The human voice is sensitive, remorseful, understanding and unique. But conversational voice AI is catching up — because contact centers are paying.
It’s true. Artificial intelligence is taking over jobs once held by human agents.
In contact centers, where rows of agents are tasked with providing answers and support to customers, AI-enabled technologies like conversational AI can perform the same function.
And it’s growing. In a new report, Gartner predicts that contact centers will spend nearly $2 million this year on improving conversational AI — and that investment is expected to pay off — with an estimated $80 billion reduction in labor costs within of four years.
But human workers need not worry. While many current tasks can be relegated to AI – there is still work to be done – and AI could enrich and improve the work of contact centers rather than replace them.
Robots are not completely taking over contact centers
Sourabh Gupta, CEO of voice AI platform Skit.ai, says the biggest myth about AI is that it’s here to replace humans.
“AI-powered solutions are designed to reduce the workload of customer service agents and augment their work, rather than automating and completely taking over their work,” he said. “AI is more likely to take over certain tasks and activities currently performed by humans, making processes simpler and more efficient, freeing humans from routine cognitive tasks and opening up new ways to enrich their work. The most likely outcome of using AI will be collaboration between digital agents and humans.”
According to Gupta, AI investment is a “long game”. While he (of course) advocates that the return on investment far outweighs the cost, Gupta said there “can be a hefty price to pay upfront.” “It’s important to work with vendors that have agile delivery models and prioritize clear business goals,” he added.
While Conversation clearly offers a wealth of benefits, it is still in its youth stage with plenty of room for growth and maturity. Gartner researchers expect “measured adoption” over the next two years.
“Implementing conversational AI requires expensive professional resources in areas such as data analysis, knowledge graphs, and natural language understanding,” said Gartner VP Analyst Daniel O’Connell. “Once built, the Conversational AI capabilities must be continuously supported, updated and maintained, which leads to additional costs.”
Related Article: Can Conversational AI Improve Online Retail Experience?
The Impact of AI on Contact Centers
As a central point of contact for questions, complaints and service, contact centers are a crucial part of good CX.
CMSWire recently reported that, according to a PWC survey, nearly 80% of American consumers say speed, convenience/ease of use, expert support, and friendly service are the most important elements of a positive customer experience.
Of the approximately 17 million contact centers worldwide, O’Connell said, many are understaffed while at the same time facing pressure to reduce labor costs — which can account for up to 95% of their spend.
Unlike traditional chatbots, Conversational AI incorporates natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) to simulate human intelligence. Replacing a human with some kind of conversational AI is certainly compelling from a cost perspective: The cost of replacing a human agent with a conversational AI voice assistant ranges from $1,000 to $2,000 per agent, according to Gartner researchers.
Leveraging augmented language intelligence platforms, these AI assistants — modeled after human interactions — promise the ability to have “natural” conversations with their human customers, regardless of their accent, language, or even a sudden change of subject.
Investors rally for companies offering AI
And the providers in this area are growing. Here’s a look at some hot space funding activity:
- In September, PolyAI, a company that describes its voice assistants as “superhuman,” closed a $40 million Series B funding round, bringing the total to $70 million and the company with nearly $300 million was rated.
- Observe.AI, a conversational intelligence platform for contact centers, raised $213 million in funding with its latest Series C funding round in 2022.
- In August, AI customer service platform Aisera raised $90 million in Series D funding.
- In June, Invoca, a conversational AI startup, raised $83 million in Series F equity funding.
Related article: Real-time AI: A Necessity for Great Customer Experiences
There will always be a need for human agents
As compelling as replacing a human with conversational AI technology might be on paper, O’Connell doesn’t see job turnover as a major part of the story for several reasons:
- Finding qualified candidates is a challenge: Many companies report difficulties recruiting, training and maintaining the required number of agents. Their goal is to make their current workforce more efficient so they don’t have to hire more agents.
- Demand will increase: Economic growth (at least in the long term, if not this year), increased regulation, population growth, and the complexities of life (navigating the minefields of vertical industries like healthcare, education, and finance) are increasing the demand for agents. So while we might automate 30% of interactions by 2031, demand will increase by 10%.
- High broker turnover: The rate of agent automation is incremental, not transformative. Agent turnover is typically high, perhaps 33-50% per year, so companies are hiring fewer agents when existing ones leave. As such, we wouldn’t expect large-scale displacement of jobs as the workforce has time to adjust.
“The bottom line is that this will not be like the displacement in the automotive industry, where we have a trend from gas engines to electric vehicles. There is no skillset break; Companies will not go out of business,” O’Connell said. “Of course in the car industry we have maybe 0% gas engines. But there will always be a need for human agents to answer the more complex questions that AI cannot handle. The process is gradual, a little every year. When agents leave, hire a few fewer in return. And we don’t see a point in time when all interactions will be handled by AI.”
Related article: Top Conversational AI Metrics for CX Professionals
Cooperation with Conversational AI
Will AI offer collaboration with human workers instead of replacing them? Some still remain skeptical – and maybe even a little scared of AI.
“I think any new technology can cause controversy,” Gupta said. “People naturally have reservations about new inventions when few facts are known about them. When it comes to language AI, I’d say it’s a combination of this reluctance to embrace the unknown and an inertia to move away from familiar experiences. There’s also the aspect of technology mimicking human behavior, which can be irritating at first.”