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Beginning in the 1960s, when 1-800 numbers first became the de facto means of customer service, supporting citizens has evolved from one-way communication into a multichannel experience that is vital to how citizens get information from the government. Yet, in an effort to continue reducing operational costs, today’s contact centers appear to be in a race to the bottom — replacing highly trained (but costly) customer service representatives with outdated, inflexible Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems that leave citizens frustrated and often require repeated inquiries that rack up expenses.

New service platforms that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can overcome some common call center challenges. Here are three ways AI is changing the way government serves its citizens while achieving long-term efficiencies.

1. Advancing speech recognition

Call center technology has evolved in stages, with each solution designed to improve the citizen experience and lower costs — but each solution held its own limitations.

Traditional IVR technologies — revolutionary when first adopted in the 80s and 90s — relied heavily on menu trees and skill-based routing to service citizens, creating a long and confusing maze which often resulted in misdirects and wasted customer and call agent minutes. The introduction of Natural Speech Recognition in the 2000s created the first virtual assistants, but citizens still struggled with programmed menu trees and fought these new technologies by pressing zero or saying “representative!” to get assistance.

More recently, virtual assistant technologies like those used in Siri and Alexa allow for improved system comprehension, but these technologies can be expensive and take a long time to integrate with legacy systems, and are easily derailed by complex requests, speaking styles, heavy accents and background noises. So, while these systems are more successful at speech to text recognition, their failure rate at understanding the caller’s intent and capability limitations are still too high and lead citizens to quickly opt-out for a human call agent.

Now, new systems — called intelligent virtual assistants — take the best AI and speech recognition technologies and incorporate human assistance to circumvent today’s IVR systems’ inherent flaws and limitations, using each interaction as an opportunity to continually make the system smarter and more adept. Using intelligent virtual assistants, a caller can carry on a normal, plain-language conversation with a system that is able to understand the request and help respond to it. Deployment is fast and less invasive, and the platform provides the foundation to go deeper into citizen intent than before.

2. Understanding customer intent

Using an intelligent virtual assistant allows users to resolve many more requests within the automated system because it’s more capable of understanding customer intent, which means citizens can be quickly directed to the information they are actually trying to find, rather than with traditional IVR technologies that try to fit their request into one of the options in the menu tree. Understanding intent in a virtual setting creates more self-serve options, and allows the voice channel to complement the agency’s digital channels, reducing the number of tier one calls that require a simple script and are easily resolved, and reserving resources for more complex conversations that require human call agents’ expertise.

Additionally, by eliminating complete dependency on one system to understand all language, AI-driven intelligent virtual assistants can deploy and self-tune at a much faster rate than the legacy IVRs. They can capture and verify complex information like names, addresses and emails far better than other speech recognition solutions, improving accuracy rates from 60-80 percent to upward of 95 percent. This delivers a consistent positive citizen experience, leading to dramatically reduced overall citizen engagement center costs and a more favorable government/citizen interaction.

3. Creating resource efficiency

By connecting users to the right information earlier, and driving only necessary calls to agents, agencies can save significant resources in contact center operations. And deploying an intelligent virtual assistant system is easier than one might think: it can take just a few months to shift from a traditional IVR menu tree to a next generation, “how may I help you?” interface, which immediately begins making better use of agency resources.

For agencies grappling with tight budgets and increasing citizen expectations, an intelligent virtual assistant can deliver enormous ROI, while improving accuracy, recognition capabilities and overall user experience — resulting in better informed citizens and a better equipped, more helpful government.