Augment or Automate? With AI, There’s a Place for Both

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When it comes to customer service automation, are we on the brink of greatness or doomed to repeat the poor designs of the past? The hope of the industry hangs on best practices, of course, and the ability to seamlessly integrate automated offerings across customer interactions. But underlying these aspects are two themes to consider—the ethics of automation, and determining how digital and human workforces can work hand in hand.

Ethics is a discussion for another day. As for merging the digital and human workforces together, I started the discussion in my Winter 2019 column, “Amid the AI Fervor, a Case for Automating with a Human Touch,” which showed examples of digital workers picking up tasks from live resources and handing off the customer to a live agent when needed, then further assisting with the interaction.

But there is another path well worth keeping in mind—augmented intelligence, whereby artificial intelligence (AI) is used to elevate and optimize customer interactions by focusing on narrow tasks that help workers quickly assist customers, enhance their decision-making skills, and allow them to continuously improve even while letting them shine in the areas that require uniquely human qualities, such as compassion or empathy. The latter is key, as AI has yet to crack the code on emulating these types of behaviors despite the hype.

Augmented intelligence (also referred to as intelligence augmentation) is focused on making the human workforce better, not replacing it. It keeps live agents in the loop, acting as a resource to provide timely assistance with tasks and customers and lending feedback for continuous improvement; it optimizes interactions and performance.

One company that is active in the augmented intelligence space is Cogito. Used by many contact centers, Cogito looks at the behavioral side of agent-customer interactions, combining behavioral science, AI, and high-performance computing to analyze content and provide in-call guidance to agents, helping them modify conversations to drive better customer interactions. For instance, it provides alerts to agents to keep the experience on track, such as providing clues as to when to show empathy, add energy to their voice, speed up or slow down, or allow the customer to speak.

Webhelp.com, a business process outsourcer, recently paired up with Allo-Media, a French startup specializing in AI for real-time speech recognition and understanding, to develop “the self-augmented agent.” The purpose of this endeavor is for the digital assistant to provide real-time assistance that allows agents to focus on the problem in the customer’s environment and the emotion it generates, and not just on data entry or searching for basic information. For example, among other tasks, the digital agent can surface relevant material to assist the agent in closing a sale based on what is going on in the conversation, eliminating disruptive manual searches that interrupt conversational flow.

Other longtime providers in the AI and speech technology arena have built out deep portfolios of capabilities that alone or combined can truly augment the agent experience. For example, Nuance, under the umbrella of Agent AI, offers everything from Nuance Nina, its virtual assistant, to speech analytics, biometrics and fraud detection, and agent guidance. An elegant set of capabilities under Amazon Web Service’s AI umbrella enables companies to easily infuse AI into the contact center, from virtual assistants and bots to dynamic routing, personalized call flows, and analytics. Users can extract sentiment and intent from conversations, through transcription and analysis, and translate conversations in real time, among other capabilities.

In the end, AI should be all about not biting off more than you can chew. Whereas companies need to know the breadth of capabilities their contact center providers have to offer, true success is dependent on providers conveying when and where to apply them and enabling companies to easily do so. Looking at augmenting rather than fully automating might just provide that answer.

Nancy Jamison is a principal analyst in customer contact at Frost & Sullivan. She can be reached at nancy.jamison@frost.com, or follow her on Twitter @NancyJami.

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