How Automation Saved the Customer Service Industry During Covid-19


In this post-Covid roundup, we’re looking back on how automation helped support teams across industries cope, and why it’s here to stay even as the pandemic subsides.

There’s no doubt that the pandemic put businesses through the wringer, but one exciting outcome was the widespread adoption of virtual agents. Powered by AI, these helpful bots are being placed by more and more companies at the frontline of their customer support.

Why the sudden adoption? Total necessity. Contact centers across the globe were slammed, and it was either automate or bust. The smartest ones opted for the former — coupled with AI.

The reason AI is key here is that this is the tech that separates the old-generation chatbots from today’s sleek IVAs. Powered by AI technology, today’s virtual agents can read, understand and respond in natural human language, can interpret multiple customer intents, and can even handle complex process automation with ease.

In this article, we’ve recapped how various industries have responded to and adopted AI-powered bots since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, and how they’re adapting to the “new normal” with automation today. Let’s take a look.

Learn all about IVAs here.

The global post-Covid customer service landscape

Today’s virtual agents continue to take over conversational services for customer support teams across the world, with no sign of slowing down:

  • The volume of customer service interactions handled by IVAs increased by as much as 250% in multiple industries during Covid-19
  • The global conversational AI market, which includes chatbots and intelligent virtual assistants (IVAs), is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22% during 2020–25, reaching almost US$14 billion by 2025
  • 45% of customers feel they are now more likely to self-serve than in pre-Covid days
  • 22% of contact centers say improving self-service is now their top priority

Intelligent virtual agents in healthcare

During the pandemic, healthcare service providers around the world turned to AI to help them deal with the demands of the crisis. For example:

  • In Colombia, the government deployed “Cory,” a virtual agent who can answer a total of 220 questions on topics that range from international travel guidance, virus prevention tactics, and government policies — assisting with 11,000 interactions each month.
  • When German healthtech company Teleclinic was faced with a +500% increase in requests, a virtual agent helped assist patients and doctors quickly and reliably, handling 30% of requests, around-the-clock.
  • The most common use cases for IVAs in healthcare? Risk assessment, disease surveillance, information dissemination, and vaccine scheduling. While certainly useful for Covid-related issues, these easily automated types of requests are highly transferable to a post-pandemic context , helping hospitals and healthcare professionals tackle costs incurred by evergreen problems like missed appointments – which cost healthcare companies $150 billion per year in the U.S. alone.

Intelligent virtual agents in travel

The travel industry has had a challenging few years, to say the least. As countries shut their doors to international travelers to help stop the spread of the pandemic, support centers the world over were flooded with trip refund requests, angry and concerned queries from stranded passengers, and the like. Luckily, virtual agents swooped in to help these inundated companies cope.

  • WestJet’s Juliet helped the airline handle a 1,671% increase in ticket volume on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp during the early weeks of the pandemic outbreak, fully resolving 87% of the tickets she processed
  • Iberia airline’s IVA, iBot, handled 4handled an incredible 450,000 messages in March 2020, representing an increase of 300% from February levels, and successfully resolved 72% of the inquiries it received — what’s more, the bot handled a further 250,000 messages across other platforms in March, with a success rate of 88%
  • Finnair easily handled a support volume increase of 900% during the first lockdown, with a virtual agent that spoke Finnish and English, routed and triaged Covid-related queries, and automated cancellations.

Intelligent virtual agents in ecommerce

Covid has propelled the ecommerce industry fast into the future. Now that branded IVAs are taking over as shopping bots, customers —who have been doing their shopping online more than ever throughout the pandemic by necessity — can get their retail requests processed more effectively, and faster than ever with the help of virtual agents. And they’ve come to expect nothing less:

  • By 2023, it’s projected that the value of IVA transactions in ecommerce will reach $112 billion
  • With the highest amount of repetitive requests out of all industries, the retail sector is posed to continue reaping rewards from early IVA adoption, with Juniper estimating that by next year, over 70% of chatbots accessed will be retail-based
  • More than 60 percent of customers report that they now have higher customer service standards than before the pandemic, and AI automation has helped ecommerce support teams boost both efficiency and personalization while keeping costs down

Intelligent virtual agents in fintech and banking

There is more hesitancy towards adoption of virtual agents in the financial and banking industry, due to concerns about privacy of sensitive information. That said, even this apprehensive industry began plugging into the powers of the IVA to help them handle the overload of questions from concerned customers surrounding pandemic-related changes to loans and grants. As we move into 2023, most financial institutions have launched or are piloting chatbots or IVAs in some capacity. For example:

Virtual agent adoption in the insurance industry

The insurance industry, with its mounds of data and complexities, is one that stands to massively benefit from virtual agents. Yet, with legacy systems and longstanding (often messy) processes, it’s one that has been slower to adopt the new technology. Once these hurdles are overcome, though, virtual agents are set to be massive disruptors in this space.

  • Over 40% of insurers surveyed worldwide by Cognizant have implemented some sort of IVA or chatbot technology, and of these, Europe had the highest volume of basic maturity bots
  • The most popular use cases for IVAs in the insurance space have included pre-purchase interactions,  P&C insurance, troubleshooting, and customer education 
  • AI technology, including virtual agents, will lead to cost savings of nearly $1.3 billion by 2023, across motor, life, property, and health insurance — a huge increase from the $300 million the industry was worth in 2019

Check out the top 10 customer support automation use cases across industries. 

Running the numbers, it’s clear that virtual agents are here to stay, and will only become more prominent in just about every industry you can think of as we climb our way through the new decade.

Customer service teams in healthcare, travel, ecommerce, finance and banking, and insurance, will welcome the help of virtual agents as they come on board to take on the tedious, repetitive inquiries — particularly in times of crisis, but very much so in our everyday hustle and bustle as well.

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