Creating call center nirvana with the right mix of agent support and smart technology

The call center of the future is nearly fully automated, and the technology exists today to take a large step toward that future. More importantly though, using that technology to make things easier for consumers will ensure that they prefer self-service over live agent interactions. As customer service executives look ahead, there is an opportunity to leverage the call center agent as a highly-skilled teacher working hand in hand with technology. The right combination of call center agent support and technology can make call centers smarter, more efficient and more enjoyable for the consumer.
The future of the call center will blend the right mix of agent support and intelligent automation technology.

In past blogs, we’ve talked many times about the day when nearly all customer service is automated and consumers will actually prefer it.

In this vision of the future contact center, agents and callers will spend more time teaching machines than interacting with each other. It’s easy to imagine a world where there’s a technology-based learning loop making the machine better, but it’s harder to imagine that consumers will prefer it. And, it’s hard to know what to do today to start making this future a reality.

In today’s world, when the customer chooses to call, they have already likely flagged a deficiency in some other channel, such as not being able to find the answer to their question online. An agent’s expertise can further specify the nature of this deficiency (callers always have a hard time locating this particular information on the website) and point toward the right solution. In the future, this interaction will create a feedback loop that allows the “contact center machine” to automatically see what’s missing and deliver the answer.

This feedback loop alone is a nirvana from a contact center executive’s perspective because it saves both time and money. However, the more interesting and challenging part of this vision, is the part where consumers will prefer itRight now, it’s hard to imagine people wanting to talk to a machine over a human. But, think about the self-checkout line at the grocery store, or using an ATM instead of visiting a bank teller. People really do prefer interacting with machines when it’s more convenient and easy.

So, how does today’s call center executive ensure they’re moving in this direction? How do they make things easier for the customer while saving the business money? A solution that hits on both of these factors is the step in the right direction.

The traditional technology solution for this has been to implement an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system. For some, this is better known as the hated “Sorry, I didn’t understand that” technology that saves time in the contact center, but causes the customer increased frustration. In this case, when the IVR couldn’t solve – or understand – the customer problem, it would put them in queue to wait for a person. This defeats the whole purpose of an IVR.

As Mark Zuckerman recently said “I don’t know anyone who likes calling businesses. It’s not fast or convenient, and it definitely doesn’t feel like the future.” For the call center, the future lies in intelligent automation that meets customers where they are (mobile), adds context instead of frustration, and anticipates what the customer needs.

Meeting Customers Where They Are

Almost half of the people who do choose to call customer service are calling from a smartphone. The contact center can take advantage now of the fact that customers can look at a smartphone screen while they are talking to an agent or navigating an IVR system. For instance, think about checking into a flight and trying to get a seat assignment.

Typically, if you call the airline to choose your seat, you’ll end up answering a series of questions on the phone – front or back of the plane? Aisle or window? Premium or economy? But what if the IVR could send a seat map to your smartphone while you’re still engaged in the call? You could quickly choose your seat, without negotiating a lengthy series of automated questions from the IVR, or waiting to talk to an agent. This interaction benefits the caller and the business, and the possibilities of this technology have only begun to emerge.

Add Context with Human Intervention

Another opportunity today is leveraging customer service representatives to help the technology that fronts the center. For instance, whether a customer starts a web chat, sends a text message, or calls in, the technology that’s trying to solve their problem or get them to the right person will always have edges. Edges where they stop being helpful and start being annoying. Edges where they stop facilitating and start hindering. The technology exists today to have a live agent assist these front-end applications in real time to deliver a better customer experience.

Think of someone who calls in and has a complicated email address with lots of special characters involved. This traditionally could only be done well with a human because special characters are tough to capture using speech recognition technology. Now, the caller can speak their entire email address, and if today’s advanced speech recognition software misses a character, a human can transcribe it behind the scenes and send it back to the IVR. Again, the technology makes things easier for the caller, increases call containment, and in the future, auto-learn based on the agent’s entry.

Anticipating Customer Needs

Perhaps our most exciting opportunity lies in our ability to anticipate customer needs. We already have speech recognition technology that understands what someone is saying almost to a human level – even for open-ended prompts like “How can I help you?”, which most large IVRs are beginning to use today. This feat alone is amazing, but it’s just the beginning.

Wouldn’t it be better if, instead of opening with “How can I help you?”, it was “Did you need help with X?”? When we use predictions, the caller’s delight is clear in their emphatic “yes” response, and even when their response is “no.” Callers appreciate the fact that we know them, we didn’t forget about them and we’re being proactive based on what we anticipate they need.

Many call center IT departments say they don’t have the data, the budget or the resources for this. The good news is you don’t need infinite resources, money or data.  With just three or four data points, we can make some really good predictions. Everyone is intimidated by the big data they believe is necessary to get started, but in reality, companies can take the first step with small data.

Looking Ahead to Call Center Nirvana

While we’re not yet at the place where the call center agent is a highly-skilled gamer tweaking and teaching the technology in real time, that day isn’t as far away as it seems. We can take a big step forward in bringing the best of human and machine together now. With predictions, we make the machines smarter. By seamlessly shifting modes to the screen, we can make the experience easier. And, by adding human assistance, we can make the experience seamless.

These technologies and more are already available today. They can help deal with higher call center volumes, increase caller satisfaction scores and open up that feedback loop between callers, agents, the business and the technology that ties them all together. Let’s start using them.

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Thomas Hebner

About Thomas Hebner

Tom Hebner is a the World Wide Leader of the Cognitive Innovation Group. He has 18 years of experience designing, building, and managing large complex contact center automation solutions. He personally manages the most strategic and innovative contact center solutions, partnering with our customers to move the contact center market forward. Tom holds two Masters Degrees in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University and a BA from Villanova University.