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EXCLUSIVE: Malcolm Koh, Zendesk, on the role of AI and Intelligent Automation on customer engagement amid COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate the global landscape, there is a pressing need for organisations to re-examine their businesses and priorities in this new normal. No doubt, many are already making changes in the way they run their businesses and the way they make decisions to emerge stronger. Nonetheless, there remains an urgency for the deployment of technologies that help bring greater efficiencies and wider reach in this new digital-first – or digital-only for some – environment.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Intelligent Automation (IA) are recognised as key enablers for organisations to repair, rethink and reconfigure to emerge from the pandemic. They allow businesses and governments to adapt their operating models for sustainable competitive advantage as well as make adjustments and fine-tune along the way. And when it comes to customer experience (CX), such technologies have allowed businesses to manage high volumes and sudden spikes in customer requests during times of uncertainty.

Undeniably, the adoption of AI has grown exponentially as a result of the pandemic. In fact, usage of AI-enabled support channels has increased as high as 157% in the Asia Pacific (APAC) since February 2020. Right from the start, AI played a pivotal role in mitigating the effects of the pandemic across sectors. In its most basic usage, it eased the administrative burden by automating processes, prioritising customer queries and intercepting simple and repetitive queries with articles from a help centre.

Malcolm Koh, Customer Experience Strategist, APAC, Zendesk

OpenGov Asia had the opportunity to speak exclusively with Malcolm Koh, Customer Experience Strategist, APAC at Zendesk, a customer service software company with support and sales products designed to improve customer relationships. Malcolm has deep expertise in both operational and strategic elements of customer service delivery with over 20 years of experience spanning 8 industries.

“In 2020, governments and businesses faced exceptional challenges,” notes Malcolm. “Adapting to a world reshaped by COVID-19 has meant significant changes in how they run and interact with their citizens and customers respectively. The massive shift online has accelerated the digitalisation efforts across the private and public sector, casting the spotlight on the importance of great CX.”

The increase in digital adoption has reset the benchmark of customer expectations, in terms of access, ease and turnaround time. Not unsurprisingly, with more platforms and options than ever before, consumers are spoilt for choice in the digital space, and expect more from the businesses they interact with. According to Zendesk, 2 out of 5 customers in APAC say the customer experience is more important to them now than a year ago.

“With this heightened demand for great CX, consumers have adopted new behaviours. They want quick and effective resolutions to their problems – particularly in times of crisis – and are often keen to figure things out themselves first. They also want to reach out to brands through channels they’re already familiar with, such as messaging,” Malcolm adds.

Change alone is not enough

Companies are now looking to integrate these new demands into their overall business, but this is easier said than done. Often bogged down by legacy infrastructure and processes, companies struggle to scale digital solutions quickly enough to meet ever-changing customer needs. Change, then, is not the sole criteria for success. Agility and flexibility are also key ingredients. While those lagging must catch up, everyone must have the ability to adapt quickly to stay ahead of these new challenges and trends, even as they continue to evolve.

Though the introduction of AI to streamline processes and manage spikes in customer queries cannot be built overnight and may not be sufficient in and of itself to satisfy customer service demands, it is necessary to drive greater efficiencies, which ultimately help drive business growth. “Think of AI like a muscle. The more you train it, the stronger and more accurate it will be, “ says Malcolm.

“Being efficient has always existed as a business priority, but what that means to businesses and governments has evolved when it comes to implementation. And AI and automation have been central to that evolution,” he added. For those new to such technologies, starting small helps according to Malcolm. “That way, you can implement small changes and closely measure its effect and progress, which will go a long way to garnering more internal support and influence as change is often a team effort.”

Keeping the human touch with personalisation and empathy

When there’s talk of AI, Malcolm notes that there’s also a common misconception that AI will replace humans. “It is about automating manual, high volume processes where possible to be more productive and redeploying human resources to more complex tasks,” says Malcolm. “While AI has become increasingly sophisticated, the human element and our ability to empathise with the customer is still currently an irreplaceable piece to any successful CX strategy.” In such cases, Malcolm shares that AI-enhanced chatbots “need to know when a customer query is beyond its ability and to facilitate the seamless hand-off to a human agent without requiring the customer to repeat everything again to the agent, which can be incredibly frustrating.”

Moreover, customer engagement today also calls for more personalised experiences. This is where predictive AI technologies come in. Having the trend or history of all interactions people have with a business can be turned into insightful data that allows companies to predict and tailor the customer experience across multiple channels.

Supporting customers on their preferred channels

As a result of the pandemic, Zendesk found that over two-thirds of customers in APAC used a new support channel to get in touch with a business – 70% of which intend to continue using said channel. That is why businesses need to incorporate their services on more channels to address these demands.

Of course, tailor-made omni-channelled services need time, resources and research on how to scale, integrate data and train agents to make the most of the predictive AI approach. But, Malcolm acknowledges, there are a lot of AI tools available that can help in terms of personalising customer experiences and engagement on multiple platforms.

Investing in customer-centric CX reaps long-term benefits

Ultimately, Malcolm believes that businesses “need to be efficient to be agile”. Companies and organisations that are lagging need to move faster by investing in technology and processes that enable them to be customer-centric across the entire organisation.

Whether it involves utilising multiple channels for real-time, personalised customer engagement, implementing better collaboration tools for employees, enhancing efficiency with AI and automation, investing in CX will go a long way to drive sustainable growth in this time of crisis and beyond for companies and businesses in all sectors.

“Businesses need to consider the impact CX has on the bottom line. One in two customers will switch to a competitor after just one bad experience. And when businesses deliver on good CX, three in four are likely to spend more,” says Malcolm.

“AI simply cannot work alone – there’s such a unique interdependence between AI and humans that demands attention. And there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to figuring out the right balance,” Malcolm notes. Businesses need to look at what their customers want and expect from them to inform their decisions. Malcolm firmly believes that this customer centricity is what will help businesses navigate these unchartered waters.

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