The year-end holiday season is upon us, and for many businesses, this is typically when things get really busy. Industries like retail and hospitality often see a surge in sales and inquiries – and as a by-product, an increased need for customer support.
If the increased volume were not enough, the holiday season is typically when everyone gets put under pressure. Shoppers are pressed to make their purchases in time for parties and events. Callers have to navigate competing demands for their attention. And call center agents tend to bear the brunt of customers’ short fuses and higher demands.
This is true for non-seasonal surges, too. Unforeseen changes in external regulation or policy can affect businesses in a critical way. New travel restrictions are a prime example; back in 2020, companies in the travel industry got inundated with calls and emails practically overnight. When scenarios like this happen, agents are typically pushed into high-stakes, high-stress situations. This comes on top of the mounting pressure to answer a growing number of calls.
In some ways, managing surges can be like a game of Russian roulette – you’re not quite sure when you’ll get shot. Fortunately, these risks are easy enough to understand and manage, with the right tools.
Inelastic resources can result in insufficient live support
For most call centers or customer support departments, resources and headcounts are fairly fixed. This lack of elasticity means sudden surges in support requests are hard to meet. Resources – specifically call center agents – can get really stretched. Say an agent typically handles 200 calls a day; that number can easily double to 400 calls on a peak season. Unless extra resources were brought in to handle the surge in volume, there will be potentially 200 unaddressed calls, or at the very least, poorly addressed calls. Businesses never want to be in a position where they have 200 unhappy callers – customer loyalty will take a hit, and eventually, so will sales.
Hiring additional agents would be the natural solution to this resource crunch. And while this might be workable, training and onboarding agents take time. Companies often spend at least two weeks to a month before deploying a new agent into the live environment. If you’re looking to simply fill a temporary gap, training new people may not make sense, especially if the cycle needs to be repeated after six months.
And that’s if talent is readily available. Recruitment is a time consuming process in and of itself. Finding the right people to serve customers is a tricky business; candidates must possess not just the skills, but the right attitude and in some cases, a love for the brand they represent. What’s more, contractual hires for short-term engagements can be even harder to find in a tight labor market. Sometimes this talent problem is solved through outsourcing – but quality can become an issue when it comes to service delivery.
Using AI customer service for busy seasons
Addressing elasticity and scaling issues without compromising on quality can be done by deploying artificial intelligence (AI) agents for customer service. Unlike human agents, machine-powered bots can take on more queries as and when they come. A human agent can probably take 20 calls in an hour; in contrast, an AI-powered bot can handle one million calls in the same timeframe. This makes AI call centers more flexible than a traditional call center manned by only humans.
Training bots also take less time than training humans. Once a proper script is in place, a Talkbot can be deployed and take customer calls within days. Machine learning capabilities enable the bot to adapt to situations intuitively, collecting more data points and refining its process as it goes along. For queries it can’t address, the bot redirects calls to a human agent that’s identified as the best person to address the issue.
Because they run on scripts and programmed dialogues, Talkbots can easily be redeployed to address rapidly developing situations. A call center or customer service team can choose to quickly shift AI bot resources to another function – from products to payments, for instance – in as short as a day’s time. This makes bots a lot more flexible than traditional hires.
Finally, AI call center bots can be decommissioned as quickly as they are deployed. This means a company doesn’t need to keep paying for a service it no longer needs. Services can be scaled down once the peak has passed, and more bots can be brought back on board once the business sees another surge coming.
Using data from artificial intelligence to stay on top of change
One often overlooked advantage of using AI bots is the wealth of data businesses get from customer interactions. This is particularly true for voice data, which comes as unstructured, messy, and hard-to-extract fragments of information. Unstructured data makes analytics a lot harder and time-consuming. With AI, voice data can be quickly transcribed, tagged, categorized, and subsequently analyzed for insights.
As an example, suppose a retailer has put one of its popular toys on a special weekend sale. Several parents buy the product, and a week later, a number of them call the store asking if they can have the item changed. In most cases, the agent will ask for the reason for a return or exchange, make notes, and file the information for reference. The data may not be looked at until after the surge has passed.
With AI customer service, the call will be transcribed in almost real-time, the data structured and analyzed, and patterns reported on dashboards almost immediately. The retailer may learn that 80% of buyers changed their minds because buyers realized that their child is no longer interested in the toy. This alerts the retailer to changing buyer preferences and may lead them to reassess their product inventory.
Moving it even further, if the AI agent is integrated with the business’ CRM system, the bot can make intelligent suggestions to the shopper based on purchase history. The machine can then intelligently offer products based on known preferences. If the database shows that the caller is a loyal customer, the bot can initiate a promo that gives an extra 10% off on purchases made that day. The result is a delighted customer, and a new closed sale.
Providing great customer care at reasonable costs
For many businesses, a customer satisfaction (CSAT) score of above 95% is the holy grail of customer experience. But to provide that level of service often means investing a lot into live support. This tricky balance can be thrown off when seasonal surges happen. After all, nobody can precisely determine how many additional agents they’ll need. Hire too many and you end up spending more than you should, hire too little and you get irritable customers waiting for long periods of time.
The good news is that AI call center bots can help manage that balancing act of delighting customers while managing costs. With AI-powered agents, customers will experience shorter wait times and human agents get more manageable workloads. Because a huge chunk of easily addressable queries are managed by machines, humans have more bandwidth to handle the most important tickets – giving the right attention to the right issues. Businesses end up with happier customers and fewer unresolved queries.
Artificial intelligence can also empower companies to be more proactive rather than reactive to sudden market shifts. Companies can prepare for upcoming surges by training bots once they see changes on the horizon. Furthermore, data collected by AI bots can be quickly analyzed and used to inform strategy to help mitigate new risks.
Customer service that’s personalized and deeply human
Today’s technology makes it possible to deploy bots that speak and text like the humans they serve, providing a personal touch that customers crave. That’s something that outsourcing your customer care operations will find difficult to achieve, especially if services are offshored. In customer service, shared context matters a lot in creating enjoyable experiences.
By using AI to automate low-value tasks, businesses are in a better position to deliver high-value services that delight, creating experiences that breed customer loyalty.