By Martin Taylor
A recent report by the CBI found that nine-in-ten UK workers will need to learn new skills or retrain entirely by 2030. According to the CBI, 21 million people lack the basic digital skills needed to cope with digitalization, and resolving this issue is projected to cost a staggering £130 billion over the next decade.
With the UK workforce already struggling to keep pace with technological advances, does the relentless march of “automation everywhere” mean that pretty soon many of us may find ourselves entirely displaced by robots? Should we fear for our jobs – or will we just get better ones?
No new technology has ever created unemployment, in anything but the shortest term. Rather, technologies have only served to make mankind more productive, and artificial intelligence may provide the biggest productivity boost of all, since it applies machine leverage to our mental tasks.
An accelerating trend
Even before the pandemic hit, new technologies were already transforming many job roles. While not a new trend, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly accelerated the move to using new tools like AI and automation in a variety of everyday settings.
For example, faced with high volumes of demand at the height of the first wave of the pandemic the NHS 111 service took the decision to deploy smart automation technologies to analyze and queue calls into bookings for the emergency department. With call volumes projected to jump by 50 percent with 50 percent fewer call handlers, the decision to automate was driven by a desire to manage demand as effectively as possible without straining existing resources or compromising the health of patients.
Evolution – not revolution
Contact centers have been at the forefront of adopting automation and robotic technologies as a means of streamlining service delivery and serving more customers in the channel of their choice. Utilizing AI-powered web chats, for example, enables organizations to rapidly handle basic customer queries, offer self-service options, and direct people to the resources and information they need.
However, the basic chatbots of yesteryear can sometimes leave customers frustrated and dissatisfied with the overall end to end service experience – especially when dealing with complex issues. Fortunately, a branch of AI called Natural Language Processing (NLP), combined with sentiment analysis, is helping to transform the humble chatbot.
As well as delivering voice-led interactions with customers, this technology is able to detect keywords and tone of voice to ensure that callers with more complex queries can be quickly routed to the people best equipped to help.
Contact centres that had already embedded these new technologies found they were well positioned to handle the jump in demand during lockdown. Using intelligent contact routing, they were able to prioritise those customers most at need, while ensuring that more basic questions and issues were resolved quickly and efficiently without putting undue stress on existing resources.
Exploring the opportunities
The contact centre industry is a shining example of how automation and AI is enhancing the work of human employees and making it possible to undertake their roles more effectively.
Providing agents with the tools that enable them to be more informed about customers and resolve their queries more quickly, the introduction of bots and virtual assistants eliminates many of the repetitive tasks that so often contribute to agent burnout. Freeing personnel from having to deal with these routine transactions means agents are able to utilize their human and creative skills to speed up problem resolution and enrich the customer experience.
Addressing the human perspective
The rapid shift in consumer behaviors triggered by the recent crisis is tempting many firms to explore how AI, automation, and bot technologies will deliver the scalability and capacity that’s needed to cope with the unexpected. For example, those organizations that had already deployed AI and automation technologies were able to pivot their operations at speed to support home-based agents working in close collaboration with voice-bots to cope with the significant uptick in call volumes.
Success, however, depends on implementing new technologies in a transparent way and ensuring that agents are given the opportunity to adapt their skills accordingly as roles evolve. To become more effective, agents will need to be comfortable working with these technologies so they can take advantage of the augmented conversations AI makes possible.
Similarly, productivity measures and performance benchmarks will also need to be revisited to reflect a more direct correlation between the customer experience and long term value generation.
New horizons: the era of human-robot collaboration is here
The effects of COVID-19 have fast-tracked automation and AI as a matter of necessity across industries everywhere. AI and NLP are already opening up new and more fulfilling roles for humans. Organizations will need to think carefully about how they bridge the gap between the roles these technologies create and the skills employees will need to fulfill them. With everything to play for, including the opportunity to create more skilled jobs that offer greater job satisfaction for human workers, perhaps now truly is the time for companies to embrace the robot revolution.
About the author
Martin Taylor is the Deputy CEO and Co-Founder of Content Guru