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Call centers invest in virtual assistant

A virtual senior agent who supports call center staff with the aid of artificial intelligence. In studying the use case on this topic, research associate Mark Pluymaekers sees various types of challenges in this area, two of which are the use of dialects and privacy.

At least eight variables play a role in answering questions such as the maximum amounts a person may repay, or redeem, on their mortgage before having to pay a penalty. This is certainly no piece of cake for starting call center employees, particularly when you factor in the different systems these people have to use, and the fact that the customers on the other end of the line don’t always formulate their questions as clearly as they could. In a world in which accuracy and wait times are inextricably bound to customer satisfaction and profit, artificial intelligence in the form of a virtual senior agent might be able to offer a solution. This agent must identify key words (redemption fees, life-course savings plan, etc.) based on previously existing speech recognition technology, in order to then quickly search databases for relevant information. The result is better and more efficient service. This was the simplified summary of the use case which Mark Pluymaekers is currently studying on behalf of BISS which is investigating the possibilities together with APG, PGGM and Obvion. The reality is characterized by considerably more challenges. These include recognizing words spoken in a dialect, and what actually happens when a conversation is disrupted by static.

“The challenge for decision-makers is how to separate the hype from the real added value.”

Man versus virtual technology

In a speech he gave two years ago, “Intimacy across borders,” Pluymaekers emphasized the importance of human interaction in international relationship management. In his view, data-driven CRM alone is not always enough. His reservations aren’t related entirely to data’s potential in building relationships, but more to applications where the focus is on content. Pluymaekers currently believes that although technological communication can offer a good solution in many situations, such as those involving chatbots, we cannot afford to do without the human contribution just yet. “It is exciting to see how far we can go.”

International experiments in which people are put in contact with humanoid robots show that there is a tipping point, the moment at which people develop an aversion to the robot and lose their trust in it. Social and ethical issues also play a real role in developments such as artificial intelligence. Take a future scenario in which general artificial intelligence has become a reality. The opinions on the potential consequences of this vary considerably. Even though Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla and PayPal among other companies, constantly warns of the decline of civilization as a result of general artificial intelligence, other major names claim that it will never come to this, and the advantages take precedence. Pluymaekers, a proponent of some degree of reluctance when it comes to making predictions, thinks that man will remain at the controls. Laughing, he says, “Robots need electricity to operate, don’t they? On the other hand, it wasn’t that long ago that an IBM executive said that a computer in every home was unrealistic, and look where we are now.”

Added value

In June of this year, the McKinsey Global Institute published the report “Artificial intelligence, the next digital frontier?” During the study, 3,000 managers in a variety of sectors were asked for their opinion on artificial intelligence. The results showed that managers belonging to the so-called “early adopters” group use artificial intelligence across the board. They see it as a way to achieve growth and reduce costs, a strategy that enjoys the full support of top management. In companies where artificial intelligence wasn’t being applied or integrated on a large scale yet, managers were more uncertain about the profit that could be earned. When it comes to any major technological development, it is crucial for businesses and organizations to ensure that the human tendency to be a follower doesn’t interfere with this. “Everyone suddenly had to ‘get on the bandwagon’ with China and then ‘do something’ with social media. Be selective. Only invest in those technologies that can truly make a difference. And always be sure to ask yourself the question: where are the bottlenecks for us and can this provide a solution to these problems? The challenge for decision-makers is how to separate the hype from the real added value.”


As the data economy continues to grow by leaps and bounds, the number of tricky problems also increases, along with changes to legislation and regulations. The forthcoming European privacy law has consequences for all organizations working with data. Even though the virtual senior agent concept is still in its infancy, the privacy-related challenges are already obvious. In theory, the virtual employee’s transcript can serve as a basis for recording information during the conversation. A customer that talks about being out sick the week before is however sharing privacy-sensitive information that may not be recorded in a log. Is it possible for the virtual senior agent to recognize this type of information, and if so, how do you treat the information if it can? These are conceivable research questions for the future. Placed in a broader perspective, Pluymaekers says that disruptive innovation just happens to go hand-in-hand with friction. “Solutions are being found to problems that won’t even crop up for another 25 years. Applications follow, and thus also the inevitable undesirable side effects. In this sense, legislation is always racing to keep up with developments and ethics. Sustainable innovation means that we have to keep thinking about what we want to achieve in the long term. I am convinced that we can make things a lot more personal, even artificial intelligence. I think it’s great if a hospital wants to develop an avatar that provides the elderly with a friendly reminder to take their medication. In that regard, I am optimistic, also as a father. My children are growing up in a world in which technology will make their lives a whole lot easier in a lot of ways.”

Author: Gwen Teo. Translation: Allison Klein