced company costs, but have not led to higher customer satisfaction, he said.

Increasingly, customers are only choosing voice support if self-service options have failed them. The role of the call centre agent has shifted from customer service to customer retention. In fact, 52% of customers hung up on a customer service call because they did not want to wait for an agent to have a conversation that may or may not help them.

Mr Kittipong said the future of customer care is about convenience, and messaging is one of the easiest forms of interaction. If given a choice, 70% of today's consumers prefer messaging to voice calls for customer support. Accustomed to having everything interconnected, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with one swipe, today's consumers seem to be evolving faster than the customer care provided by brands.

"AI and cognitive technologies -- notably, chatbot technologies -- are dominating the conversation as one of the more interesting disrupters at play. While the technical proficiency required to escalate from channel to channel or from bot to live agent was once a luxury, today's customers demand nothing less," he said.

As contact centre leaders begin to catch on to the importance of user-friendly online customer experiences, digital channel planning (web chat, mobile apps, social media) is set to increase over the next year.

According to Mr Kittipong, IBM sees the top seven trends for 2018 at enterprise call centres as follows:

Go bots or go home

Chatbots, some of which have become iconic for their brands, are now part of the cultural narrative and are becoming even more sophisticated. It's hard to find someone who hasn't had an interaction with a chatbot or a virtual assistant, able to facilitate simple communication and respond to straightforward queries.

As chatbots and virtual assistants get more sophisticated, they will be able to respond with increasing empathy and personalisation, seamlessly tracking the customer journey. Whether voice or text activated, bots will be able to help users find products and answers at any time, on any device or channel faster than ever before. In fact, people under 55 already rate messaging as a top choice for customer service.

In Thailand, Ananda Development Plc leveraged IBM Watson technology to create AI chatbot representatives to support clients on investor relations on the company's website and Facebook. The solutions, developed by ConvoLab, an IBM business partner, have helped decrease over 60% of the customer service team's workload.

Conversational new revenue

At the intersection of messaging apps and shopping, "conversational commerce" refers to the act of placing purchase orders through online and mobile conversations.

This channel is often used for predictive marketing and functions through the use of AI-powered chatbots that are able to interact directly with the customer. These bots read messages, study purchasing behaviours and browsing history and reply to customer queries. While the customer receives one-on-one attention, the chatbot is able to glean insights into the customer's purchasing habits. While it's a great way to generate additional revenue, the strength of conversational commerce is in the brand's ability to retain and dissect the relevant data.

The growth of data analytics

Advanced data analytics tools can help businesses uncover business-critical insights and gain a competitive edge. A sophisticated data analytics tool is able to make predictions or generate recommendations based on information gathered, giving call centre agents and bots more background and context for each customer.

By highlighting user demographics and preferences, advanced data analytics can help brands reach their target users by narrowing in on relevant information -- everything from geography, history and public interests across all interactions with businesses, including customer service.

Investment in advanced data analytics is a precursor to customer satisfaction and will be big in 2018, said Mr Kittipong. The current economic climate is driven by data, so it makes sense that more brands are developing long-term strategies to manage and analyse relevant consumer data.

The need for intelligent call routing

Routing customer service calls based on a customer's history and individual needs can help brands seamlessly provide personalised care that today's consumers demand. In 2016, the Global Contact Centre Benchmarking Report outlined that 42% of all customer interactions had become digital. Each digital interaction, however small, leaves behind a trail of data that speaks to the individual consumer's needs, as well as demographic and purchasing behaviour. When processed and routed appropriately, this data can in turn be taken and adapted into revenue.

Market research company Forrester suggests advanced data and analytics will be able to successfully route customers to agents (or bots) based on data collected, which outlines previous purchases and online behaviours. Pre-empting a customer's needs has never been easier, but it is not enough to simply collect the data -- 2018 will see extensive efforts to manage data and effectively route information to save money and strengthen customer loyalty.

The expansion of enhanced 24-hour self-service

Self-sufficiency is a trend among consumers, with the younger generation increasingly ignoring traditional customer service channels in favour of do-it-yourself systems. By 2020, the phone will be used only as a back-up when all self-service channels fail.

The younger generation of consumers having grown up with the internet are much more likely to navigate through FAQ and web forums for answers to their questions before picking up the phone. The ideal customer care for this demographic is essentially enhanced self-service. Industry players should expect subsequent generations to crave the same always-on access to service. Beyond customer satisfaction, self-service reduces company spending, often drastically, making it a space to watch in 2018.

Teamwork through "hybrid AI"

Although AI has advanced dramatically, it is not as complex as the consumer. There is still a margin for error, confusion and, therefore, customer dissatisfaction in a purely bot-managed customer care channel.

A growing trend at call centres, hybrid AI, also known as "agent-assist," allows a bot to glean information from the customer and then seamlessly escalate the issue to a live agent. Until bots are able to be as empathetic as humans, they will not be able to offer the conflict resolution that will fully satisfy customers. And, while bots excel at retrieving information and even answering frequently asked, simple Tier 1 support questions, they may not always have the answer to complex and situation-specific queries.

In Thailand, ConvoLab, an IBM partner, is also working with local businesses to implement hybrid AI to allow bots to assist in retrieving initial information at record speeds, saving agents time and effort while also reducing customer frustration, driving higher levels of customer satisfaction and in turn, increasing revenue.

Growing investment in social media

Customers are increasingly using public platforms to talk about brands and brands are joining the conversation. Social media is the support channel of choice for customers under 35, which is a clear indication all brands should be utilising it. And yet, 29.3% of businesses are still without social media channels.

Social media offers the customer the self-sufficiency and autonomy they crave -- this is a support channel where consumers can go to view feedback, give feedback, vent and interact with their favourite brands. Savvy companies are building on this trend by making consumer-brand social media interactions appealing and easy to share with friends.

Responsive social support teams will view this as an opportunity to create a unified customer experience and connect customers to form brand communities. Expect to see a growth in social media support teams, and more investment in training and new social media management tools.

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