The evidence is now unmistakable. Customers are more and more ready to interact with service providers not just by going online, but using other methods too. About one in eight consumers worldwide currently deal with banks and travel companies through web self-service or mobile apps--and the same proportion actually prefer to sign up with or buy from a provider by using Web self-service. 

A 2018 survey by Opinium LLP and Verint reveals that, among 18-34 year olds, one in 10 deal with their mobile phone company by using social media or Webchat, and one in eight through mobile apps. In India and Hong Kong, a small but appreciable part of the overall population--seven and 11 per cent, respectively--already claim to interact with conventional retailers with in-store robots. And in the future? People see their use of automated channels as growing: 3-4 per cent of customers worldwide already believe that, five or 10 years from now, they'll be dealing with service providers with the aid of home digital assistants such as Amazon's Alexa--indeed, with the aid of Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

It's the same story with chatbots and different kinds of biometrics. Nearly one in two customers--47 per cent--agree that, in dealing with service providers, digital channels, including online chat, provide a better overall experience than speaking to human operators. Nearly as many say they're happy to have chatbots answer their queries (42 per cent). As for authorising payments or verifying personal identity by means of one's voice, face or fingerprint, the percentages that are happy to do that are sizable: respectively, 38, 44 and a remarkable 57 per cent. 

Artificial Intelligence in contact centres: some fearful thinking, but plenty of positive signals  

When people in different countries are asked about their work, a solid 18 per cent strongly agree, and 31 per cent agree to some extent, that Artificial Intelligence and other forms of automation help them do their jobs "more effectively."

That's an important but too often neglected fact. Although 43 per cent of worldwide workers fear their jobs may be taken over by Artificial Intelligence or robots in the next decade, 49 per cent feel they're already more effective when they're assisted by AI, robots and other kinds of automation. Widely but inaccurately represented as substituting for workers, AI is in reality helping workers do their jobs better--particularly in contact centres. There, a number of applications using AI--quality assurance, speech analytics, voice biometrics, knowledge management, forecasting and planning--have already made big improvements in customer service: not just by automating its more routine elements and ensuring compliance with regulation, but by dramatically enhancing how operators deal with customers "on the call."

For a firm in utilities, insurance, travel or retail, Artificial Intelligence helps contact centre workers make great use of all the data it has about similar customers. For example, it registers when keywords peculiar to that sector, and peculiar also to companies and new developments within it, are uttered. That way, AI offers operators appropriate and up-to-the-minute ways forward, and, behind the scenes, gives customers unparalleled speed of service. 

Contact centre employees and businesses: more skilful in using Artificial Intelligence? 

AI can now listen to every call taken by a particular operator (a departure from past practice), and then go on to recommend the kind of coaching and training that's most appropriate to that operator's idiosyncrasies. Also, Artificial Intelligence can give real-time tips during a call about what offers to make--or about whether the call is fraudulent in the first place. Last, when someone provides credit card details over the phone, today's technology can automatically pause the recording of the call, so as to avoid capturing that confidential information. 

Of course, though the total workers who value Artificial Intelligence and robots professionally has reached 49 per cent, that figure can and should be driven higher. Yet according to a worldwide survey of companies done by Ovum ICT Enterprise Insights, nearly 60 per cent of enterprises will, by summer next year, be planning applications of AI or putting them into trials. So hands-on expertise in AI is growing, and that 49 per cent level of staff approval is set to become an outright majority very soon. 

How can contact centres match AI routines with the human touch? 

What's at issue here is better direction of AI. Clearly, as Artificial Intelligence becomes more sophisticated, it will give staff more, better and thus still more popular support for the knottier kinds of customer problems--the kinds that are best handled with the human touch. But the steering of AI will be an issue for flesh-and-blood contact centre leaders

Leadership in contact centres will be about carefully managing the right balance of tasks that are shared between customers, software and staff. In that endeavour, human beings will still make the really key decisions--even in 2030. The final evaluation of the consequences of those decisions will also be a human matter. 

But in everything else, Artificial Intelligence won't just automate processes at contact centres, but will also help staff there do their jobs in qualitatively new and better ways. It's doing that now--and will go on to do a whole lot more by the end of the next decade.