As Bob Dylan once sang, The Times, They Are a-Changin. For customer care, this has never been truer.

Ask any consumer what drives them crazy about making enquiries to their service providers and the resounding response will be waiting on hold. Whether on the phone or via relatively recent live chat technology, wait times can blow out to 30 minutes or more during peak periods.

This is a lose–lose situation. Customers become infuriated, often taking to social media to vent their frustrations. Businesses can lose clients and experience profit-crushing damage to their brand.

Smart organisations are giving tedious on-hold music a long overdue send-off, improving on their customer service with the use of digital technology.

The future of customer care

In recent times, we have become used to interacting with chatbots. These rely on artificial intelligence to conduct a text-based conversation with customers via messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook. Existing examples allow you to check flight times, order a pizza and book a holiday house.

Chatbots have made a notable difference to customer care. When implemented properly, they reduce customer wait times and gather data from each transaction to become faster and deliver better responses.

Customer care’s true revolution, however, is even more simple than typing a question onto a screen.

Digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon Echo and Google Home (now available in Australia) are relying on AI and voice-recognition technology to take the customer experience to the next level.

Thanks to modern advances in natural language processing (NLP) and software programming, these digital assistants are on their way to being part of daily life. As stated by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, “People-to-people conversations, people-to-digital assistants, people-to-bots and even digital assistants-to-bots, that’s the world you’re going to get to see in the years to come.”

The new digital experience

According to a report from professional services company Accenture, text-based chatbots are able to resolve more than 80% of chat sessions without the need for human intervention. This is assuming they are properly designed and implemented.

Taking this a step further, digital assistants can create the ultimate customer experience. Asking Siri and similar systems to ‘check my share prices’, ‘find out how much I owe on my electricity bill’ and ‘transfer funds to my business contact in Singapore’ will become commonplace.

Right now, voice-activated conversations can feel a little clunky. Rapid advancements in NLP means, in the coming years, consumers will be able to chat in the same way they would with a call centre agent (although perhaps without the expletives).

From a business perspective, leveraging digital assistant technology has the benefit of far lower operational costs. Vast rooms of bored customer care reps who are waiting for the opportunity to leapfrog into a more dynamic role will be replaced by a select crew of agents who know the company inside and out. High turnover and recruitment costs will be eliminated, along with the expense of training and penalty rates.

Customers will be able to receive support that is not only available around the clock but is reliable and effective. Wait times will be reduced and eventually eliminated as machine learning provides deeper customer insights and draws on big data to have information instantly available.

Making the transition

At present, smart businesses are working with a hybrid model of customer care. They are incorporating human representatives, chatbots and digital experiences to provide services across a range of platforms including online, social media and over the phone.

Companies around the world are in a transitional phase as AI technology is refined and introduced to customers. Call centres are shrinking, but are not yet obsolete.

However, as reported by research company Ovum, by the year 2021 there will be more digital assistants than people. Ovum expects “an exponential uptake of voice AI capabilities among new devices, including wearables, smart home and TV devices”. The good news for consumers and businesses is that those on-hold, wait times will be increasingly shorter as AI and digital assistants cement their place in our lives.

The year 2021 is not the distant future. Companies that wish to drive increased sales, reduce operational costs and have access to ever-deepening mines of information about what their customers want, need to examine how AI can benefit their business, starting now.

Leveraging digital assistant technology doesn’t mean investing thousands and reinventing the wheel. It’s more about finding companies that are able to provide solutions and adding them to your existing systems without the mountainous cost of research and development.

At BRiN, by examining ways to help proactive businesses integrate AI solutions, we are constantly uncovering more of what digital assistants are capable of. The potential is limitless. Organisations from accounting firms to real estate agencies, from large-scale retailers to the smallest of wholesalers will soon be able to reap the benefits and kiss those unacceptable customer wait times goodbye.