Monday, March 20, 2017

Will bots kill the call center outsourcing business ?

I was at a conference where an animated, heated, passionate discussion was happening between members representing the technology players’ leadership team and some customers. It was quite obvious that there was a difference of opinion leading to a disagreement on the subject. There were multiple points of view which added to the liveliness of the debate. The conference organized by an independent organization was on one of the currently hot technologies – artificial intelligence and its manifestation in the form of bots.

The Structure of words determine segmentation methodology and parsing for semantic analysis, tasks that can now be done with higher accuracy though complete sentences require additional facts and external world knowledge. For written text in a chat session, the bot is able to hold fort quite successfully when addressing well-defined tasks and decision trees. Many online portals and businesses have already deployed chat bots to supplement agents who step in when the bot is unable to parse and respond to a question.

Eliza was seen as a breakthrough, so are personal assistants who respond to and act upon simple tasks using basic language parsing tools. While the technology is nascent, attempts to make computers chat with humans have been around for over half a century. Current experiments indicate that they can be purposed for specific tasks. Excitement revolves around automated interactions to improve efficiency and reduce cost in comparison to current models of humans talking to customers for customer support issues.

The Natural Language Processing (NLP) journey that began with SHRDLU has improved significantly with Machine Learning and Deep Learning. The ability to pass the Turing Test (the test investigates whether people can detect if they are talking to machines or humans) is still some time away, though we are getting closer to the milestone. Though some may claim that Eugene passed the test a couple of years back, many do not agree with the results. Artificial Intelligence barrier is yet to be crossed convincingly.

As bots mature and they are evolving fast, their ability to manage specific tasks is already giving organizations the benefit of consistent responses to basic and mundane queries; use cases around query and response of HR systems on leave balances, tax options, and others have been successfully deployed. Externally airlines and hospitality industry have taken the lead while inside our homes personal assistants are making an appearance; the biggest driver however has been the smartphone listening, responding and taking actions.

Call centers and IVR systems continue to drive customers crazy with long decision trees and stupid obvious questions; wait times add to the woes of the frustrated customer. Offshore call centers did reduce the cost but faced backlash on other social impact it created. Bots promise to take up the challenge and address the customer with agility and surprisingly improved outcomes. The rich repository of information and past interactions helps the rules engine train effectively and take decisions objectively.

As the cost of deployment continues to fall with mass development and niche players, companies are slowly embracing this revolution. Which brings to fore the point that will they be able to replace humans in call centers as the bot learns and graduates to the next level of interactions ? Recent times have seen the rise of hullabaloo about jobless growth and the disappearance of low end jobs to be replaced by machines; as the gap to the Turing Test reduces, the probability that they can starts staring us in the face.

The job loss is indeed going to impact destinations that build their business models around calls and low end business process outsourcing (BPO). Many existing players have already started upgrading skills as well as retrain staff for other roles; enterprises will ruthlessly choose efficiency over distant loss of employment even if it involves initial high investment. Are there options available to current players ? It is a race against time for incumbents to move up the value chain or become irrelevant to their customers.

Unless, unless they embellish their services with bots and attack their own business before someone else does. A handful of providers with strong technology backing from within or their parent companies are beginning to offer value added services using bots thereby changing their customer acquisition and retention strategies aligned to the new reality. They are using their rich knowledge repository to train the technology solution towards addressing existing and new problems thus opening up opportunities.

A system is as good as the people who build it; in the end it will be humans who will continue to create the differentiator !

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