Determine the Role Artificial Intelligence Will Play in Your Telephone Answering Service
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
Unless you’re intentionally ignoring it, talk of artificial intelligence (AI) is all around us. It’s hard to miss. AI is not a fad that will soon fade, a hype that will soon die down. AI is a trend that will continue to grow and become more pervasive in our everyday lives.
It’s infiltrating every industry, including telephone answering services. Given this, you may wonder how you should view answering service AI.
Let’s set aside the doomsday prognosticators who foresee a future where artificial intelligence will take over our world and deem human life as inadequate and worthy of eradication.
Though some futurists view this as a slim possibility, there’s little you or I can do to stop it. And the degree to which we embrace or dismiss AI will have no bearing on the technology’s overall impact.
Therefore, instead of fearing the concept of AI on a macro level, we should consider the potential of AI on the micro level, such as on telephone answering services. Given this, the question we must ask is how should we view answering service AI?
Answering Service AI is Not Something to Fear
First, there’s no need to be afraid of using artificial intelligence in your answering service. Though we don’t understand how AI works to do what it does, we don’t need to. What we need to focus on is the results, the outcome the technology provides. The how doesn’t matter.
Answering Service AI is a Tool
Next, we should view AI as a tool. Just as a computer is a tool, the internet is a tool, and VoIP is a tool, so is AI. In the same way we evaluate the cost, the effectiveness, and the outcome of any tool we provide to our answering service, we should do the same with AI.
Can we afford AI? Will AI be effective? What results will AI provide? If the answers to this deliberation are positive, then we should look at adding this tool to our tool chest.
Note that AI is not one application, but a means to empower every application. This means we could end up with multiple AI powered tools in our answering service.
Answering Service AI Should be a Strategic Consideration
Just as with every other business decision we make, tapping AI for our answering service should be a strategic choice.
Don’t jump on the AI bandwagon without first considering its merits. Don’t let FOMO (fear of missing out) rush you into making a rash decision.
Instead, make an informed judgment based on the available facts and a careful cost-benefit analysis.
Don’t Ignore Answering Service AI
Using artificial intelligence in your answering service may be ideal for your operation and goals. Conversely it might not be the right solution for you at this time. But don’t dismiss it without first considering it.
Make Sure Each Piece of Contact Center Technology Works as a Seamless System
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
In continuing our series on call center integration, we move to the topic of technology, specifically the need to integrate your call center tools. Today’s vendors offer a wide array of technology options to enhance the contact center operation.
Yet if these tools don’t integrate with each other, we lose—or even negate—their promised productivity pronouncements.
Technology tools that won’t talk with one another is almost as detrimental as not having the tools in the first place. Therefore, it’s essential that we integrate our contact centers’ tools and technology. That’s why you need to integrate your call center tools.
We’ve all called places and given basic information in step one of the contact, only to have to repeat it in step two. This happens too often, and it infuriates callers, setting the stage for ineffective communications from the onset of a contact.
I’ve also had cases where I had to repeat the same information a second time. Another company made me reconfirm my identity each time they transferred my call.
Today’s consumers—your healthcare systems’ patients and customers—deserve better. And they expect more. Complete integration passes on all collected information through each step of the call. This includes transfers, switching channels, and moving between systems.
Today’s healthcare providers amass a plethora of information. This data ends up in a database. But not just one. Multiple databases. Too often inter-database integration is nonexistent. Even a basic interface is missing.
This requires contact center agents and healthcare professionals to re-enter information, transferring it from one database to another.
Sometimes this requires rekeying, which is time consuming and error prone. Even copy-and-paste functionality fails to provide the desired ease of information transfer.
Then with the same information existing in two places, a nonintegrated environment means that updates must also occur in two—or more—places. This seldom happens and points to the need to better integrate your call center tools.
I know. In the past week I’ve had two organizations try to call me on a number I haven’t had in eight years. Though I let them know of the change when I moved, not everyone’s records received the update. Hence needless frustration on their part and mine.
Similar to databases are apps and software. Though on a basic level this is addressed with interoperability initiatives and database integration, more work still needs to be done.
Many times I’ve had reps tell me they were writing down the information I gave them so they wouldn’t have to have me repeat it as they moved from one program to another.
I’ve also had instances where they didn’t write down what I gave them, but they tried to remember it. And they remembered it wrong. This meant I had to give them the same information again.
Does your message taking app integrate with your appointment setting app? Does your answering service software integrate with your telephone triage software? Does your class scheduling program interface with your literature request program?
To provide a holistic and satisfying solution to your patients and customers, you need to fully integrate your call center tools to optimize your operation.
When you do so you will enhance outcomes, increase agent workflows, and improve customer satisfaction.
Predictions about the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) have been with us for decades. But until recently they only showed up in science fiction books and movies—usually with dire results. Such is the basis for good fiction.
Yet in recent months, advances in artificial intelligence have surged forward, reaching into every industry, including the call center and customer service sphere. With AI, just as with any technological advancement, there are three responses.
Ignore It and Maybe It Will Go Away
The first reaction, which is really a nonreaction, is to dismiss it. Maybe you’re already sick of the hype or maybe you’re not aware of it. Yet assuming a computer algorithm has no place in your call center is not a wise conclusion to make.
The risk of this approach is getting left behind. You will find—likely in short order—your call center operation and your company competing with others who have thoughtfully integrated artificial intelligence into their operation.
They will serve customers in a way you cannot and save money you’re not able to.
Gung Ho Adoption
The second response is the opposite. It’s to go full speed ahead in adopting artificial intelligence technology for the call center. Yet this is also fraught with peril.
The news is filled with artificial intelligence going awry. In recent months, companies have been publicly embarrassed and their stock has taken a hit, not because of human error (at least not directly) but because of computer error.
These occurred from AI applications running unchecked and without restraint.
If you’ve ever used text chat to submit a customer service request, you’ve likely interacted with a chat bot, which is an artificial intelligence application. In my experience they’re unlikely to solve my problem, but usually they collect some preliminary information and route me to a real person who can help.
Yet just recently, a chat bot took me down the wrong path, leaving me with two unacceptable options: agree that the chatbot had solved my problem or pay to upgrade my service. End of discussion. But it wouldn’t allow me to start a new chat session until I concluded the first one by picking either of its two unsatisfactory answers.
I also think artificial intelligence was involved in a recent near-miss with an email support effort. I had submitted a service ticket, but a couple hours later I figured out the solution on my own. I sent a follow up email to cancel the ticket.
The response told me how to cancel my service with the company. This may have been a human error by an agent who scanned and didn’t read my email, but I suspect it was artificial intelligence which responded wrongly to the word cancel.
Fortunately, the AI bot didn’t take the initiative to close my account.
Imagine seeing these examples extended to telephone calls at your call center. Yet it’s already happening.
I recently read a report of artificial intelligence telling human agents how the solve customer problems and what to say. The AI then grades the agent on compliance, penalizing agents who use common sense to override the AI’s bad guidance.
Then the common excuse of “I was just following orders,” becomes “I was just doing what the computer told me to.” May it never be.
The third response—the one I recommend—is a balanced perspective. Investigate the use of artificial intelligence in your call center operation. Make an informed decision as to how to best use it. The wise application is to implement artificial intelligence to better serve customers.
Don’t pursue AI merely to save money, even though this should emerge as an expected outcome.
Seek ways where artificial intelligence can make your agents’ jobs easier. Look for ways where AI can help your human staff better serve your human customers. A guiding principle in this is to keep AI in an advisory capacity.
Give your agents final say. They should be able to control the AI, not have the AI control them.
As you appropriately implement artificial intelligence in your call center, the goal should be to offer better customer service, improve response times, and lower payroll costs. But don’t look for AI to replace your staff anytime soon.
And my advice is to resist the urge to blindly implement AI, lest you end up with a public relations nightmare, lost business, and a decrease in new customer acquisitions, all through AI run amok.
A good baseline requirement to guide your use of artificial intelligence in the call center is to empower your agents to control it, not let AI replace the common sense and empathetic problem-solving ability of real people.
Tap Internet Provided Services to Maximize Outcomes
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.
SaaS (Software as a Service) is a subscription service that provides software solutions from a centrally located host. It also goes by other names, with some vendors making distinctions between various offerings. For our purposes, however, we’ll look at the concept generically.
SaaS offers several benefits not found in traditional premise-based call center solutions.
SaaS is a subscription service, usually paid monthly, often in proportion to usage or configuration. As a monthly expense it shows up on your operation’s income statement. The SaaS provider handles all support and maintenance.
This contrasts to a premise-based system that’s installed at your call center. This system requires that you purchase it, install it, and maintain it. The purchase price appears on your balance sheet. The distinction between income statement and balance sheet is significant from a financial and tax perspective.
When you buy a system, you make a guess at the size of the system you need. This includes the number of stations, ports, and options. The result is that you may pay per capacity you never use or find yourself under resourced and needing to buy more.
With SaaS you can make quick adjustments as needed to scale up to handle additional traffic or cut back to save money.
Moving an installed system from one location to another is a time-consuming, expensive task. It involves downtime, which inconveniences callers. With SaaS moving is easy. All you need is a quality internet connection and a device (usually a computer) to connect to it. This is ideal if you need to react quickly to changing situations such as a pandemic, manmade catastrophe, or natural disaster.
When you buy and install a premise-based system, you quickly find using a platform that’s not running the latest version of software or you find yourself buying periodic updates. With SaaS this is never an issue. The provider keeps their hosted solution on the latest version, and all you need to do is login to access it.
Using a SaaS solution for your call center provides many advantages. It is affordable, scalable, and portable. It’s always up to date. Though you may have a business case or strategic purpose for purchasing, installing, and maintaining a premise-based system in your call center, don’t accept this as the default solution.
Be Ready for Artificial Intelligence to Revolutionize Your Call Center
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
One of the spaces I inhabit is the call center industry. Another of my worlds is writing. These two areas intersect in this column. Another commonality is how technology, specifically artificial intelligence (AI), will affect both sectors.
Futurists in the writing community talk about how AI will arise as a disruptive force. Indeed, the disruption has already begun, with computer programs writing poetry, song lyrics, a screenplay, and even a novel. Much of the writing community isn’t aware of this emerging reality.
Other writers deny that AI even exists and consider it a pipedream. Some see it as the end of writing as we know it and a threat to their livelihood. Last are those, like me, who see AI as a tool that will help us write more, write better, and write faster.
Yes, writing as we know it today will change dramatically, but that change is something to embrace.
AI is also making inroads into the call center industry, and the reactions to AI in the call center space are much the same as in the writing world.
Many people in the call center industry aren’t aware of the burgeoning developments with AI and how it will dramatically change call centers and their provision of customer care. They view AI as the topic for sci-fi movies, scientific labs, and a far-off future reality—one that will occur long after they no longer care.
Instead, they focus on the day-to-day urgencies of hiring, training, and scheduling agents. They look at metrics such as first call resolution, speed of answer, and average call length.
They consider the number of calls in queue, time in queue, and abandonment rate. And their world focuses on resolving customer complaints. There’s nothing wrong with these worthy pursuits, but it keeps them from considering tomorrow and embracing the future.
Deny It’s a Threat
Others acknowledge the existence of AI, but they don’t see how it could help call centers serve customers better. If anything, they assume AI will make customer service harder and therefore perpetuate the need for live agents. To them, AI is another call-center fad that will receive a lot of hype for a few years and then fade away. Their response is to maintain the status quo and pursue business as usual.
Fearful Over the Future
Next, are the Luddites, those who oppose technology. Though some call centers embrace technology much more than others, every call center has some degree of tech in its infrastructure and operations.
These people have formed a comfortable truce with the tools they use, and they don’t want any more of them. They have enough, and everything works fine, thank you very much. More tools, especially AI-powered solutions, makes them shudder.
They fear that self-learning programs will take over the call center space and eliminate their jobs.
Embrace It with Optimism
The final group looks at AI as an intriguing call-center solution. Yes, it will fundamentally change how call centers operate. And this transformation could happen much sooner than most people suspect.
Yet instead of fearing uncertainty over the unknown, these forward-thinking futurists welcome AI as a smart solution to many of the challenges call centers to face.
Yes, in some cases, AI will replace jobs, just as answering machines, voicemail, automated attendants, and IVR have done in the past. In other cases, AI will assist call center agents, helping them work more effectively and efficiently.
This will occur just as our existing tools have improved the results produced from our prior toolset. Then, now, and in the future, the customer benefits by realizing enhanced outcomes.
Thanks to AI, in the future you won’t need to hire as many people to staff your call center. And those you do hire will benefit by having AI to guide their work. These employees will find their call center job less dreary and more invigorating.
The days of routinely shuffling through repetitive calls will end, replaced with variety in handling challenging calls that AI can’t address. This will provide the opportunity to excel in call-center work as never before.
AI isn’t coming. AI is here. What role will it play in your call center?
Should We Embrace Technology in Our Medical Contact Centers or Fear It?
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
Throughout the history of the call center industry we’ve looked for ways to help our agents be more effective. In the pre-computer days this often meant physical solutions and electromechanical devices that allowed staff to answer calls faster, record information easier, and organize data more effectively.
Then came rudimentary computers that provided basic call distribution and CTI (computer telephony integration). Computer databases allowed us to retrieve information and store data. Following this we experienced voicemail, IVR (interactive voice response), and automated attendant.
More recently we’ve encountered speech-to-text conversion and text-to-speech applications. Then came the chatbots, computerized automatons that allow for basic text and voice communication between machine and people.
Computers are talking with us. Smart phones, too. Consider Siri, Alexa, and all their friends. Technology marches forward. What will happen next?
I just did an online search for Voice AI. Within .64 seconds I received two million results. I’m still working my way through the list (not really), but the first few matches gave me some eye-opening and thought-provoking content to read and watch.
In considering this information, it’s hard to determine what’s practical application for our near future and what’s theoretical potential that might never happen.
However, my conclusion is that with advances in chatbot technology, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning, we aren’t far from the time when computer applications will carry on full, convincing conversations with callers, who will think they’re talking with real people.
While many pieces of this puzzle are available today, I submit that we’re not yet to the point where we can have a complete, intelligent dialogue with a computer and not know it. But it will happen. Probably soon.
What Does Voice AI Mean for the Medical Call Center?
Just like all technological advances since the inception of the earliest call centers, we’ll continue to free agents from basic tasks and allow them to handle more complex issues. Technology will not replace agents, but it will shift their primary responsibilities.
Or maybe not.
With the application of voice AI, might we one day have a call center staffed with computer algorithms instead of telephone agents? I don’t know. Anything I say today will likely seem laughable in the future. Either I will have overstretched technology’s potential or underestimated the speed of its advance.
I think I’m okay talking to a computer program to make an appointment with my doctor. And it wouldn’t bother me to call in the evening and converse with a computer as I leave my message for the doctor, nurse, or office staff.
However, what concerns me just a tad would be calling a telephone triage number and having a computer give me medical advice.
Yet in considering the pieces of technology available to us today, this isn’t so far-fetched. Proven triage protocols are already defined and stored in a database.
Giving them a computerized voice is possible now. And with AI and machine learning, the potential exists for an intelligent interface to provide the conversational bridge between me and the protocols. And this could be the solution to our growing shortage of medical practitioners.
For those of you actually doing telephone triage, you might be laughing right now. Perhaps you’re already implementing this. Or maybe you’re convinced it will never work.
Yet it’s important that we talk about technology and its application in healthcare call centers. Regardless of what happens, the future will certainly be an interesting place.
The first issue of AnswerStat magazine rolled off the presses over a dozen years ago. Since then much has changed. Call center technology has advanced, customer expectations have expanded, hiring and training practices have evolved, and new service opportunities have emerged. The Internet exploded into a global phenomenon that altered everything.
What hasn’t changed much is the telephone call. Call centers still answer calls, make calls, and transfer calls; we give and receive information over the phone. The telephone is the ubiquitous communication medium, and it is central to the call center.
During these years of technological transformation, there was also faxing and paging, but both were insignificant compared to the widespread practice of simply picking up the phone and calling someone to have a two-way conversation in real-time. Not too many people fax anymore, and it’s been ages since I’ve seen a pager. Yet the telephone remains.
But now we also have email, text, and social media. Some call centers have fully embraced these technologies and integrated them in to their operations. Others have persisted in focusing on phone calls. Yet the pressure remains for such centers to add these newer forms of communication and connection into their call center mix. As a result the call center becomes the contact center. To embrace this multi-channel paradigm, your call center mind-set must be about contacts, not calls.
Consider these forms of contact:
Calls: Phone calls represent the majority of contacts in almost every contact center. We excel at calls.
Fax: Some healthcare communication still occurs by fax. Though this channel is small, someone needs to oversee it. Why not the contact center?
Pager: Pagers have gone away in most industries, but they still have value in healthcare where reliability, speed, and disaster-adverseness are vital. Contact centers have always done a great job at sending pages, and some even manage pager inventory. There’s no reason to stop now.
Email: Processing secure email is a natural fit for contact centers. They have the network, the Internet connection, the computers, and the staff – and the ability to send, receive, forward, and screen email, just as with calls.
Text: Text is growing in most sectors. This is one more channel for the healthcare contact center to add to their arsenal.
Social Media: A growing preference for people of all ages is to interact online with others through social media. Healthcare organizations require someone to monitor all those comments, tweets, and contacts, responding in a timely manner that is professional and accurate. With the plethora of social media platforms, no organization can utilize them all, yet they must be where their patients are. The task of interacting with these social media-minded customers is ideal for contact centers.
Self-Service: A final consideration is self-service, the preferred option for most people when they have a question or problem. How, you may ask, does self-service become a contact center opportunity? Doesn’t self-service subtract from the contact center? Yes, every interaction handled via self-service is one less interaction handled by the contact center. Yet forward-thinking contact center managers see two opportunities.
The first is that contact centers are in the best position to know what issues self-service should address. Poll a group of agents, and the top ten needs for self-service will quickly emerge. The contact center should serve as the advisor for self-service topics. Better yet, the contact center could take the lead role and actually produce and administer the self-service content.
The second opportunity is providing backup for self-service. Self-service cannot help everyone, every time. The contact center should catch those that self-service drops. As a bonus, these calls, taken in aggregate, then provide fodder for additional self-service content.
Whatever channels your contact center covers, keep in mind that it’s not about the technology, it’s about the contact.
The term “Internet of Things” may be new to you, or it might be something you’ve already grown weary of with eye-rolling boredom. Though a definition for the Internet of Things is still evolving, expect to hear a lot more about it in the future.
Basically, the Internet of Things revolves around the concept of things – instead of people – using the Internet to share information without the need for human interaction. Though a “thing” implies a device, it could mean any object and cover animals or even people. At the most basic level, an active RFID (radio frequency identification) tag qualifies.
A huge area of interest for the Internet of Things is in home automation and convenience. A security system is one obvious item, where sensors in your home report to a computer at the monitoring station what is happening when you’re away.
Internet-connected garage doors are a reality today, as well as remotely accessible thermostats, nanny cams, and door locks. Looking into the future, the Internet of Things could report when your kids get home from school, who is with them, and if they leave; of course you will also know if they attended school or skipped.
Dreaming a bit more, your kitchen could make your grocery list based on the contents of your cupboards and refrigerator or what you ate last night, even placing an order for you.
Another area for the Internet of Things is fitness. Devices – whether a stand-alone gadget or a smartphone app – can track how many steps we take in a day. With an Internet connection, this data can be sent to another computer for analysis, storage, or action.
Imagine receiving a text message encouraging you to go for an evening walk because you haven’t hit your target number of steps for the day. These fitness devices can also monitor basic body functions such as heart rate, moving the Internet of Things into the area of healthcare.
Healthcare is rife with applications, both present and future, for the Internet of Things. Monitoring patients’ vital signs is common in the hospital environment, but the concept can be extended to home-based convalescence or hospice.
Telehealth taps into the Internet of Things and can greatly expand because of it. Locating dementia patients who may have wandered off is feasible with the Internet of Things. Even remotely administering medications is a possibility. The list of potential healthcare applications is limited only by our ability to imagine grand solutions.
While the basic premise is that the Internet of Things moves data without human interaction, at a certain point some of this data will require human involvement. This may be to evaluate options when a preset threshold is met, initiate a response, or escalate action. The Internet of Things becomes a serious tool to keep us healthy and safe; lives are at stake.
At the intersection of healthcare and the Internet of Things can stand the modern healthcare contact center. After all, the medically minded call center already has the staffing and technological infrastructure largely in place to handle such tasks.
Some call centers are already doing some of these things – though they haven’t likely considered them in the context of tapping into the Internet of Things – to serve patients and assist healthcare providers. Opportunities abound.
To be ready to make the most of these opportunities, look at the healthcare-related Internet of Things around you. Then investigate what your contact center needs in order to handle the required human aspect on the backend.
It may be a bit of specific training or perhaps some server software to provide the needed interface. Be ready so that when someone comes to you with a problem stemming from the flood of data from the Internet of Things (IoT), you can nod and smile when you tell them, “Yes, we are IoT-enabled and ready to help.”
Regardless of where you work, false alarms have likely caused frustration. I remembered this one day as I searched for the source of an electronic alarm, warning me that something was awry in my house. Since the beeping was intermittent, finding the source was comedic.
With each alert I would move in the direction I thought it was originating from, come to a stop, cock my head, and attentively wait, scarcely breathing so that I could take in its next iteration.
I darted around the house in a haphazard zigzag pattern, often overshooting my mark. It was as though I was playing the childhood game of “hot or cold” with the electronic gizmo taunting me with “you’re getting colder.”
Eventually, I found the culprit: a carbon monoxide detector. In addition to the beeping, the power light was flashing red – even though the only documented options were solid green and solid amber. Pressing reset didn’t help, so I unplugged it for a few minutes; that always worked in the past. After an hour of futile troubleshooting, I began to consider that maybe it was working correctly and there were actually unsafe carbon monoxide levels in my home.
What a novel thought. I never experienced a smoke, fire, or carbon monoxide alarm that signaled an actual problem. In fact, I was conditioned to assume that any alarm was the result of a malfunction.
Smoke detectors were high on that list, with their low battery beeps and false alarms. When I would test them, no one ever left their office to evacuate the building; no one ever asked if there was a fire. The response was always one of irritation: “Make it stop so we can hear our callers.”
Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPSs) also seemed to do more harm than good. It’s confounding for a malfunctioning UPS to take down servers when perfectly good utility power is available. Yet it happens. For a while I kept track.
The UPSs were actually causing more downtime then they prevented. Generators also fit that category. Regardless if there was an automatic transfer switch or a manual bypass – that is, initiated by technology or by people –inevitably something would go wrong.
Despite employee training and trial runs, nothing seemed to prepared staff to deal with an actual power outage.
Spare parts and backup Internet connections were another cause for frustration. You have them in case of an emergency, periodically testing them to make sure they are functional. Unfortunately, it seems that efforts to do so invariably result in unexpected side effects and problems, including system crashes.
All these areas give one pause to consider if such efforts actually accomplish a net benefit or do more harm than good. Regardless, it would be irresponsible not to do all that can be done to keep staff safe and systems functioning. The frustrations and false alarms are merely a side effect that one must accept in the process.
As far as my issue at home, I ended up buying a new detector. The replacement unit did not alert; apparently it was a false alarm after all.\
Peter Lyle DeHaan is an entrepreneur and businessman who has managed, owned, and started multiple businesses over his career. Common themes at every turn have included customer service, sales and marketing, and leadership and management.
He shares his lifetime of business experience and personal insights through his books to encourage, inspire, and occasionally entertain.