Adrienne Merlo started her career on the phones in a call centre – and 20 years later, she is Datacom’s Practice Manager for Conversational AI. She specialises in bringing complex chatbot and virtual assistant projects to life, and she’s seen this technology evolve since its very earliest days.

“I started on the phones; I had the White Pages, a pen, and a ruler, and I just dialled up each number. That experience has been invaluable. After being on the phones, I moved into contact centre support roles, different types of analyst roles, and into structuring call centre technology,” she says. “Back when I first started working in Conversational AI, nobody knew what a virtual assistant was, nobody knew what chatbots were.”

A pandemic surge in demand, plus lower barriers to entry

Conversational AI encompasses virtual assistants, chatbots, and interactive voice response technology. There was a small spike in interest in the mid-2010s, when a few large organisations put chatbots on their websites, but it remained out of reach for smaller businesses.

Then the pandemic created a surge of people wanting to interact at all hours of the day, Adrienne explains, alongside new platforms that reduced the barriers to entry for those smaller organisations.

Adrienne Merlo standing in nature and smiling at the camera with her arms crossed
It's no surprise to Adrienne Merlo that there has been a resurgence in demand for Conversational AI technology.

“There’s been an explosion in demand for Conversational AI. There are new platforms available that make it easier to find open-source functions and build a bot very easily. Between that and everyone being at home, wanting to get in touch between remote schooling their kids, it’s been a new resurgence.”

With the growth of Siri, Alexa and Chat GPT, Conversational AI is having an impact on our everyday lives. You’ll see it in the chat functions offered by your telco so you don’t need to be on hold for an hour and at the automated self-checkout at the supermarket. It’s also transforming our homes, with automated lighting, Siri playing your favourite playlist, or being able to switch on your oven 45 minutes before you arrive home.

Creating brilliant solutions

Predictions for the growth of the Conversational AI market are staggering, with the size of the global market forecasted to grow at a rate of 21.4% through to 2028, and the Asia Pacific region projected to deliver substantial growth. Drivers for that growth include government policies promoting globalisation and digitisation, and a strong focus from companies on the need to dynamically respond to customer demands amid changing economic conditions.

It’s no surprise to Adrienne that momentum is building, because when contact centre automation is done right it offers enormous value to the customer, the organisation that has deployed it, and those at the frontline of customer service for a brand.

How we interact with organisations is changing and the desire among customers to communicate via a chat interface is growing every year. Being able to offer an in-demand service interface that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is a win for everyone involved. This kind of intelligent capability gives organisations choices – and choices are supremely valuable in an unpredictable economy, when talent attraction and retention are strained, helping employees know what focus on and how to deliver a best-in-class customer experience.

“It has been awesome to go in and work with a range of different businesses,” she says. “Our clients are really invested in the betterment of the technology, and they want to move it forward, so the result really helps people out. You know your business, we know VA, let’s partner together and create a brilliant solution.”

3 tips to set you up for virtual assistant success

Adrienne Merlo’s top tips for making your team’s Conversational AI project a success, including why AI chatbots and virtual assistants can’t be ‘set and forget’.

    1. Design makes all the difference

Organisations must think about what they are designing for and how will it add to the customer experience. A conversation architect must be able to structure conversations in the right way for the right medium. For example, you would respond in a very different way in a voice assistant when compared to a chat-based assistant.

“Anyone can build a bot, really. They can find tools online, quickly build a chatbot and deploy it,” says Adrienne. “But what we’re seeing now are people who built a bot but have no idea about structure or design. Problems are arising and they’re saying, ‘Oh no, what’s going on?’ Without the right design, you can get a chatbot built quickly, but it won’t be valuable.”

    2. Conversational AI needs technology – but the human touch remains all-important

Conversational AI doesn’t replace people, it supports them. Every chatbot needs to have an effective human escalation strategy, because chatbots don’t always get it right. When someone is frustrated, they often just want to speak with a person who will hear what they’re trying to communicate. That’s the empathy and connection only humans can provide, so effective AI solutions have a built-in click-to-chat, call back, or switch to webchat functionality. That provides a pathway to a person when things don’t go quite right.

Chatbots and virtual assistants aren’t designed to replace people, but to support them and have them doing more rewarding and higher-value customer care. It’s vital to ensure agents understand this so they’re on board with helping develop your new AI.

“We’re building a chatbot to deal with low-hanging fruit – the repeatable actions,” says Adrienne. “That means agents can do the work that requires that human touch rather than being bogged down by automatable conversations. Those basic repetitive interactions make agents not want to answer calls. Instead, when we take those lower-value interactions out of the system, they have a better sense of purpose because they can really help. It’s not about trying to take over, it’s about helping.”

    3. You can’t just set and forget

Even the very best AI chatbot or virtual assistant needs to be continually optimised, so it keeps delivering positive outcomes for your customers. You need to find the balance between AI learning and human curation – leaving an AI alone to learn can create unhelpful biases or let misinformation take hold.

“You need to think about the design, the structure, and the maintenance, because that’s how you make sure what you’re doing will be valuable,” Adrienne says. “The value proposition is in having your Conversational AI done properly and ensuring it is contributing to positive experiences for your customers and your team.”

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