“There’s our excuse… we’ll blame everything on the round-headed kid!”
– Charles M, Schultz
Everyone loves a scapegoat. Whether it’s “My dog ate my homework,” or “The check is in the mail,” it’s too easy to blame someone else for our failures and shortcomings. I see it, and have certainly done it, in my personal and work life.
In addition to scapegoating actions that took place in the past, it’s extremely common to scapegoat something that hasn’t even occurred. I especially see this in economic prognostication. The oldest example being when Ugg, a caveman, bemoaned how the invention of the wheel will lead to massive job losses.
Okay, that was a joke, but technology is often scapegoated when jobs are lost. It might be robots in manufacturing plants, or the automated checkout counters at grocery stores. There are some who look upon technology as a, or sometimes the factor for the rise of the unemployment rate.
It’s true. There has been a clear swapping of machines for humans. However, as these labor intensive jobs become automated, they are often augmented by higher skilled positions. Someone needs to design, program, and maintain those robots.
I also firmly believe that technology not only improves productivity, it saves companies from closing up their doors. Factories that do not adopt robots cannot compete in today’s competitive global market. Embracing automation may displace a handful of jobs per robot, but that’s much better than displacing every employee when a business closes down and shutters its doors.
All this leads me to talk about something closer to my heart than manufacturing floor robots – virtual agents. I’ve heard the same job loss talk when it comes to “replacing” a human agent with an automated, virtual one. They are thought of as lifeless job stealers that will put millions of people out of work.
Yes, like the rise of robots, some human jobs will become unnecessary as virtual agents are deployed for customer service and help desk tasks. I won’t dispute that. I also understand that every lost job leads to turmoil/chaos/pain/etc. (long or short term) in someone’s life. At the same time, those virtual agents can save the life of companies that face imminent and permanent ruin.
Case in point is the the disruption that COVID-19 brought to the economy. Office buildings were emptied, storefronts closed, and once tried-and-true processes were completely upended. Restaurants that previously stayed afloat because people filled their dining rooms are now scrambling to find ways to make their meals grab-and-go. Businesses that opened their doors to anyone and everyone now have to find ways to meter who comes in and how long they stay. It quickly became apparent that human beings trying to manage this new reality were overwhelmed. Employees weren’t happy. Customers weren’t happy. Things were falling apart.
This is the perfect time for virtual agents. Not only can they gracefully handle these new tasks, they are able to interface with customers and employees by any number of traditional and digital channels. Virtual agents can be invoked and put to work via the human voice (telephone calls or smart speakers), SMS text, email, social media, or web chat. They are always there, scale up and down as the need arises, never tire, and can coordinate large amounts of data in real time.
Here are a few off-the-cuff examples:
- Counties can use a virtual agent to manage in-person reservations for government services. The virtual agent informs the user when it’s his or her turn to enter the building.
- A restaurant virtual agent can take food orders and tell users which spots to park in to pick up those orders.
- A food shelf virtual agent can inform users when certain items are available and allow people to schedule delivery times.
The possibilities and the number of jobs that can be saved are endless.
Thankfully, none of this is pie-in-the-sky technology. Everything required to build amazing virtual agents exists today. Better yet, it can all be done with cloud services. This allows even the smallest business to utilize powerful technology that it would not otherwise be able to afford.
As much as I don’t like that I am always saying “the new normal,” this is what we are living and will continue to live for a long time. The old ways won’t work the way they once did and something new is required. A virtual agent fits the bill. Not only will it handle jobs once performed by human beings, it will do things never envisioned by those same people. And best of all, it will save businesses, jobs, and the livelihoods of living and breathing people.