Goodbye, humans: Call centers 'could save $80b' switching to AI

You'll just have to learn to code instead – oh wait, computers can do that, too

By 2026 the call center industry could save up to $80 billion by replacing humans with AI chatbots, according to analysts at Gartner.

Customer service companies are increasingly investing in conversational AI to chase those savings, safe in the knowledge that advances in natural language processing and text-to-speech models make it harder for people to detect whether they're interacting with a bot or not.

That said, once humans start chatting to machines – by voice or instant messaging – discrepancies and other signs in the conversation can reveal the unreal nature of the non-person on the other end of the line or chat box. Contact center operators aren't deterred by these limitations and expect the technology will only improve over time.

Gartner estimated that there are approximately 17 million contact centers around the world, and together they will spend $2 billion in total on AI software by the end of this year. 

Daniel O'Connell, VP analyst at Gartner, said labor shortages are driving uptake of conversational AI.

"Many organizations are challenged by agent staff shortages and the need to curtail labor expenses, which can represent up to 95 percent of contact center costs. Conversational AI makes agents more efficient and effective, while also improving the customer experience," O'Connell said.

Roughly ten percent of agent interactions will be performed by conversational AI by 2026, Gartner estimated. Today, around 1.6 per cent of interactions are automated. A mixture of text-based chatbots and fake voicebots will be increasingly deployed over the next few years, the analyst firm asserted.

There are different stages for automation, O'Connell explained. While the technology improves, it may be beneficial for companies to only automate part of the process, such as the beginning of an interaction so that customer requests can be fielded to the appropriate agents. 

"While automating a full interaction – also known as call containment or deflection – corresponds to significant cost savings, there is also value in partial containment, such as automating the identification of a customer's name, policy number and reason for calling. Capturing this information using AI could reduce up to a third of the interaction time that would typically be supported by a human agent," he said.

The pipeline to maintain and deploy conversational AI, however, can be tricky. Although automated technologies can replace customer service agents, companies will have to hire more technical staff to maintain the software. It will cost companies roughly $1,000 to $1,500 to pay for the support needed to prop up each conversational AI agent, in some cases that might rise to $2,000 per agent, Gartner estimated. (We're not sure if that's per year, or a one-off or lifetime cost, but y'know, just roll with it.)

"Implementing conversational AI requires expensive professional resources in areas such as data analytics, knowledge graphs and natural language understanding. Once built, the conversational AI capabilities must be continuously supported, updated and maintained, resulting in additional costs," O'Connell warned. ®

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