By Dr. Nicola J. Millard, Head of Customer Insight and Futures, BT Global Services

Movie theaters have been packed with superhero movies lately. Many of these pit human against machine in a fight to the death. Is the contact center industry undergoing a similar battle – as “Botman” (automation, self-service and chatbots) is pitted against “SuperAgents” (our front line employees)?

Currently, the spotlight is very much on chatbots. Our recent global ‘Digital Customer’ research showed that 73% of customers think that chatbots will help to improve customer service – so the expectation is high, but does the reality fit the hype?

There are some extraordinarily good chatbots out there – but there are also some whose superpowers are still well below their future potential.

One big problem is that they are only as good as the data they have available to them. If they are feeding off inconsistent, messy and incorrect enterprise data, distributed across multiple legacy systems, they will not magically come up with the “right” solution.

The other problem is that most chatbots are not that good at actual chat. They can usually recognize what you are saying, but sometimes their response can be somewhat baffling because they don’t possess common sense, intuition, or an understanding of context. If they are working off a narrow, decision tree type approach then any question that goes a bit off point will confuse them and result in a bad customer experience.  Many reside at the level of a slightly turbo-powered natural language interactive voice response system (and we all know how much customers like IVR!)

Many also don’t integrate with the human agents in the contact centre. At the point of “I’m sorry, I don’t understand your request” the customer is left to re-contact and repeat everything with the contact centre agent – rather than being skills based routed (along with the previous conversation) to the SuperAgent with the most likely skills to answer the question. This can cause significant customer frustration.

Customers want human agents to provide the ‘checks and balances.’ They want them to pick up where the machines have left off. This is less about artificial intelligence, and more about augmented intelligence. We are better than machines at many things. We can be empathetic, creative, caring, innovative, intuitive, and we can negotiate with customers to get to a win-win situation. We can also use years of accumulated front-line knowledge to help to train the bots, quality control them, and ensure that they are making ethical decisions. The one thing we don’t want our humans to do is to behave like robots.

So, this epic battle between Botman and SuperAgent in the contact centre will probably result in an alliance, not a war. Far from eliminating the human from the equation – AI increases their importance. This may also mean increased investment in both superAgent training and salaries as they take on the increasingly high value, complex and emotive interactions.

Is it time for the dawn of a new model for contact centres?