There’s a common misconception that technology in general and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular will disrupt retail customer service the same way it disrupted manufacturing. Fear not. Technology is certainly contributing to contact center evolution, but uniquely human traits like empathy and situational dexterity are so central to the customer experience that robots will never take over call centers the way they have assembly lines.
Rather than replace agents, AI has enormous potential to make their work more productive and significantly more engaging. And by empowering agents to deliver more of the critical human skills that customers crave, it also contributes to more satisfying customer experiences.
AI is Next-Level Technology
Several technology developments have lifted call center efficiency over the years, but AI-powered intelligent automation technology is raising the bar even higher. Centers generate massive quantities of time-sensitive data, and the ability to leverage that data immediately could transform customer service.
Human agents could process that data, but it would take hours, days or even weeks. Intelligent automation is the first technology able to process large volumes of data in real time and leverage it to take immediate actions — solving problems that were impossible to solve or even to identify before.
Nurturing Agents Improves Service Delivery
High fixed costs and thin profit margins have forced many retailers to recognize customer service as one of the few levers they have to differentiate from competitors. Until now, tech innovation has focused solely on customers, but that’s no longer enough.
Intelligent automation focuses on solving “upstream” problems that frustrate agents and impact service delivery — which has a direct “downstream” impact on customer experience. For example, if a call comes in when an agent is due for a break, the agent’s frustration at missing a break will probably have a negative impact on the caller — and possibly on subsequent callers.
Intelligent automation manages this scenario for a large American retailer with a schedule adherence use case, which takes pending breaks into account, automatically prompts agents to go to break a few minutes early, and updates the WFM schedule. This technology has enabled the company’s remote agents to time breaks to coincide with important moments in the day, such as kids leaving for school, arriving home for lunch, or arriving home at the end of the school day. This maintains service level continuity and provides a critical boost to agents’ satisfaction by ensuring breaks and allowing them to be customized to fit their specific needs.
By removing underlying drivers of agent dissatisfaction — something no previous technology could do — intelligent automation contributes to workflow efficiency and agent satisfaction, which yields more positive customer experiences.
Intelligent automation also facilitates agent development: Regular training on new products and marketing campaigns is critical to an agent’s ability to handle customer issues effectively; when call volume is high, however, training is quickly pushed aside. Thanks to its ability to process millions of data points in real time, intelligent automation can detect temporarily idle agents across the team and immediately deliver offers to complete training or coaching sessions, even during the extra busy holiday season. The large retailer mentioned above reduced the completion time of critical training of its agent teams from months to weeks even during the peak holiday season.
Pandemic Accelerates E-Commerce
The pandemic has increased the importance of well-trained, highly capable agents in retail contact centers. While more retail sales were shifting online by 2020, some customer demographics still remained loyal to brick-and-mortar shopping. The pandemic forced the hand of those shoppers, and now that they’ve experienced e-commerce, many of them are online to stay.
Certain retail categories that were slow to develop online sales — e.g., wine and spirits — shifted quickly to e-commerce to follow consumers who went online in response to closed retail shops. Online U.S. retail sales rose by 32.4 percent in 2020, the strongest growth in two decades and more than double the increase in 2019. In 2021, e-commerce will account for 18.1 percent of retail sales worldwide, up from 10.4 percent in 2017 on its way to 22 percent by 2023.
But what happens when an online order arrives damaged, or doesn’t arrive at all? What if the shopper’s credit card is charged twice for the same purchase? Consumers don’t come to the store to solve these problems anymore. Instead, they call, email or chat with contact center agents. This explains the sharp rise in call volume and average handle time in retail call centers.
Online consumers have high service expectations, making it critical for contact center leaders to deploy AI-powered technology that enables agents to satisfy the much higher volume of customers.
Human Agents Forever
The pandemic has confirmed that robots won’t replace human agents in retail customer service centers. Rising call volume and longer handle time demonstrates that consumers’ always-strong preference for human contact is actually getting stronger.
As such, retail organizations must equip their contact center teams with AI-powered intelligent automation technology to support operations under today’s more demanding circumstances. Intelligent automation is cloud-based, scalable, and easy to use. It helped many retailers pivot to remote agents and continue supporting customers during the pandemic, and it will also facilitate their ability to manage the tricky hybrid workforce model likely to dominate operations moving forward.
AI isn't a job killer; it’s a customer service enhancer! Contact centers in the retail space must embrace AI’s ability to make their agents’ work more engaging and their customers’ service experiences more satisfying.
Jennifer Lee is chief strategy officer at Intradiem, an AI-powered productivity solution that integrates with call center and workforce management software to improve savings, productivity and engagement.
Jennifer Lee has 20 years experience in the contact center industry with more than 15 years as a people leader. Throughout her career, Jennifer has served in a variety of roles in the contact center space, including operations, quality, workforce management, and client services. For the last four years, Jennifer led the Customer Success organization at Intradiem, where her team was pivotal in achieving the historic milestone of one billion automation actions. As Chief Strategy Officer, Jennifer now leads the teams that include Intradiem’s Product Management, Product Marketing, and Marketing functions.