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How far is the future?

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The customer service environment is being shaped be technologies like AI, machine learning and augmented reality, but how long will it take for this to become mainstream? MICHELLE OSMOND from 1Stream, sheds some light.

In the movie Big Hero 6, the inflatable Baymax robot is a healthcare companion who can diagnose and suggest treatment based on the 10,000 medical procedures he has learnt, all within a two-second body scan. So, how far off are we from using such technology for customer service?

We are in fact already using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning on a daily basis when we use the Uber app to call for a taxi, or when Netflix suggests a series we may enjoy based on our viewing habits.

In the contact centre environment, this technology is being used to automate certain functions to enhance the customer experience, giving rise to the use of customer-facing chatbots and digital assistants that provide an initial layer of support that is accessible 24/7. The customer speaks to a machine and not a human agent.

Instead of going through long menus that force users to choose inadequate options and repeat their queries at every step, the chatbot uses automatic speech recognition (transcription) and text-to-speech (automated responses), to handle the initial contact and deal with basic interactions.

Intelligent routing

A chatbot must be able to correctly identify the intentions of the customer, and will have hundreds of possible scenarios available to it. It knows the entities involved, and what kind of immediate help can be provided. Ongoing training of the chatbot enables it to expand the range of interactions it can manage. It must also be able to detect the emotional state of the customer, and based on the interaction, transfer the call to a human representative if necessary.

For instance, a chatbot can handle a basic interaction such as an airport shuttle booking, but it will transfer the call to a human agent if there is a query it cannot handle, such as whether or not the shuttle will be able to accommodate a bicycle.

Machine learning

All the information and context from the contact is passed on to the human agent in order to swiftly answer the query and finalise the booking, and the chatbot will stay on the call to learn the correct response for future reference. This is machine learning being used to expand the chatbot’s knowledge.

Social media integration

When the power of AI and machine learning is combined with the integration of the contact centre function with social media, a powerful customer engagement is possible.

When a customer’s luggage does not arrive and they are frustrated, they may turn to the travel company’s Facebook Messenger to complain. A messenger bot will be able to respond with a view of the full history of the customer journey. The chatbot will be able to detect the tone and urgency of this interaction and will transfer it to a human agent if they are unable to resolve the query effectively.

Augmented Reality

These technologies combine and enable us to link all the data we have for customers and make it available to both virtual and human agents. By creating this dialogue between the customer, the human agent, and the chatbot, agents have the ability to access useful data previously inaccessible in real-time, bringing Augmented Reality to the heart of the contact centre.

The contact centre agent of the future

This shift to integration of all channels and the use of chatbots will not make agents redundant, but rather allow them to focus on developing their communication skills and manage the more nuanced interactions that chatbots are not able to cope with. Contact centre agents will become super agents, with sophisticated social interaction and people management skills.

This will make for a better customer experience with swifter responses on whichever channel suits that particular customer best.

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Gadget goes to Hollywood

Gadget visited the Netflix studios last week. In the first of a series, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK talks to CEO Reed Hastings.

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is no stranger to Africa. He has travelled throughout South Africa, taught maths in Swaziland for two years with the Peace Corps, and visits close family in Maputo. As a result, he is keenly aware of the South African entertainment and connectivity landscape.

In an exclusive interview at the Netflix studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles, last week, he revealed that Netflix had no intentions of challenging MultiChoice’s dominance of live sports broadcasting on the continent.

“Other firms will do sport and news; we are trying to focus on movies and TV shows,” he said. “There are a lot of areas that are video that we are not doing: sports, news, video gaming, user-generated content. We don’t have live sport.

Reed Hastings at the Netflix studios in Hollywood last week. Pic: ADAM ROSE

“We’re not replacing MultiChoice at all. Their subscriber growth is steady in South Africa. They serve a need that’s independent of the Internet, via low-price satellite. There is no intention of capturing that audience. If they’re growing, it’s because they serve a need.”

While Reed ruled out any collaboration with MultiChoice on its satellite delivery platform, despite its collaboration with another pay-TV service, Sky TV in the United Kingdom, he did not close the door. He stressed that Netflix saw itself as an Internet-based service, and would pursue the opportunities offered by evolving broadband in Africa.

“If you look in other markets like the USA, how Comcast carries us on set-top boxes with their other services, it could happen with MultiChoice, the same as with all the pay-TV providers.

“We’re really focused on being a service over the Internet and not over satellite. Our service doesn’t work on satellite. Where we work with Sky is on Internet-connected devices. We’re happy to work on Internet-connected devices. We tend to work on smart TVs, but need broadband Internet for that.

“Broadband is getting faster in Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa – we can see the positive trendlines – so it’s more likely we will work with broadband Internet companies.”

Hastings is a firm believer in the idea that one content provider’s success does not depend on pushing another down.

“HBO has grown at the same time as we have, so can see our success doesn’t determine their success. What matters is amazing content with which the world falls in love.”

Click here to read about Netflix’s international expansion, and how the streaming service selects content for its platform.

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Take these 5 steps to digital

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By MARK WALKER, Associate Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa at IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

Digital transformation isn’t a buzz word because it sounds nice and looks good on the business CV. It is fundamental to long-term business success. IDC anticipates that 75% of enterprises will be on the path to digital transformation by 2027. 

However, digital transformation is not a process that ticks a box and moves to the next item on the agenda – it is defined by the organisation’s shift towards a digitally empowered infrastructure and employee. It is an evolution across system, infrastructure, process, individual and leadership and should follow clear pathways to ensure sustainable success.

The nature of the enterprise has changed completely with the influence of digital, cloud and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and success is reliant on strategic change.

There is a lot more ownership and transparency throughout the organisation and there is a responsibility that comes with that – employees want access to information, there has to be speed in knowledge, transactions and engagement,” he adds. “To ensure that the organisation evolves alongside digital and demand, it has to follow five very clear pathways to long-term, achievable success.

The first of these is to evaluate where the enterprise sits right now in terms of its digital journey. This will differ by organisation size and industry, as well as its reliance on technology. A smaller organisation that only needs a basic accounting function or the internet for email will have far different considerations to a small organisation that requires high-end technology to manage hedge funds or drive cloud solutions. The same comparisons apply to the enterprise-level organisation. The mining sector will have a completely different sub-set of technology requirements and infrastructure limitations to the retail or finance sectors.

Ultimately, every organisation, regardless of size or industry, is reliant on technology to grow or deliver customer service, but their digital transformation requirements are different. To ensure that investment into artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, knowledge engines, automation and connectivity are accurately placed within the business and know exactly where the business is going.

The second step is to examine what the business wants to achieve. Again, the goals of the organisation over the long and short term will be entirely sector dependent, but it is essential that it examine what the competitive environment looks like and what influences customer expectations. This understanding will allow for the business to hone its digital requirements accordingly.

The third step is to match expectations to reality. You need to see how you can move your digital transformation strategy forward and what areas require prioritisation, what funding models will support your digital aspirations, and how this tie into what the market wants. Ultimately, every step of the process has to be prioritised to ensure it maps back to where you are and the strategic steps that will take you to where you want to go.

The fourth step is to look at the operational side of the process. This is as critical as any other aspect of the transformation strategy as it maps budget to skills to infrastructure in such a way as to ensure that any project delivers return on investment. Budget and funding are always top of mind when it comes to digital transformation – these are understandably key issues for the business. How will it benefit from the investment? How will it influence the customer experience? What impact will this have on the ongoing bottom line? These questions tie neatly into the fifth step in the process – the feedback loop.

This is often the forgotten step, but it is the most important. The feedback loop is critical to ensuring that the digital transformation process is achieving the right results, that the right metrics are in place, and that the needle is moving in the right direction. It is within this feedback loop that the organisation can consistently refine the process to ensure that it moves to each successive step with the right metrics in place.

There is also one final element that every organisation should have in place throughout its digital evolution. An element that many overlook – engagement. There must be a real desire to change, from the top of the organisation right down to the bottom, and an understanding of what it means to undertake this change and why it is essential. This is why this will be a key discussion at the 2019 IDC South Africa CIO Summit taking place in April this year. With this in place, the five steps to digital transformation will make sense and deliver the right results.

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