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Conversational AI Demystified for Contact Centers

As someone new to conversational AI, I struggled to figure out what the heck it actually means and whether it’s as cool as it sounds. Technically speaking, it consists of three words, all whose meanings are clear individually. Together, it starts to feel like a group of buzzwords. My goal here is to sweep the fancy name aside and deliver a clear understanding of what it is and the value it can deliver to contact centers in a clear and practical fashion.

As I’ve written before, AI is a technology that enables machines to simulate human behavior and create software that can solve complex problems as we do. Importantly, AI is merely a means to an end. It is a feature or the method the vendor uses to accomplish goals and deliver value in the same way a hammer and saw are tools a carpenter uses to build you a custom dinner table.

Imagine you have a human assistant. You turn to them and ask, “Can you bring me a cappuccino, tell me when my first meeting is, set up a call this afternoon with the CIO, and get my dry cleaning?” Each individual task requires a different skillset and functions. For example, getting coffee assumes you:

  • Know where the machine is
  • Know how to use the machine
  • Understand what drink to make
  • Know the correct order of steps to take to get the desired result (a cappuccino)
  • The machine has the required coffee, water, milk etc.

Think of each overall task as a different backend system, such as your CRM, case management, or knowledge management system. Your assistant must understand your needs or intents, have access to all the required “systems” and know how to use them to reach the desired goal. In short, your human assistant is a conversational interface to all those other systems.

You can email or talk with your assistant, and that person will turn your language into a series of tasks, subtasks and results across different applications. That is conversational AI. Oh, and did I mention you don’t have to write any code to do this? Graphical user interfaces make it easy for business users to create and maintain bots and automate processes without involving developers or IT.

So What is a Conversational AI Platform (CAIP)?

A CAI platform employs artificial intelligence to enable you to interact with software using only natural language. You’re probably using a mouse, keyboard, and monitor to read this article via Windows, and then a web browser application. This is how you use Salesforce, Windows, or Firefox. The menus and buttons are just a means of organizing possible actions, such as getting the email address of a prospect or pulling up a website to read an article. But what if you didn’t need any of that hardware or even graphical interface to navigate and accomplish things?

If You Can Say It, You Can Do It

CAI is a business automation tool. The AI and natural language understanding (NLU) is cool and can even seem magical, but isn’t even the most interesting part from a customer perspective. The core concept is simply using natural language to interact with multiple systems quickly and easily and get things done. It’s a unified user interface to any backend system.

Since CAI is an automation tool, the end user will typically experience it in one of three forms: chatbots, voicebots or conversational IVRs.

Here’s how the Lufthansa Group employed CAI to handle general customer service and the many challenges they and their customers faced while flying during the pandemic.

Their goals were:

  • Meet customer expectations to easily solve issues via chat
  • Solve known customer pain points
  • Relieve agents of work, especially during peaks

They began with a complex use case, namely, supporting customers whose flights were canceled or significantly delayed within 24 hours before flight time, and built out further use cases from there.

Today, they offer multiple channels of service for each of their 3 airlines and enable CAI to handle nearly every issue with over 16 AI-powered virtual agents for customer service available, from messenger services like Facebook to traditional live chat and all in multiple languages.

Lufthansa saw four major benefits after moving to CAI:

  • Improved CX via new channels and scalable service
  • Faster development and launching of new features
  • More transparency over performance and pain points
  • Easily onboard other departments

But best of all for agents, Lufthansa’s AI-powered virtual agents now handle over one million conversations a year. That’s something that will make any agent breathe a sigh of relief.

Business Value & Customer Experience

The two main takeaways in terms of business value are cost savings via automation and scalability. Anyone with a voice or the ability to type can interact with dozens of backend systems, initiate service requests and transactions, carry out tasks, and be productive without mouse clicks and typing. It’s exactly this type of technology that enables you to actually do omnichannel seamlessly, all via a single layer of interaction, without being transferred or losing the context and issue history.

For customers, it means more natural interactions, getting questions answered or fixed faster, and the choice to use the channel most convenient at the time.

Summing up, conversational AI provides the tools to connect systems and automate processes across channels in a single place, delivering easier, successful customer interactions and dramatically reducing the workload of human agents, who are free to focus on more complex tasks.