Will technology ever replace human to human conversations?


Neil Hammerton, CEO and co-founder at Natterbox, examines the rise of chatbots and the role they might play in replicating human conversation.

At Google’s I/O conference last year, the company made a phone call to book a haircut. The phone call wasn’t made by a human, but by its Google Assistant that sounded so human, the person receiving the call didn’t seem to have any idea that they were talking to an artificial intelligence (AI). Whether that scares or excites you, the point is that technology is now at a stage where the lines between what’s real and what’s artificial are blurring.

This is particularly true of the way in which customers and brands interact. Many brands from the likes of eBay, Burberry, Whole Foods and Lidl have invested in chatbots to provide customer support and in some ways they’re working well. But the hype surrounding them and the increasing role of AI in our lives has led to a perception that these technologies will ultimately replace humans, particularly in the contact or call centre, which has traditionally been the first line of contact for customers.

The truth is that, whether it’s automatic, real time voice translation, or analysing whether a customer phone call is good or bad, AI enables companies to collect and use crucial insight to enhance customer relationships, in an era where customer loyalty is key. But as these technologies only continue to evolve, it is now down to companies to strike the right balance between the roles of humans and machines, which can be a struggle for some.

Putting up and breaking down barriers

Good customer experience is vital in today’s market in order to maintain brand loyalty. So much so that, despite fears around AI, the evolution of personalised and programmatic communication in the online space has raised expectations across the board, meaning it is more important than ever to demonstrate that you know your customer, and tailor their experience accordingly. As such, today there are a number of innovative use cases for AI, demonstrating how the way we communicate with brands has dramatically changed in recent years.

For example, Hipmunk, a platform for finding travel deals, created its ‘Hello chatbots’, which can use the location of the person they are speaking with to determine where they are travelling from and then send them travel deals from that location. The native chatbot and tutoring bots that Duolingo built into its app match various personalities and learning styles to allow users to practise conversation at any time of the day, with any character they choose.This shift in how we interact with each other, brands, and businesses means that more often than not, there is a piece (or multiple pieces) of technology that now sit between us and who are we talking to.

It’s important to remember that technology has its limitations. We’ve all experienced the pain of trying to call our bank, GP, or utility provider, pressing an infinite number of keys only to get through to an automated voice that will make us wait on the line whilst letting us know that we’re number 20 in the queue. And now we are at the point where even the “person” we are talking to is a digital platform with the advent of chatbots and virtual assistants. Companies claim that this automation of communication with the customer is making their journey much more efficient and streamlined. But is that really the case, or are companies just putting up a barrier between them and their customers?

Although this increased separation from the customer has provided brands with huge challenges, it has simultaneously brought with it huge opportunities as well. And that opportunity isn’t necessarily replacing the human workforce with automated platforms or robots.

One big step for man, and machine

To capitalise on the phone conversations that companies and their customer service staff have with customers, brands will in fact need to turn toward AI and machine learning. Unfortunately, where chatbots and voice assistants are being used by companies as a replacement rather than enhancement, the technology is beginning to get a bad name for itself. However, there are alternative ways to benefit from the technology and they aren’t the only way for companies to make use of AI.

AI is now being developed that can truly revolutionise customer service by allowing companies the opportunity to analyse phone calls and immediately pick up essential data from them. As such, the next big move for the telecoms industry when it comes to AI will be towards integrating the technology into telephony platforms in order to help companies figure out what the immediate benefits of the data they have access to is for everyone. For instance, AI can analyse phone calls to determine the tone of the call, i.e. whether it was a positive or negative interaction, and deliver this analysis to managers, allowing them to better train call agents and gather statistics on them, which will in turn improve and automate the process.

On top of this, using AI to analyse phone conversations will help companies improve their telephony offering, through the ability to offer a more personalised service and reduce waiting times. Imagine how much more enjoyable the phone experience could be if you called up your service provider and were automatically directed towards the agent best equipped to deal with your query. These sorts of analytics capabilities could also mean that when a customer calls, the integrated AI technology will be able to tell the agent who the customer is, what they previously called about, what products they have purchased, and so on by providing a 360 degree view of all the customer’s previous interactions with the brand across any channel in front of their eyes. With the power to improve business agility, efficiency and delivery of the best and most efficient experience to customers, voice analytics will allow agents to run any call in the smoothest possible way by ensuring they are equipped to deal with any query.

As such, integrating AI into their conversations with customers is the answer to how brands will be able to capitalise on phone interactions – by using the technology to make them as seamless, useful and helpful as possible to the customers.

Ultimately, yes, technology is changing some job roles. Yes, this could be to the extent that certain jobs will no longer require a human to do it. But we are not at a point where the human workforce will disappear entirely. The future is very much one of partnership and enhancement, not sweeping replacement. Sometimes speaking to a human is the best and most efficient way of getting something done. As said by Ginni Rometty, “Some people call this artificial intelligence, but the reality is this technology will enhance us. So instead of artificial intelligence, I think we’ll augment our intelligence.”

Written by Neil Hammerton, CEO and co-founder at Natterbox

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