Yesterday the news broke that retailer Marks & Spencer will be deploying artificial intelligence in its call centres in a bid to modernise its infrastructure and handle a greater volume of incoming calls.

M&S, whose flagging fortunes have made headlines more than once over the past few months, is reportedly implementing software from Twilio, a cloud communications platform, and Google to make its call centres smarter and more efficient.

The artificially intelligent software is said to be able to use speech recognition to analyse the voice of a consumer in real-time and transcribe it into text, determine caller intent, and reroute the call to the appropriate department.

The technology is set to be rolled out to all of M&S’ 640 stores and 13 call centres across the UK by the end of September. The new software will replace human operators previously employed in M&S’ call centres, but – and this is the crucial part – no jobs will be lost in the change, with more than 100 employees reassigned to in-store roles instead.

Playing to AI’s strengths

The revelation that M&S would be redirecting redundant call staff to its shop floors instead of letting them go struck me as the most interesting thing about this news.

Ever since artificial intelligence appeared on the horizon, it has been accompanied by doomsday predictions of humans being replaced en masse by robots – even while research, like a recent report by PricewaterhouseCooper, reveals that AI is likely to create as many jobs as it replaces.

Most common-sense analysis of the impact AI will have, on industries such as marketing, as it becomes more widespread suggests that AI will automate and accelerate the most tedious tasks like data entry and processing, freeing up employees to do the more creative or nuanced work that requires a “human” touch.

By redirecting staff away from call centres towards the shop floor, M&S is playing to the strengths of AI: allowing it to handle the drudge-work, while deploying human staff where they can be most effective, serving customers and being a face for the brand.

To be clear, there will still be humans operating the phone lines at M&S – customers who phone in to the retailer with a query or a complaint won’t be forced to deal with an automated voice responding to their concern. But AI will be handling the menial work of simply rerouting calls to the right department.

I’ve previously written about the need for high street retailers to step up their digital strategies, and M&S clearly recognises this (which is just as well, given the dire state of its profits). DIGIT reports that M&S’ infrastructure was “built on a mixture of legacy phone systems that could not support its digital strategy going forward”, leaving it unable to centralise customer information and connect customers seamlessly across its stores.

By contrast, the new AI-powered system will be able to handle more than a million inbound phone calls per month. If the deployment works as it should, this will allow M&S to greatly increase the scale and efficiency of its customer support, while putting that time and those resources back into areas of the business that sorely need them.

Not a chatbot – but a bot nonetheless

Of course, I did say “if”. There are likely to be a couple of obstacles that could prevent the new rerouting system from being a perfect solution to M&S’ troubles.

The majority of the publications reporting on this story (including DIGIT, whom I quoted above) have labelled the AI solution that M&S will be using as a “chatbot”, which I think is misleading. “Chatbot” conjures up images of interacting with text-based bots via a chat app, when as previously stated, the system used by M&S will be a phone-based AI which reroutes calls.

“Chatbot” conjures up images of interacting with a text-based bot via a chat app

However, it will be a bot, and this might cause a problem for M&S’ core demographic: the over-50s. Despite moves by M&S to try and attract a younger demographic – particularly with its clothing ranges – the fact remains that a huge number of M&S’ regular customers are older and more likely to struggle with a change like AI rerouting their calls.

The Telegraph observes that “it’s not yet clear how the new system will cope with accents”, noting that other voice-activated bots like Siri and Alexa have struggled to decipher strong Scottish and Yorkshire accents in the past.

“If the software doesn’t understand a customer then it will ask questions and prompt the customer to rephrase their query,” the Telegraph goes on. This could only increase frustration with customers who are struggling to be understood, particularly if they become aware that they’re dealing with a bot.

However, M&S claims that the new technology has a 90% accuracy rate.

At the end of the day, M&S does need to modernise fast if it intends to remain part of the UK retail landscape, and a few disgruntled customers are likely to be a small price to pay for a modern infrastructure and increased profits in the long run.

M&S has plans to introduce AI into other parts of its business as well, and recently announced a partnership with Microsoft to explore how its AI technologies can enhance customer experience and operations.

To my mind, the call centre news shows that M&S has the right idea about how it can best take advantage of AI without causing a major upset among its workforce. Hopefully, that will continue as M&S continues along the path of digital transformation and pursues its goal of becoming a “digital-first” retailer.

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