Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

AI: one panacea throughout the pandemic?

By Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO & Co-Founder at Content Guru

With 2020 – an eventful year to say the least – drawing to a close, it is baffling to look back at how much the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted enterprises around the globe. With entire populations in lockdown, it was vital for businesses to turn all day-to-day operations on their heads to address the realities of the ‘new normal’. This was particularly true of the contact centre, which saw gigantic changes both in its customers’ behaviour and in demands from governments for its employees.

Where we’re headed in 2021 is still an unknown. But, if there is one silver lining, it’s that businesses are now armed with a reserve of knowledge and experience going into the new year. Learning through adversity is not something to be sniffed at. And in the contact centre industry, where many organisations were left scrambling to maintain smooth operations, this knowledge has proven to be indispensable.

Flexibility is key

The pandemic, and the resultant social restrictions, highlighted the fundamental weakness of relying on humans alone to maintain operations. Humans are unreliable in their susceptibility to illness, and in the contact centre industry, it quickly became clear that the relative inelasticity of humans’ ability to cope with increasing demand can have an immediate impact on customer experience. What many organisations have learned this year is that artificial intelligence (AI) can often be deployed to meet this demand.

Increased demand volume – and more pressingly, reduced agent supply – must now be built into future planning. This has been made clear in real-life examples over recent months. Take the effect on the NHS 111 service during the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak where it was not possible to match the expected 50 per cent increase in call volumes with 50 per cent more call handlers. Instead, the urgent care system needed to deploy smart automation to analyse and queue calls into bookings for the emergency department. So as not to further strain resources, for the NHS, the solution had to be about limiting demand as much as possible.

Alertness for distance

We are all now much more wary of gathering together in large numbers, particularly indoors. In hospitals, contact-centre-like technology has been rolled out to help support this: video consultations between doctors and patients have become more popular since the beginning of the pandemic and hospital emergency departments have deployed booking systems where callers are divided into ‘lanes’ depending on the severity of their symptoms. This shows how contact-centre-like technology can be applied to in-person settings, deploying techniques that have been used to a level of perfection in the contact centre this year into a physical human interaction space.

Tools, techniques and technologies already well honed in the contact centre are now seeping into more ‘everyday’ settings and interactions. The same can be said for AI: it is now beginning to break out from the contact centre to affect various aspects of how people deal with organisations.

The perception of AI

Generally, AI has three purposes: image recognition, natural language processing (NLP) and sifting through large amounts of data. The latter part is now in-play, yet there is a stark reticence of using peoples’ data, cloaked in a language of privacy concerns. However, in order to make image recognition and NLP work to the best of their ability, the general attitude towards the analysis of large amounts of data will have to soften, otherwise it will be impossible to deliver.

AI is being applied to many more situations, so we need to allay these concerns now. It is already present in Google Search; it knows what kind of things a user searches for, as well as their oft-visited locations and preferences. Many people are already unconsciously using it. Soon, virtually all of us will be interacting with AI in everyday situations when dealing with a range of organisations. At its core, we will see more organisations deploying AI to triage requests to find out customers’ data, before bringing a human in to complete the relationship.

Is AI one answer to a million questions?

The true value of AI cannot now be understated; it is absolutely time for companies to welcome it into their operations. As AI technology continues to make waves in the media landscape – from aiding in creating COVID-19 vaccines to helping determine the structure of proteins – we simply cannot ignore its immense potential.

Looking forward to 2021, it will be those companies who pepper their operations with AI technologies that will make the greatest strides, and who wants to be left behind?