Can Your Multi-Channel Agents Keep Up With "Watson?"

Brian Cantor

In 2011, "Watson," IBM’s artificial intelligence system, proved superior to trivia champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a game of "Jeopardy."

According to IBM, it is being designed to demonstrate superiority over the typical contact center agent.

IBM this week announced its "Watson Engagement Advisor," which aims to strengthen the multi-channel customer experience. Neither a traditional IVR nor a traditional knowledge management system, Watson functions as a full-fledged partner in the customer service process, empowering agents—and customers—in their journey to satisfaction.

Capable of interacting with end-users, the "Ask Watson" feature operates seamlessly across channels and focuses specifically on interacting with humans in a natural context.

According to IBM, "[it can] continuously learn from interactions, anytime and anywhere, providing fast, more accurate and personalized interactions." Where IVRs are typically ridiculed for inability to understand the intricacies of human dialogue and their subsequent inability to adapt and personalize the experience for each caller, Watson can do both, while also offering proactive care in some cases.

Watson provides similar capabilities on the backend, empowering agents to deliver the multi-channel experience customers truly deserve. Knowledge management gaps continue to be a primary cause of dissatisfying customer experiences, but with the ability to parse, interpret and enhance data in real-time, Watson seeks to plug those gaps.

With access to the right information about the right issues facing the right customers, agents will no longer be sitting ducks for blame and customer ridicule; they will be in position to help businesses achieve their customer management objectives.

No matter the improvements and ambitious, it is unlikely Watson resembles anything close to perfection at this stage of the game. Adaptation to the realities of customer demand and sentiment continues to evade highly-trained, human contact center agents, so skepticism justifiably exists about whether Watson—the system that publicly guessed "Toronto" in response to a clue about "US Cities"—is up to the task.

But whether or not it is, the introduction of Watson into the multi-channel contact center represents a meaningful step in the evolution of customer service. And whether or not a specific contact center purchases IBM’s solution, it absolutely must consider—and account for—the transformations Watson brings to the way businesses engage customers.

What is the point of IVRs?

Operational efficiency matters, but insofar as customer satisfaction is the truest goal of the contact center, efficiency cannot come at the expense of performance. Too often, contact centers find themselves struggling to perform in spite of crippling "efficiency strategies."

IVRs epitomize this dilemma. Organizations often implement them out of supposed cost concerns—"it would be too costly for the center to staff enough agents to handle call volume"--rather than out of clear benefit to the customer. As a result, they tend to become a point of customer frustration, which ultimately manifests as a devastating duality of customer-satisfaction and a greater future burden on the live contact center agents.

If Watson lives up to the hype, it will offer an IVR-like system that actually thinks like a customer and acts like a customer-centric contact center agent. It will deflect calls from live agents not in the supposed name of "operational efficiency" but because it can more efficiently and effectively solve certain issues facing customers.

Even if an organization opts not to pursue Watson, it still must assure that any IVR implementation is designed with the customer in mind. Does the system make the experience easier, more complete and more efficient for the customer? If the organization cannot unequivocally answer yes to that question, it has no business investing in the platform—alleged beneficial impact on contact center spend or not.

Multi-Channel Does Not Tolerate Isolation

Organizations deserve credit for offering customer support across all (or at least most) channels, but that is only part of the battle. Multi-channel support is not simply about being in every channel; it is about removing the boundaries that separate those channels.

Customer information should seamlessly flow through channels, assuring that each customer faces no hurdles or delay in reaching a resolution on his terms. Many of today’s contact centers cannot even guarantee customer information will seamlessly move from agent to agent within the same channel, let alone across different ones.

Watson seeks to offer adaptive, personalized care without concern for channel restriction. And so whether it is empowering live agents behind the scenes or answer customer questions on a web or mobile device, the system assures customers will not feel as if they are starting from square one or sacrificing service expectations when they communicate in their preferred channel.

Watson or not, businesses must develop blindness to channel. Touch points need be defined no further than "points of interaction between brand and customer"—the second a brand treats each channel’s touch points as fundamentally unique or different is the second it fails at providing a true multi-channel experience.

The Experience Must Get Better

Watson’s learning structure—and particularly its connection to Big Data—assures that the status quo is always changing. It assures that the service experience it provides tomorrow will be better and more aligned with customer expectations than that provided today.

Even when organizations have an effective multi-channel knowledge structure in place—and those organizations are few and far between—they are not necessarily adapting in response to unique customer sentiment. As customer issues, communication language and support expectations evolve, so too must the service experience. Working off the same script, policies and knowledge databases will eventually render agents ineffectual at handling customer issues and thus eventually, and irreparably, damage the business.

The presence of Watson reveals how important VoC and behavior-driven evolution is to customer service delivery. If a contact center is not getting better and more customer-centric with each interaction, it is falling behind. It is failing.