It’s that time of year again when we reflect on the past, like my colleague Will Cousins did with his recent 2014 in review post, and we look forward with anticipation to a new year. In my reflections on the 2014 Nuance Customer Experience Summit in Miami, I shared that every aspect of customer service has changed in the last five years and the rate of change will only accelerate in the years to come. One area of technology that’s experiencing a resurgence and explosive growth is artificial intelligence (AI). Last week, the MIT Technology Review published an article summarizing some of the breakthroughs we saw in artificial intelligence in 2014 – ranging from helping couples get pregnant to storing digitized genomes. Across its top 10 strategic technology trends for 2015, Gartner identified the advent of intelligence everywhere as a key theme and said “the smart machine era will be the most disruptive in the history of IT.” As I think about what’s going on specifically in contact centers and customer experience, I see 2015 as the year that AI enters the conversation for customer service – with Nuance having a loud voice in that conversation and in making it a reality.
I recently shared that Nuance Enterprise will usher in the day when nearly all customer service is automated and consumers will prefer it – and we’re doing that by delivering intelligent self-service solutions powered by artificial intelligence. We’re not the only ones who see the move towards increased self-service and automation as inevitable. Gartner predicted, for example, that in the next few years, customers will manage 85% of their business relationships without human interaction. Earlier this year, David Thodey, the CEO of Telstra, grabbed headlines with his bold prediction that call center jobs “will not exist in five years”. What Nuance, Gartner, and Telstra (among others) see is that effortless self-service plays a key role in creating the secret sauce to simultaneously reduce operating costs and improve customer loyalty – and that artificial intelligence creates the secret sauce to make intelligent self-service more and more intelligent over time.
As I look forward to 2015, here are three specific predictions for how intelligent self-service will continue to transform our industry in the coming year:
- Conversational IVR will become the new standard for automated phone experiences
- Reactive virtual assistants will become proactive virtual advisors
- Self-service and assisted service will converge
Let’s take a closer look at each of these predictions.
1. Conversational IVR will become the new standard for automated phone experiences
Many years ago, Nuance and other speech providers catalyzed the market shift from touchtone IVR systems to directed dialogue speech-based IVR as a way to better satisfy customer requests and drive self-service automation. While these systems drove significant business benefits for customers, traditional speech-based IVR systems now struggle when faced with the wider diversity of requests from end users (often as the result of escalation from other channels) and the heightened expectations of consumers for conversational interfaces. The time has come for Conversational IVR, with companies such as US Airways, Delta, FedEx, and others leading the way in terms of providing an intelligent, dynamic and personal experience that allows callers to quickly access important information and perform complicated tasks as if they were speaking to a live agent. 2015 will be the year that companies recognize that IVR systems that may have been “good enough” in the past are not good enough anymore and Conversational IVR becomes the new standard for automated phone experiences.
2. Reactive virtual assistants will become proactive virtual advisors
Virtual assistants certainly came into their own last year with Dom, Wendy, and Chip stealing the show at the Opus Research Intelligent Assistant Conference in San Francisco. Dom is even featured in nationwide TV advertising with a “powered by Nuance” plug in the final frame. Whether taking pizza orders, providing technical support, or serving as a brand ambassador, virtual assistants have demonstrated their ability to increase revenue, reduce operating costs, and improve brand perception and have solidified their position as an important element of a cross-channel customer service strategy. In 2015, we’ll see further synergy between virtual assistants and proactive engagement such that virtual assistants will no longer be reactively standing by waiting for customers to initiate contact with them but will instead become proactive virtual advisors who will proactively engage customers and effortlessly guide them towards the right outcomes.
3. Self-service and assisted service will converge
Within customer service, seamless handoffs from self-service to assisted service have long existed – whether using CTI technology as part of call transfers from an IVR to a live agent or passing an interaction record from a web virtual assistant to a live chat agent. In an omnichannel world, however, self-service and assisted service are increasingly converging into a single fabric of functionality. In November 2014, for example, Nuance took the stage with eGain to discuss the growing importance of state-of-the-art solutions that enable truly intelligent and effortless omnichannel experiences for customer service. At the event, eGain highlighted how the company’s digital engagement, case-based reasoning and analytics solutions could deliver the next level of intelligent engagement during the cross-channel customer journey. Nuance discussed how conversational virtual assistants can leverage natural language capabilities to create more effortless self-service interactions. In 2015, I predict that we’ll see even tighter integration between self-service and assisted service such that the demarcations between the two will blur both for companies and consumers.
As with any field of endeavor, there is a continuum to new capabilities and they become more and more robust over time. AI will enter the conversation for customer service in 2015 but we certainly won’t be “done” talking about it in just one year. This is a long-term trend that will play out over a number of years and we won’t reach our nirvana state right away. That being said, 2015 is going to be one heck of a year and I’m confident we’ll look back on it as the year that our view of the “art of the possible” in customer service changed forever.
Happy New Year!