Nov 28, 2023

Human Touch vs. AI Efficiency: Balancing Call Centers With AI

Dramatic new advances in AI have rekindled the discussion around customer service, in particular the debate between the warmth of human interaction and the efficiency of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Traditional virtual receptionists or call centers, with their human operators, have long been the backbone of customer service, offering a personalized and empathetic touch (once you clear a maze of menu trees and hold times, that is). 

Conversely, AI-driven solutions boast unparalleled speed, accuracy, and cost-effectiveness. The challenge for businesses today is not choosing one over the other but finding the optimal blend of both to provide exceptional customer service. This blog explores how businesses can strike this delicate balance.

The value of human interaction in customer service

Human operators bring a level of empathy and understanding to customer interactions that AI has yet to replicate. The ability to sense tone, show compassion, and offer personalized solutions based on nuanced understanding remains a unique stronghold of human agents. In situations that require emotional intelligence, such as handling frustrated customers or addressing complex, non-standard issues, the human touch is irreplaceable.

Call center employee burnout and inefficiency

On the other side of the equation, working in customer service is notoriously stressful — it was named one of the world’s top 10 most stressful jobs. Companies see turnover rates of up to 45% of agents every year. That has led to a massive talent shortage and is costly for companies to continually recruit and train new employees, all of which affects the customer and employee experience.

Inbound call center reps consistently have one of the highest turnover rates in the world. Live agents deal with emotional customers, stress to perform, and often low pay.” 

Call Center Turnover Rates: How to Boost Agent Retention, Nextiva, July 14, 2022

Fallibility of humans

Also, while most consumers like human interaction, the very nature of human service makes for unpredictability. Since human agents aren’t machines, they can’t work with machine-like consistency and efficiency.

Nor can they remove emotion from the equation. (Emotion is, after all, how customers discern the human touch in a service interaction.)

Because humans are fallible, they slip up, they become frustrated, and they can tire of tedious support queries and repetitive answers.  

The efficiency of AI in customer service

On the other end of the spectrum, new AI-powered phone answering systems such as SoundHound’s Smart Answering not only bring greater speed and efficiency, they are simple to set up and customize. Businesses can capture all their calls without extra labor costs as the AI voice assistant provides:

  • SMS links to place orders or get product information
  • Business hours, location, parking, company policies
  • Ongoing promotions and deals
  • 24×7 availability
  • Attention to customers with a deep understanding of the company and their service

Here’s an example of how SoundHound’s Smart Answering responds quickly to a customer’s questions:

If AI is fast and accurate, customers approve

Customers are also quite open to using AI and are very happy if it improves speed time.

In the July, 2023 SoundHound-sponsored research report that focused on restaurants, 55% of consumers were positive about using AI tools and services generally, though significant discrepancies appeared across generations (see chart).

Even more interesting, when asked about using voice AI to order food at a restaurant, the report found that “68% of those who were initially uncomfortable using a voice assistant to order food at a restaurant drive-thru, would be comfortable if the voice assistant speeded up the ordering process.”

Q: Generally speaking, how do you feel about artificial intelligence tools and services?


AI systems are most cost-effective because they are automated. Once implemented, they can serve numerous customers without the need for breaks, sick leaves, or holidays, unlike their human counterparts.  

AI voice assistant services, for example, offer a more predictable monthly cost structure that can range from as low as $99/month to $499/month depending on the features and minutes included.

Virtual receptionist plans, on the other hand, range anywhere from $25 (low end) to over $3,000 per month, along with hidden fees and upcharges for different service levels.  

68% of those who were initially uncomfortable using a voice assistant to order food at a restaurant drive-thru, would be comfortable if the voice assistant speeded up the ordering process.

The New Driver of Restaurant Customer Satisfaction: Innovation

Still, while AI voice assistants today are light years ahead of old-school voice automation, it’s not a human voice, which some prefer. And complex issues often require human expertise to resolve, whether it is customer service or backend support.

Balancing AI and human interaction

Finding the right balance between AI and human interaction in customer service is crucial. Each has its strengths and limitations, and the key is to leverage both in a way that enhances overall customer experience.

AI offers speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, while human operators provide empathy, understanding, and personalized care. By integrating these two components effectively, businesses can offer a customer service experience that is not only efficient and responsive but also deeply understanding and personal. This balanced approach is the key to excelling in customer service in today’s technology-driven world.

Ready for a custom demo of your own AI voice assistant?

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