We have all seen and heard about how artificial intelligence (AI) is making great strides into different areas of life and work.  Most recently, these advancements have made their way into creating art, writing, and other human interactions.  Customer call centers can also be added to this list.

Contact centers have always been adopters of technology to assist agents.  A good example of this is Interactive voice response (IVR) which uses voice recognition to gather basic information before talking to someone (“In a few words, please tell me what you are calling about?”).  Machines can perform these rote tasks less expensively than people can.

What struck me was how much AI would impact the tasks of the agent.  By using voice and sentiment analysis, the system can go beyond being a data gatherer to a decision maker.  This begs the question of, “What skills will then be required of agents who work with this technology?”

When chat and e-mail technology made their way to contact centers, I did a pre-employment test validation study with a company that used those channels for customers to communicate with them in additional phone calls.  What the research showed was that personal characteristics, like empathy and conscientiousness, were good predictors (along with problem solving ability) of performance for those agents who answered calls.  However, only the problem-solving measures were predictive for those who responded to customers via chat or e-mail.  This speaks to how job performance differs based on customer requirements.

While there is a small percentage of customers who call a contact center to be listened to (OK, they are really just venting), the vast majority just want their issue resolved correctly and quickly and they don’t care if it is done by a human or a machine.  With AI, this process may require very little human interaction (think changing a hotel reservation) or a bit more (think determining if an illness requires making a doctor appointment).  Either way, the technology has a significant impact on the skills required to do the job.  In implementing AI (in call centers or otherwise), you should consider the following impacts on your talent systems:

  1. What impacts will the AI have on the skill requirements?  Some examples from the article show that the AI only leaves exception finding up to the agent.  Other implementations may include keeping most decision making staying in the hands of workers.  Agents who work with AI that provides them with suggestions will need to have better cognitive processing than before.  You will want to be sure that your selection systems evaluate the remaining skills and abilities after an AI implementation.

  2. What impacts will AI have on the pace of work?  As when manufacturing added robotics, AI makes things go faster.  The jobs where AI is likely to be implemented, like call centers, already have higher quit rates than other jobs.  Screening people for their ability to handle this higher workload will be critical.  Or, you will have to redesign the work so that people do not burnout as easily.

  3. Being transparent about how the AI system works.  The accuracy of how AI interprets human interaction will continue to improve.  One hopes that any biases based on accent and gender will be reduced. Workers who also have their performance supported or evaluated by AI should know what the system is being trained on.  This is not to game the system, but if those are behaviors that improve performance (say, customer satisfaction and average call time in a contact center), why would you not want your employees to know this?

New tools and technology frequently impact the knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal characteristics required to perform jobs.  In that sense, AI is no different than the introduction of personal computers.  Companies will be able to utilize this technology more effectively if they also update how they attract and retain talent in this new work environment.