For over 50 years scientists have talked about the benefits and dangers of AI (artificial intelligence). These range from freeing up our time to live a more leisurely life, all the way to wiping us out entirely. Until recently, however, the hype was completely unjustified. The joke being that truly useful AI, like nuclear fusion, was always ten years away.
In the last 6 months, at least in the mind of the general public, that perception of AI as an over-hyped technology has begun to change. That is mainly thanks to Chat GPT, the generative language model chatbot launched by Open AI at the end of 2022. By many reckonings it is the fastest-growing app in history, reaching 100 million users after just 2 months.
The impact of AI is now being felt directly by both consumers and workers for perhaps the first time. While there have been many technologies that use AI – from the algorithms used by Google, Netflix and YouTube to the predictive analytics used by smartphones to help you type SMSs faster – interacting with Chat GPT is a much different experience as the AI is not hidden.
In the workplace we are only just starting to see the impact that AI, and the technologies getting built with AI, are going to have. It promises to change the dynamic of our workplaces and herald a new era of efficiency and productivity.
Looking specifically at the BPO (business process outsourcing) and contact center sectors, the transformative impact of AI is going to be immense. In these sectors, AI is the driving force behind technologies that can automate or semi-automate processes and customer interactions.
For instance, chatbots powered by AI have taken over routine customer queries, significantly reducing response time and freeing up customer service representatives to handle more complex issues.
Similarly, Robotic Process Automation (RPA), another AI-enabled technology, has revolutionized back-office operations.
Yet, as we look towards the future, it’s important to understand that the role of AI is not to replace humans in the workplace, but rather to serve as an invaluable aid. As we continue to integrate AI more fully into our work environments, we can expect a shift in job roles rather than a reduction in workforce. More complex tasks and decisions will still require human intuition, creativity, and judgement.
The goal is to strike a balance, creating a synergistic relationship between AI and human workers where each complements the other. The promise of AI in the workplace lies in this collaboration, with AI taking on repetitive tasks and data processing, and humans focusing on tasks requiring emotional intelligence and critical thinking. As we navigate this exciting frontier, it’s clear that AI will play a vital role in shaping the future of work.
Let’s dive a little deeper.
AI in customer service: Streamlining interactions
The use of AI in customer service is a perfect example of how technology can enhance workplace productivity. By employing AI-powered tools like chatbots, IVR systems, predictive knowledge bases, and next best action decision engines, customer service interactions are becoming more efficient and personalized.
In the 2023 UK CX Decision Maker’s Guide, for example, AI was the second most important area of contact center IT expenditure, with 50% saying they would be placing it among their top 5 investments.
Chatbots in customer service
AI-powered chatbots are currently used to handle routine customer queries across a wide range of channels – live chat on websites, instant messaging apps, and social media platforms. These chatbots can quickly provide information to customers, freeing up customer service agents to handle more complex inquiries, thereby increasing overall productivity.
The beauty of these AI-powered chatbots lies in their ability to learn and improve over time, becoming more proficient in addressing customer queries. However, it is important to note that they are not foolproof and occasionally might produce inaccurate responses, which need to be managed to avoid customer dissatisfaction.
Advanced language models like ChatGPT, built on Generative Pre-training Transformer (GPT) architecture, have pushed the boundaries of natural language understanding and generation, enabling more nuanced and meaningful interactions.
Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems
Another key tool in AI-driven customer service is IVR. Traditionally, IVR systems have been used to guide customers through menu options via touch-tone keypad selection or speech recognition. With the advent of AI, IVR systems have evolved significantly. Today’s AI-powered IVR can understand customer speech more accurately, predict why a customer is calling, and route them to the appropriate service agent or department. This leads to a reduction in call wait times and an overall improved customer experience.
Predictive knowledge bases and next best action decision engines
AI is also powering other customer service tools which enable customers to serve themselves, or help agents improve the speed and efficiency of their responses. A knowledge base combined with AI technology like NLP can understand customer queries written in natural language and provide an accurate response or serve up the article, FAQ or video that will best answer the question.
Decision engines follow customer interactions and can guide agents to the right information or prompt them to the next best step based on historical data, customer data, and the real-time context of the interaction. This reduces decision-making time and significantly improves the quality of service provided to the customer.
AI in decision-making: Data analytics
By analyzing customer interactions – both written and spoken – AI tools can provide valuable insights into customer sentiment and behavior. For instance, analyzing the frequency of specific keywords can identify common issues faced by customers. Similarly, sentiment analysis can determine customer satisfaction levels, helping businesses to improve their services and inform agent training.
AI’s role in customer service is a testament to its potential in enhancing workplace productivity. However, the key to successful AI integration lies in its responsible use, keeping in mind the importance of maintaining the human touch in customer service interactions. By adopting this balanced approach, businesses can truly leverage AI to transform their customer service operations and, consequently, their overall productivity.
Moreover, AI tools can analyze real-time data to provide immediate insights. This is particularly useful in situations where quick decision-making is critical. For example, AI-powered social listening tools can analyze real-time social media data to identify trending topics or sudden changes in public sentiment related to a brand.
AI in back office processes: The role of RPA
It’s not just in customer-facing or decision-making roles that the impact of AI is being felt. A different type of technology altogether, Robotic Process Automation (RPA), is also helping to streamline the back office.
RPA, at its core, is a technology that utilizes software robots or ‘bots’ to automate repetitive, rule-based tasks traditionally performed by human employees. RPA tools are designed to mimic human actions in executing mundane, repetitive tasks. They increase speed, reduce errors, and ultimately boost productivity.
In the contact center, RPA can help reduce ‘wrap time’ which means agents are more quickly ready to answer another interaction. It can do this, for example, by helping to automate the process of data entry, or copying data from one system to another. Other back-office tasks such as invoicing, raising of purchase orders, order processing, and creating dispatch documents can also be automated or semi-automated using RPA, reducing processing time and improving accuracy.
However, despite its substantial benefits, implementing RPA comes with its own challenges. Training RPA systems to perform tasks accurately requires a significant amount of time and data. Additionally, businesses must ensure they have the infrastructure and IT support to implement and maintain these systems.
Potential drawbacks of AI in the workplace
AI’s adoption in the workplace brings a multitude of benefits but equally raises some ethical and practical issues that businesses need to navigate.
Balancing privacy concerns with AI deployment
Understandably, the extensive data requirements for training AI systems have stirred up concerns about privacy. Chat GPT itself was famously banned in Italy over privacy worries, albeit only briefly.
AI systems are initially trained on large datasets, which often contain sensitive or private information about customers. Although this data is essential for AI to function, safeguards must be put in place to ensure customer privacy. Robust data security measures should be put in place, including anonymizing data when possible, and strictly regulating access to sensitive information.
Transparency plays a pivotal role in maintaining trust. Companies must be upfront about how customer data is collected, stored, used and secured. Allowing customers to opt out of various uses of their data where this is possible will further build trust. If certain data is not necessary or too sensitive to keep, then it should not be retained. Only ask for what you need.
Job displacement and AI
Over the years much has been written about how AI will make lots of jobs redundant. But that has always been the case with every tech revolution – some jobs disappear but plenty of new ones take their place. After all, most today’s jobs would have been inconceivable just a half a century ago.
The danger with AI is that it is a different kind of technology. It doesn’t merely seek to replace human muscle power, as did the technologies of the first industrial revolution. It’s not trying to perform mundane tasks like calculations faster, or let us communicate instantly over vast distances, like the computer and internet revolutions. Instead, AI is seeking to replicate the cognitive capabilities of the human brain. It already performs many tasks much more quickly, accurately and efficiently than humans.
However, a broader perspective on AI’s role in the workplace suggests it’s not so much about replacing humans but augmenting their capabilities. AI has the power to automate repetitive, mundane tasks, freeing up human employees to focus on more complex, creative tasks that require human intelligence and intuition.
This shift in the nature of work can lead to a more productive and fulfilling work environment. Businesses can mitigate potential job displacement through employee reskilling and upskilling, preparing them for higher-value roles that AI cannot fulfill.
Limitations of AI in the workplace
Despite its transformative potential, AI is not without its limitations. One major challenge is the risk of inaccurate responses or “hallucinations” by generative language AI systems such as Chat GPT. Errors like these could provide customers with incorrect information, undermining trust and potentially leading to business losses.
Training AI systems is also a resource-intensive process, requiring substantial time, effort, and data. It’s not as simple as taking an off-the-shelf system and deploying it. Like any employee, it needs to be trained on your business, products, systems, processes, and data. RPA robots need to be built from scratch and walked through processes step-by-step by a human trainer.
When these technologies are customer-facing, acceptance from customers also remains a significant challenge. Not all customers are comfortable interacting with AI, and many would still prefer to speak to a human. Thus, businesses must strike a balance, using AI to improve efficiency without alienating customers who prefer human service.
In the latest UK Contact Centre Decision Maker’s Guide, 67% of consumers polled preferred to speak to a human than use self-service, even if the outcome and time taken were identical. There is, clearly, still a long way to go before robots are answering all customer interactions.
The future of AI in the workplace
AI is clearly going to play a significant role in shaping the future of our workplaces. Even for those AI technologies that are already on the market there are use cases we cannot yet imagine. That’s without considering all the new technologies still in development labs, or inside people’s heads, which will break through in the coming years.
The key lies in embracing AI as a collaborative tool rather than perceiving it as a threat. Employers must do their part by encouraging workers to use AI and training them to do so.
With AI taking over more and more mundane and repetitive tasks, human workers are going to be freed up to focus on more complex, creative, and empathetic tasks. And they will be assisted in these by AI systems that can answer questions, find knowledge, and interrogate datasets much more quickly and deeply than a single human can.
Rather than replace humans, AI has the capacity to unleash human productivity and creativity on an unimagined scale and enable us to do what we best – bring a human touch to our work.
Andy is a technology & marketing leader who has delivered award-winning and world-first experiences.