South Africa’s business process outsourcing (BPO) sector has built its reputation on the quality of its people. Our contact centre agents are some of the best in the world, offering warm, efficient customer service experiences via voice channels.
Ryan Falkenberg, co-CEO of Clevva
This has resulted in impressive employment growth within this important industry. With the increased adoption of digital self-service channels such as WhatsApp, however, there is a real risk that virtual agents powered by AI may undermine this growth.
What are virtual agents? These are digital versions of human agents, designed to ask the right questions, give the right answers and perform the right actions in resolving customer service queries. They engage directly with customers via digital channels such as websites, mobile apps, WhatsApp and e-mail.
The question is, how much of a threat are these virtual agents to the jobs of human agents?
The most simple form of virtual agents is a chatbot, or info bot. This early generation of front-office digital worker was designed to answer customer questions, and to do it in a conversational way – just like a human agent would. The real breakthrough with these info bots was their ability to converse in natural language and to learn from a company knowledge base and ongoing customer responses. This allowed them to improve their ability to predict the right information to answer a specific question.
For most customers, these info bots were positioned poorly. Rather than being offered as a ‘smart librarian’ that could help find answers to specific questions, they were positioned as the digital go-to for customer sales and support queries. This resulted in customer’s engaging with chatbots as if they were virtual agents, and being bitterly disappointed. What they found was a very limited virtual agent that seldom offered the right level of information, let alone got any query resolved for them. And as a result, all roads still led to a live agent, either via live chat or a call back.
To enhance these first generation virtual agents capabilities, companies tried to get their info bots to perform actions, not simply find information. To do this, they upgraded them to transaction bots that could work directly or indirectly with relevant back-office systems.
This meant that basic transactional requests like ‘top up my data by 100GB’ could be handled by the virtual agent. If they needed more information, they could surface a web form, and could then pass the information through to the relevant systems for processing. This worked as long as the customer had a clear instruction. Unfortunately they soon found that most customers have contextually-rich service queries, issues or complaints. They want help first working out what to do.
And as a result, most digital engagements with these virtual agents still ended up with a live agent.
This situation is changing with the emergence of service bots, designed to handle all known queries, issues and complaints without having to hand over to a live agent. These service bots are far more capable than the early generation info and transactional chatbots. They can handle the complex advisory-level logic required to clarify, analyse, resolve and action customer service queries, in context and in line with business and regulatory rules.
As a result, these third generation virtual agents are reducing the calls coming through to human agents. What now for the BPO industry?
Rather than see this as a threat, the sector could look to this as a major opportunity. Third generation virtual agents resolve queries, issues and complaints that require no human differentiation. They simply apply rules and process actions. This means the calls that do come through to human agents require something different. Customers do not simply want to get something resolved. They want to be heard. They are looking for a human connection to their service provider. It is this ‘x factor’ that builds true brand loyalty by tapping into the customer’s emotions. And it is this experience where South African agents excel.
Rather than fight the expansion of virtual agents, BPOs should embrace them. They should invest into digital teams that specialise in building and optimising virtual agents so they can process more service requests digitally, at a fraction of current costs. And they should then be investing more into their human agents to equip them with the skills required to offer culturally relevant, hyper-personalised customer experiences that really matter.