Q&A: Chatbots May Replace Tier One Agents, But New Channels Will Create New Roles

Ian Jacobs from Forrester Research tells us about the evolving relationship between man and machine, and the common perceptions of virtual agents.

Ian jacobs - Omnichannel chatbots robots

While still it’s too soon to tell whether contact center agents will have to bow down to their new robot overlords, one thing has become clear: agents are still indispensable resources in the industry, and will continue to be for some time.

What will change, however, is the value of agents’ roles as they interact with their new digital colleagues, augmenting their own knowledge and skills to enhance the overall consumer experience.

In a recent discussion with Ian Jacobs, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, we discuss the evolving relationship between man and machine, and the perceptions that end users and industry players now have of virtual agents.

Nearshore Americas: Looking at the bot-agent relationship from a self-preservation perspective, are contact center agents starting to become aware of these technologies? What kind of reaction are you seeing at the agent level?

ian jacobs
Ian Jacobs, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research

Ian Jacobs: The problem is even more existential than that, because some brands intend to use agents to train chatbots, which is the same as asking people to train their replacements. However, there’s not a huge feeling that this is going to be insanely disruptive to agents’ lives, mainly because there’s a whole slew of new channels coming online. Whether you’re talking about video chat and messaging, or even the SMS growth in North America, more channels result in more volume, which in turn means a necessity for more agents.

We’re actually seeing aggregate interaction volumes rising as people use more channels. Millennials may be the victim of the “they don’t use the phone” stereotype, but the data shows us that they do; they use every channel they can and make more contact with brands than older generations did.

It’s more likely that the role of an agent is redefined. If the chatbots are there to cover the simple tasks, the whole idea of tier 1 agents may disappear, and every agent would need to operate at a tier 2 or tier 3 level of support. It then becomes a job that is no longer entry level for non-graduates at low pay. While the nature of the work may change, the work itself will continue for quite a while.

Nearshore Americas: How should companies prepare their agents for the introduction of a new robot technology?

Ian Jacobs: As part of the initial process of building and deploying a chatbot, brands should consider and create an agent communication plan. This should announce the tool to the workforce and explain that it may change the type of work that the agents will be doing. It also prepares them for the possibility of new training courses and new tasks. Perhaps show why it’s a net benefit for the agents as they’ll be expected to do more intellectually engaging work.

This needs to go hand-in-hand with the process of selecting and building a chatbot, so you’re not confronted with the equivalent of an angry mob with torches and pitchforks when your workforce assumes the worst.

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Nearshore Americas: On an end customer level, what are the satisfaction rates that are being gained from bots? Is human interaction still the preferred communication channel?

Ian Jacobs: If the tool is trying to provide full on customer service, we’ve found that the retention rate is really low – single-digit low in some cases. It’s unclear whether that is caused by dissatisfaction with being confronted with a chatbot, or whether the brand has not set appropriate expectations for the customer. What we do know is that containment is low, so you could say that it’s analogous to the experience.

One case study is with a cable company in the US, which receives basic questions all the time that have now been automated. The bot is seeing significant enough usage that the requirement for offshore agents reduced by 30%, creating enough cost savings to employ US-based agents with higher skills.

Web forms are another example, as companies are seeing a greater completion rate for forms through chatbots than with written forms on the webpage – customers can be overwhelmed with dozens of blank fields to fill out, and bots can help alleviate that.

These use cases are the exceptions, though. In the case where companies are looking to completely replace an agent and do any kind of complex service, I don’t think anybody is really thrilled with chatbots or virtual agents today, but they are improving so this will change.

Nearshore Americas: In your experience, what is the main motivation for brands to move towards chatbots and self-service solutions?

Ian Jacobs: It’s really a cost-saving play and is primarily about avoiding expensive human agents. Brands are being confronted with a huge number of communication channels that customers want to capitalize on, so they’re interested in enabling that without scaling up on agents, and bots are one way to do that.

If you’re looking at cost as the primary motivator, you’re not necessarily trying to build the best customer experience. This will eventually lead to companies repeating the mistakes that were made with IVR 15 years ago – there was a reason we called that “IVR hell”, and if companies follow the same route of trying to keep human customers away from human agents, they are setting themselves up for “Chatbot Hell”.

However, it’s heartening to see some brands use self-service tools with a different primary motivation: to level up the customers’ experience with human-assisted support, due to the chatbots requiring agents to handle more complex tasks.