Phone-based customer service, or voice, is well established as the most commonly used and the most tightly managed customer service channel. Entire service teams are dedicated to keeping down the high costs of phone support by practicing what the industry refers to as deflection, all while customers make their dissatisfaction with the channel clear.
But rapid developments in AI are turning this decades-old model on its head. It may be exactly what contact centers need to not just move on from deflection, but have the confidence to once again encourage customers to call.
Phone — the Most Expensive CX Channel
Retailers want their customers to be happy, but the cost of interacting with them live is usually inefficient and expensive.
Depending on where agent labor is, costs can vary widely. In North America, the average cost per call is approximately $10, but it can get higher than $25 per call in industries that require more technical support. Cumulatively, companies around the world are spending more than $1.3 trillion every year answering customer service calls, according to IBM.
It’s no wonder companies have been discouraging live contact with customers as much as possible in recent years. And yes, customers are noticing.
Customers Still Get Frustrated by Phone Support
Many customers (37% in Microsoft’s Global State of Customer Service Report) prefer speaking to a customer service agent on the phone, especially for highly emotional issues. That could include when a purchase didn’t live up to expectations or when making a considered purchase like an expensive retail product. But they are also faced with frustrating wait times.
Americans are “willing to wait on hold for six minutes on average, but the average actual wait time is three times longer, averaging 17.4 minutes,” according to TCN. And wait times have increased since before the pandemic (one-third longer).
AI-First Customer Service is the Future
AI transforms both the cost and quality of the customer experience through the phone. Everyone has heard of Chat-GPT and generative AI by now, and smart retailers are wondering how to best leverage these cutting-edge technologies safely.
We’re all familiar with AI-powered chatbots for web messaging, social and SMS. Generative AI is helping companies make great strides in these channels to make the experience more human-like, more accurate, and more intelligent — with the least amount of effort.
These same technologies can be leveraged over the phone and produce an equally elegant and effortless customer experience. I’m not talking about phone automation like IVR (Interactive Voice Response) with its clunky scripts and flows. Or the phone menu system when you get transferred to several different (often wrong) extensions, or have to repeatedly say “agent” until the system recognizes you actually want personalized help — if it ever does.
32% of consumers in Microsoft’s study report that having to repeat information multiple times is the most frustrating part of a customer service call. Not to mention that traditional IVRs only contain about 5% of calls, in our experience.
What the voice channel needs is an AI Agent.
A truly successful AI Agent has to offer an impeccable omnichannel experience from the time the customer calls to resolving the issue in full — much better than legacy automation or legacy chatbots. Conversational AI can comb through volumes of company policy documentation in real time, resolve repetitive tickets, speed up service and free agents to spend more time on high-impact conversations with customers.
AI Agents represent a new paradigm in automated customer service — one that can speak any language and live in any channel 24/7.
Voice AI in Practice
Let’s take an example of a customer who is interested in bringing their dog shopping with them. There may be an FAQ on the store’s website somewhere with a pet policy. This customer chooses instead to call for an answer —after all, they should use the channel of their choice.
The customer should be able to have a pleasant automated voice conversation to quickly learn that the store’s policy is to only allow service animals. It can say something like “at our store, we love all animals, but unfortunately we can only accommodate service animals at this time.”
As someone who has both worked as a customer service agent and now runs a company dedicated to innovating the space, I have a few specific suggestions for those considering using an AI-first approach to customer service over the phone.
The AI Agent should:
Be clear upfront: The best voice support will come from an AI that identifies itself as such. It also shouldn’t start off with “What can I help you with?” Instead, the AI agent should provide better direction to the caller by offering examples of what it can answer (e.g. store hours, locations, policies, available inventory or where’s my order?) versus asking an open-ended question.
Speak in a natural voice: The AI Agent should be able to speak in a natural-sounding, conversational voice to increase your customer’s comfort. You should also decide what your bot personality is — playful, humorous or more straightforward — and make it consistent across channels.
Get to the point quickly: One of the key benefits of generative AI is that it allows you to sort through large amounts of data to generate an answer quickly. Your voice bot should get to the point. It’s key to abbreviate the information you deliver, but you can always add a prompt at the end if the user wants to go deeper.
Always offer to follow up on email or SMS: If you are automating a more complex, multi-part answer about an exchange or return, let the customer know you will recap the voice conversation over email or text. No one wants to take notes.
Be onboarded like a new employee: When you hire a new employee, you have to onboard, coach and manage them over time — and the same should be true of your AI Agent. You don’t set it and forget it. You coach and continuously improve your AI Agent to resolve more issues, more effectively.
So encourage your customers to start calling you again. They are why you’re in business, and the powers of generative AI can make all the difference to your bottom line — and customer loyalty.
Mike Murchison is CEO of Ada, a leading AI-native customer service automation company. Since 2016, Ada’s AI-powered platform has automated more than 4.7 billion customer interactions for brands like Meta, Verizon, AirAsia, Yeti and Square. Recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30 and EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year program, Murchison is also a Fellow at Creative Destruction Lab and volunteer for VentureKids, a program for Canada’s underserved youth.