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With the growth of digital technology, most consumers are much more concerned with getting quick answers to their problems, rather than how it is done. That makes efficiency the decisive factor.

Developments in machine learning and natural language processing can solve many client issues effectively, particularly in the case of questions such as product tracking, refunds and providing basic information. In 10 or 20 years AI could outperform humans in this sector. 

So will call centers become obsolete

To answer this question, we need to understand why we have call centers in the first place.

A call center is basically an office where typically a large number of employees called call center agents handle an even larger number of telephone calls in an effort to provide customer support services. An inbound call center handles incoming product or service queries from customers while in an outbound call center, the agents are the ones calling the customers as in the case of telemarketing, debt collection or market research.

A contact center constitutes a further extension to call centers and responds to queries usually made in written form such as letters, faxes, email, social media and live support. 

Agents conduct their work in an open-plan setting, each at their own station fitted with a computer linked to one or multiple monitors (usually two), a headset that is in turn linked to a telecom switch or to an inbound/outbound call management system. 

In order to manage their customer support needs, most large companies either start their own call center or collaborate with an already established one (outsourcing).

Outsourced call centers can most often be found in developing countries where they can take advantage of the significantly lower incomes making the operation more cost-effective. Countries such as India, Nepal or the Philippines have very developed call center industries. 

Companies that outsource their contact centers include British Sky Broadcasting (telecommunications), Adidas (sports and leisure), Audi (car manufacturing) and RSPCA (charity).

Unfortunately, low pay levels and restrictive working practices have often cast a shadow on the reputation of such operations, which have been accused of enforcing a dehumanizing working environment. 

Complaints have also stemmed from callers finding the staff under equipped to adequately provide the assistance they were looking for, as well as apathetic behavior.

There have been numerous films and documentaries portraying the perils of working in a call center such as Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Outsourced (2006) and Call Center Girl (2013).  

Even in the United States, call centers are renowned for high turnover rates between 30% to 45% compared to the average rate of 15.1% in 2013.

It’s not looking great, is it

With a recent study showing that 72% of millennials believing that a telephone call is not really the best way of solving their customer support needs, more and more companies are starting to see the value in using chatbots to decrease call volume and free up their live agents for only high complexity customer demands. In the case of Globe Telecom, this strategy resulted in a call volume reduction of 50% which in turn increased employee productivity by 350%.

Experts from www.ada.support claim that this technology raises the Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT), reduces customer churn and helps drive revenue, while also increasing employee satisfaction. 

A call center or contact center also works by the 80/20 rule in the sense that about 80% of the time the same inquiries or requests are made over and over and over again. (I think you might see how this affects the employee turnover rate). Right now, chatbots are being used to automate some of these simpler, repeated queries. The live agents are contacted only if the bot is unable to find an answer in its database. When this happens, it records the answer given by the live agent and incorporates it into its ever expanding database. 

The best part is that even when the live agent doesn’t know how to resolve a customer query, the chatbot software will record the answer coming from the internal help desk and also incorporate it into its database thus being able to reduce the response time for customers in the future. 

The high cost of hiring and training customer support agents, coupled with the high turnover rate turns a necessary operation into a financial burden for the company. 

When it comes to contact centers which offers customer support through text, the work overload placed on the employees can be drastically reduced through automation. And a chatbot doesn’t feel burned out, or cranky or sick of its job. If procedures or scripts change in a company, it can adapt without expensive training programs. So why force the agents to answer routine, mind numbing customer requests until they get so fed up they quit?

Besides the financial investment needed to train and hire new employees, high turnover also leads to loss of knowledge and expertise and negatively impacts the reputation of a company. In spite of chatbots needing to be regularly monitored, it’s more reasonable from a return on investment point of view to pass some of the customer support backlog to them and not use people to do the tasks of machines. 

By improving efficiency and productivity, chatbots also help companies save money. A Jupiter Research study shows that the medical and banking sectors will save around $8 billion per year. AI technology has become so widespread that a company doesn’t have to be in the Fortune 500 to be able to afford it and it constitutes a realistic option even for start-ups. 

There are huge savings to be made and the trend seems to be constantly growing. According to an IBM study, 65% of US millennial’s would rather go online for support than to speak to in-store staff, so there’s definitely a customer need that has to be taken into account. 

When each second a customer waits for a live agent to answer is bringing him one second closer to switching to a competitor and considering the high cost of decreasing the waiting time by hiring more employees, we can see that chatbots are a much needed development in the customer support industry.

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