Contact centres. I built my first in the mid-’90s. It won an award, and I’ve helped build, run and improve many others since. We forget how they offered unparalleled access and service when they were first introduced.

Time, technology and cost optimisation have not been kind to contact centres and those who use them. With investments moved to internet channels and smartphone apps, the experience of contact centres has deteriorated into a mash-up of hold music, complicated interactive voice response (IVR) systems and annoying automated messages: “You are number 17 in the queue, and your call will be answered in 13 minutes. Thank you for holding; we really value your call!” Getting to a helpful human requires determination, cunning and wit.

In 2006, whilst working at IBM, I co-wrote a paper, “Contact Centres — Rise of the Machines”, on how voice automation and other technologies would transform contact centres and the experience for customers and employees alike. It has taken far longer than I thought, but that revolution has arrived. It’s now time to make the most of it.

By using a combination of voice recognition devices (Alexa, Siri and others) and cognitive tools such as IBM Watson, companies can significantly transform their contact centre operations, improve the customer experience, provide better support to agents and lower operating costs.

For example, customers can speak to Alexa in a contact centre. If the request is a simple one, it can be entirely automated. Imagine a scenario like losing your credit card. Instead of calling the contact centre and waiting for an agent, you could speak to Alexa and say: “I have lost my credit card, please cancel it and send me a replacement”. With your voiceprint as identification and automation handling the work, it’s as simple as that. Card cancelled and replacement on the way in less than a minute. No long waits, no additional stress, no holding for an undefined amount of time while you are concerned about losing money through unauthorized use of your card. If the issue is more complex or you simply want to have a conversation, a contact centre agent can answer.

Further, in the next-gen contact centre, the agent is supported by cognitive tools such as IBM Watson. These tools can be used to predict and provide the information the agent will need to help the caller. Designed and implemented properly, this technology creates a far better experience for all. It could prompt an agent in a banking call centre on how best to help the caller. For example, it could know that a caller is under his or her Individual Savings Account (ISA) limit in a tax year and also has funds in a dormant low-yield savings account. The agent would be prompted to explore this with the customer to see whether he or she would like to transfer those funds to the ISA.

Digital technology is now opening new opportunities to improve contact centres and the customer experience as well. So, say goodbye to IVR and hello to Alexa …