By Matt McConnell, CEO of Intradiem
When we talk about the costs and benefits of progress, we typically pit technology against human workers in a zero-sum struggle for primary relevance. In this debate, technology represents efficiency and humans represent…well, humans.
We’ll take as much efficiency as we can get, of course, as long as it doesn’t cost us too much of the reassurance we can only get from fellow humans.
But that’s a false tradeoff. We can have both, thanks in large part to the quickening development pace of Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI’s ability to fill in missing information reduces uncertainty, which in turn increases the value of judgment—a uniquely human ability. AI doesn’t replace or reduce the value of people; it amplifies it.
Automation has been boosting efficiency for a century, but the speedy execution of commands only solves half the challenge. For maximum effect, those commands need to be the right commands. AI is rapidly closing in on this, with its ability to sift massive quantities of data, reveal patterns hidden within, and offer predictions to refine potential solutions to whatever problem we ask it to help us solve.
The key word in that last sentence is “we.” Humans still make the call. It’s true that our minds are no match for AI’s predictive power or automation’s execution muscle. But those tools are also no match for our ability to read situations and apply nuanced judgment. AI may get there one day—and possibly sooner than we think—but for now, humanity’s long cognition head start will ensure our spot in the driver’s seat.
Fears about powerful, mysterious technologies are understandable. But AI and automation are not threats. They’re opportunities to finally bring genuine efficiency to high-stakes human interactions—especially when they’re used in tandem.
Customer service is a great place to demonstrate how the right blend of technology can boost human efficiency. The average person spends 123 days of their life on hold, in line, or otherwise waiting for service. That’s incredibly inefficient, but we put up with it because we need that moment of truth—a reassuring human connection before making or accepting high-stakes decisions.
The widespread use of automation in contact centers has streamlined the customer service experience, and sometimes you actually notice that. But let’s say you need to report a stolen credit card: You’ll probably fight through automated menus as quickly as you can to get to a live agent, because you don’t trust automation’s ability to fully grasp the urgency of your situation. But if that agent puts you on hold to look for a solution, or offers to call you back, you’ll quickly forget about reassurance and long for efficiency.
In a contact center with AI integrated into its systems, the agent could leverage its predictive power to consider more precise options and propose a more effective solution. Automation conveys that intelligence to the agent, and will also probably be programmed to document and preserve the interaction and send you a follow-up message to make sure you’re satisfied. You wind up reassured by an effective solution delivered by a real person, blissfully unaware that technologies you mistrust were actually responsible for your positive experience.
AI can also help make organizations more competitive—for example, by controlling costs. Take attrition for example. When a contact center agent quits, the cost of recruiting, hiring, training, and onboarding a replacement can run as high as $30,000. Some businesses suffer attrition rates of 50% or higher, so a company that loses 5,000 agents to attrition each year (not uncommon) faces an additional $150 million in costs.
AI-based solutions that help reduce the financial and personnel impacts of attrition are also being rapidly developed. The goal behind this technology is to allow for early identification and intervention to promote agent well-being and engagement, and to prevent burnout. This saves organizations a lot of money and provides guidance to help managers support the well-being of their agents.
AI doesn’t solve attrition by itself, but it does contribute to a more efficient process while preserving the essential role of human managers.
There’s no denying that new technologies come at a cost. A McKinsey Global Institute report says automation could displace one-third of work activities by 2030, and that some occupations will grow, others will decline, and new ones will be created. In fact, new waves of technology have always unleashed creative destruction. For example, the introduction of automated machine tools early in the twentieth century displaced semi-skilled manufacturing workers, but it also created new machine operator jobs. In our century, e-commerce has eliminated retail clerk jobs but also spurred software development jobs.
We’re in the midst of significant tech industry layoffs today, though I think this is due to overcapacity rather than technology. But layoffs are never just statistics, of course. They always represent real hardship for real people with real bills to pay. I do believe though that in the long run, the opportunities created by technological advances far outweigh the costs.
Solve and Soothe
Human fears of replacement by machines won’t disappear any time soon. But we should bear in mind that even if AI can write a convincing essay, it still can’t grasp the intricacies of a human conversation. Put AI alone with a live consumer upset about a hospital bill and it will generate helpful ancillary information, but it will be helpless to solve the problem or soothe the consumer.
Only a human could grasp the nuances of that interaction, and all the administrative, financial, and emotional angles in play. Only a live agent could muster and apply the judgment required to address the problem and soothe the consumer. That won’t change any time soon either.
Matt McConnell is Chairman and CEO of Intradiem. He founded the company in 1995 with a vision of reinventing customer service through automation and artificial intelligence. Today, Intradiem is the leading provider of Intelligent Automation solutions for customer service teams. Matt graduated from The Georgia Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering.