SEEMINGLY overnight, the world as we knew it was upended due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many companies have gone virtual, sending their employees home to work remotely. Unfortunately, many other companies have closed their doors, furloughing employees in the hope of hiring them back when the pandemic allows countries to restart their economies. In the world of customer service, nothing has been more effective than COVID-19 at driving home the need for comprehensive disaster recovery/business continuity plans, scalable and reliable cloud services, and robust, full-featured self-service solutions.
When many retail branches and non-essential stores and businesses closed, providing service virtually became the primary means for customers to obtain the help they needed from organizations, public and private. While some organizations have seen their inquiry volume nearly double and customer wait times for calls increase from seconds to hours, other businesses have experienced major declines in service transactions.
For both scenarios, employing digital intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs) on the front lines to assist customers has proved highly beneficial. When inquiry volumes, particularly phone calls, have grown so fast that there is no possible way for a company to keep up with the demand and provide the desired level of live agent support, IVAs have stepped in and handled many types of interactions very effectively. In enterprises where business has slowed so much that companies have furloughed employees to keep from going bankrupt, IVAs can provide support 24/7, despite drastic cuts in live agent support.
SELF-SERVICE IS PREFERRED, EXCEPT IN TIMES OF HIGH STRESS
In the past five years, self-service has become the preferred method of support for people of all generations, as long as the experience is good. However, in times of trouble, when emotions and stress levels are running high and issues are time-sensitive, people prefer speaking to live agents. In many companies, this has deepened the service challenge. Companies with flexible IVA solutions that allow them to make timely system changes are positioned to be more responsive to the needs of their customers than organizations that are using outdated interactive voice response systems (IVRs) that require IT to reprogram them. Artificial intelligence-enabled IVAs use machine learning to identify the queries that they are not prepared to handle; some IVAs automatically propose answers to these questions, and others capture and deliver a list of opportunities to their users. Either way, companies can quickly identify necessary enhancements so that they are positioned to meet the changing needs of their customers, which is important at all times, but even more so during times of rapid change, as with the coronavirus pandemic.
IVAs are also being used for outbound communications to proactively disseminate essential information and address customer needs, further reducing the need for live agents. In still other cases, IVAs are being employed to automatically call back customers so that they don’t need to wait on the phone for hours. Creative enterprises are asking a lot from their digital assistants, and the more flexible IVAs are responding with a swiftness unheard of with IVRs. While many of the functions performed by IVAs were available from sophisticated natural language IVRs, the speed to market of the newer IVAs is a game changer for companies.
FROM MAKESHIFT TO MISSION-CRITICAL
No one knows what the world and each country’s economy will look like once the pandemic passes, but most agree that there will be a new normal. DMG expects this to include growing adoption of IVA solutions, now that many companies have seen them perform well in the toughest of circumstances and in tight time frames. IVAs have features that business users find very attractive. To begin with, most of them come with highly intuitive integrated development environments and no-code/low-code programming requirements that do not require IT resources. This means that users can build and test their IVAs quickly without waiting for IT, eliminating one of the clearest drawbacks to IVR solutions. The newest and most flexible of the AI-enabled IVAs are starting to live up to the promise of providing concierge-level service so that customers can either speak or write their inquires using natural language. Even when an IVA needs to escalate an inquiry to a live agent, it can pass it on with context and then stay on the line to provide the agent with guidance at the same time as it is able to listen and learn how to address the situation by itself in the future.
EXPANDING USES OF IVAs
There are two primary uses of IVAs (and hundreds of applications for each): (1) externally to interface with and assist customers, and (2) internally to help employees, including agents, perform their jobs. When it comes to the first, IVAs can identify and verify customers, answer questions about products and services, schedule appointments, send reminders and emergency notifications, process payments, check inventories, place orders, and handle address changes. IVAs can also be used to handle basic clerical-type inquiries—such as providing balance information, issuing loan applications, and assisting with account transfers—for financial service organizations. Anything that can be done to help customers can also be applied to assist employees. IVAs can be used to lend a hand to agents in the course of their jobs, automating activities that previously required direct input from them. In some cases, IVAs can complete tasks such as an address change or account transfer. In other cases, an IVA can listen to or read what a customer is asking and bring up the necessary work case or content for an agent, reducing the time required to complete an interaction. Companies are also using IVAs to help agents become more productive by providing real-time guidance, disseminating information and updates and issuing reminders when they skip a necessary step, such as when an agent neglects to do an additional verification prior to making an address change.
TRIED AND TRUE?
While the coronavirus pandemic has driven home the need for more flexible omnichannel self-service solutions, adoption of IVAs was already on the rise and growing steadily at the end of 2019. In a survey of 2020 investment priorities of customers around the world, DMG found that 81 percent of organizations were already planning to implement automation solutions in the next couple of years. The adoption of IVAs has sped up, but the need to improve productivity and maintain a consistently outstanding customer experience has been and always will be an important goal for enterprises and their contact centers.
AI-enabled IVAs are making quantifiable contributions to companies. These automated, conversational, concierge-type self-service solutions are proving their worth in the worst of times, foreshadowing great things to come. Once the pandemic is past and organizations have had an opportunity to assess which of their disaster recovery plans worked most effectively to minimize the impacts of service disruptions, IVAs will certainly be recognized for their flexibility and contributions during these challenging times. The IVA market has experienced major investments in the past couple of years, resulting in technically enhanced solutions that allow end users to build and implement their own applications without the assistance of IT. DMG expects the IVA market to see increased adoption once the economies around the world have had time to recover. Many enterprises will transition from their outdated IVRs to AI-enabled IVAs, and companies and government agencies that did not think they needed or could afford a voice-based self-service solution will find the value proposition so compelling that they will invest in these highly adaptable, intelligent cloud-based solutions.
Donna Fluss is president of DMG Consulting. For more than two decades she has helped emerging and established companies develop and deliver outstanding customer experiences. A recognized visionary author and speaker, Fluss drives strategic transformation and innovation throughout the service industry. She provides strategic and practical counsel for enterprises, solution providers, and the investment community.