Companies Turn to IVAs to Deal with COVID Surges

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As a response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, companies all over the world had to quickly pivot their contact center employees to work-from-home environments. On top of that, the pandemic led to dramatic increases in contact center volume, with the number of inbound conversations more than doubling for many support teams. Additionally, contact center agents had to field questions from customers about subjects they’ve previously never had to handle.

Companies didn’t have to handle the pandemic alone, though. Conversational artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs) became the go-to solution for companies to quickly and accurately provide information about how their operations were being affected by COVID-19.

The pandemic accelerated investments in digital touchpoints, including IVAs, as companies looked for ways to combat the deluge of inbound calls and unpredictable call volume, Forrester Research concludes in a recent report.

Others noticed the trend as well.

“We’ve seen how enterprises have quickly updated their current IVAs to handle pandemic-related inquiries. They’ve also put AI to work within their organizations to support employees adjusting to a new work environment and minimize the effort needed for agents to find the right information,” says Jen Snell, vice president of product marketing for Verint Intelligent Self-Service.

“Too many businesses assume that operational efficiency cannot be achieved during a crisis. Yet, as we’ve seen in the past few months, when IVAs are answering thousands of queries at once, a contact center can scale both its response and its human touch. IVAs can prioritize which questions need the attention and empathy of a human agent, making the most of agents’ time and talents. IVAs can also evolve to meet new needs, all without requiring a costly, complex, all-hands-on-deck sprint to make changes to critical software,” Snell continues.

DMG Consulting, in a similar report, notes that IVAs serving on the front lines of self-service during the coronavirus outbreak eliminated any doubt about their efficacy.

“The pandemic has highlighted the need for organizations to develop and implement reliable disaster recovery (DR)/business continuity (BC) plans as well as comprehensive self-service solutions. In the world of customer service, IVAs are becoming mission-critical tools as organizations strive to maintain their service levels while responding to today’s unprecedented service demands,” the report concludes.

And because of that, nearly two-thirds of U.S. IT decision makers plan to increase their investments in automation in the coming year, noting that intelligent self-service has been key to remaining agile during the crisis, according to research by Opinion Matters and Inference Solutions.

A full 71 percent of IT decision makers agree that intelligent self-service automation helped their organizations remain agile, and 64 percent expect to increase automation investments over the coming year as a result of the crisis. More than a quarter (26 percent) will increase their investments by 10 percent or more.

Additionally, 69 percent expect customer service automation to play a significant role in their organizations’ resilience over the next two years,

“Cloud-based, self-managed platforms that give businesses more control of their customer-and employee-facing self-service applications will be key to overcoming the barriers to adoption flagged in our research,” said Callan Schebella, Inference Solutions’ CEO, in a statement. “We are pleased to see that IT leaders plan to use automation not only to lower operating costs, but to better support their employees as they navigate the challenges of doing business in a post-pandemic world.”

Industries Hardest Hit

The pandemic certainly disrupted business across just about every industry, but perhaps none were as hard hit as the travel and transportation industries, which saw event cancellations, closed borders, and other restrictions imposed almost overnight. Within a matter of days, travelers all over the world had to cancel or rebook their trips.

Companies in these two industries quickly updated their voice systems with information specific to the virus and the related travel restrictions. Their IVAs were reconfigured to direct customers to landing pages containing a wealth of information about service impacts, cancellation policies, and other essential information.

Corporate travel services provider Gant Travel, for example, optimized its systems in this way. Working alongside NICE inContact’s team of experts and partners, the Bloomington, Indiana-­based organization eliminated silos at its contact center so agents could have the unified, omnichannel capabilities they needed to rapidly respond to customers in real time.

Since implementing NICE inContact CXone, Gant has achieved the following outcomes:

• reduced telephone costs by 7 percent;

• reduced average handling time by 5 percent;

• reduced queue wait times by 46 percent by eliminating extraneous and redundant IVR functionality; and

• increased quality scores for voice and email to 93 percent.

“Being in the business of facilitating travel, our success hinges on our ability to ensure that client trips are seamless,” said Jim Conner, director of operations at Gant Travel, in a statement. “When an issue arises, every second we’re not spending getting things back on track is a missed opportunity, which is why ensuring an optimally efficient contact center is so critical. NICE inContact helped us solve for our major problem areas, improving both the agent and customer experiences.”

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