By Ryan Falkenberg, Co-CEO, CLEVVA

When it first became clear that various AI-enabled tools would play an important role in customer self-service, most prominently in the shape of chatbots, there was a lot of hope that they’d have a positive impact on company finances. Not only would they provide a better customer experience than traditional contact centres, they’d also do so at a much lower cost.

For most businesses, that hasn’t turned out to be the case. While most chatbots can deal with certain types of informational queries, almost all of the rest get sent back to live agents within call centres. This results in frustrated customers and the need to build a team of agents available to take over the live chat, 24/7.

With the emergence of highly capable virtual agents, this is set to change. These service specialists can effectively automate most known queries, issues and complaints without relying on human support. As a result, more queries get resolved via digital self-service channels without live agents. This leaves live agents to field the queries that are not bound by clear rules, and require more interpretation and personal judgement.

Digital ‘self-service’ powered by human agents cost more than you think

As more customers embrace digital, their expectations of real-time self-service increases. Where chatbots and other digital assistants struggle to resolve most contextual and complex queries, companies are forced to invest in human agents to step in. And while this allows more queries to be resolved digitally, it means the cost to serve remains high.

First off, there are the physical and infrastructural costs. Even if the organisation chooses to go a fully remote route, there are still the costs related to all the software and services that agents need to take the live chat.

Then even before an agent takes a live chat, there are many onboarding costs to consider, including recruitment, selection, and training. Those all take time too, further contributing to the costs incurred by the organisation. You also have to factor in that it takes agents time to get a proper handle on a new position (this can vary from 2 to 8 months, depending on the query range and complexity).

Additionally, there’s staff churn — meaning that organisations spend time and money training staff, only for them to leave. Of course, there are also the salaries of the contact centre agents and the quality assurance staff sitting behind those agents, checking that they did and said all the right things.

Oh, and let’s not forget the cost of retraining the staff every time a new product or update comes out as well as the lead time needed to ensure that everyone’s getting it right. It should hardly be surprising then that it often takes between four and six calls to resolve a query (more time and money).

Virtual agents reduce the cost to serve while improving the value of human agents

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many query types that could be automated and dealt with entirely by virtual agents, without requiring a human agent’s support. The costs to build, deploy and maintain these virtual agents is typically far lower than that of a live agent team. Other than the software that drives it, all you need is a small team of dedicated specialists who build the virtual agent’s brain and manage its performance across multiple digital channels. Within months, the virtual agent can be resolving huge volumes of queries unassisted.

On most accounts, the cost savings that can be realised from a high performing virtual agent are significant. But the value extends beyond this.  Virtual agents free up human agents for higher value interactions, such as closing a sale or retaining an unhappy customer. They deflect the queries that can be resolved by simply applying the right business rules to the customer’s context, and allow human agents to focus more on the engagements that get shaped more by psychology and emotion.

Incidentally, such an approach allows humans to utilise their natural strengths. We are, after all, much better at connecting with other humans using empathy, language and humour than we are at remembering sets of rules and reams of product information, the way traditional contact centre agents are expected to.

Beyond the savings

Virtual agents can significantly reduce your total cost to serve, while turning your human agents into relationship builders and revenue earners. They also enhance the total customer engagement experience. Customers no longer have to deal with limited chatbots that pass most queries to live agents anyway. Instead they can deal directly with a digital expert that can resolve most of their queries in one touch. And when they do deal with a human agent, they do so because they value the differentiating experience.