Call Centers


Bridging the Gap Between Self-Service and Live Service

The majority of today’s contact centers employ well-designed, sophisticated self-service strategies, but even with a highly successful self-service application boasting a high call-completion rate, people will always need to talk to people. That is why there will always be a need for live service interactions.

However, the move from automated self-service to live service can often be a frustrating experience for customers. Whether they get disconnected, wait on hold or have to repeat account information, customers tend to fall into a service gap in the business process.

Each customer interaction that falls into this gap costs organizations money. Technology is needed to bridge the gap between these two critical customer service strategies and to ensure a smooth transition and a positive customer experience.

Self-service, Today and Tomorrow

The average cost of a live telephone call varies considerably, but averages US$7.25, according to the 2010 U.S. Contact Center Decision Maker’s Guide by Contact Babel. The average cost of an integrated voice response (IVR) self-service session is $1.05. With the cost of IVR self-service transactions being a fraction of that for connecting customers to live service in the contact center, self-service is an important and wise strategy for business units and IT departments alike.

When set up properly, a self-service system can handle a high volume of requests around the clock. Many consumers enjoy the convenience of helping themselves so long as IVR menus are not too cumbersome or complicated. Therefore, the situations when self-service is used should be chosen carefully so as to avoid customer frustration. For example, self-service is ideal for simple transactions such as account balance inquiries, but it is less suitable for transactions that involve problem-solving or troubleshooting, such as reports of identity theft.

As time goes by, self-service technology continues to improve, and its applications continue to evolve. With the phenomenal growth of online social networking and mobile communication, a new generation of self-service mashups will emerge that combine home-grown content (written and provided by the organization) with elements and information from individuals and communities from all over the Web.

Consumers now leverage their favorite social networks, blogs, wikis and search engines to learn about products, services and companies. Organizations benefit from this when they act as a facilitator by aggregating the content specific to the company and providing it to the customer base in the form of an enhanced self-service application.

By contributing content and centralizing the conversation, companies learn more about themselves and can be more responsive to customers’ needs. This evolved form of self-service will make it quicker and easier for customers to get information and solve their own problems than ever before. They will come to rely on a network of resources that is sponsored, organized and condoned by companies who see the benefit of partnering with these communities in order to better serve their customers in an open and transparent way.

The Undeniable Case for Live Service

While self-service is a strategic and valuable method of customer service, it can’t satisfy everything. This is evidenced by the net gain of 10,000 contact center jobs in North America in 2009, as reported by Saddletree Research and the National Association of Call Centers. The need for live service remains in order to solve more complicated and sensitive customer service issues. For example, how does one explain to an IVR that a technical error caused charges to an account when it was supposed to put a credit on the bill? And how can an IVR give urgency to the frustrated customer’s third call to fix the same problem?

The scenario above not only illustrates a process breakdown. It also showcases the aggravation and frustration that all consumers can relate to. Human interaction is required for real problem-solving. Only real people can fix flawed systems and business processes.

Much like self-service, live service in the contact center will evolve as well. This will happen as a natural result of self-service becoming more sophisticated and intelligent. As IVR call-completion rates begin to rise (indicating growing success of the self-service strategy), one might assume there would be a corresponding decrease in the need for live service. On the contrary, that is rarely the case. Rather, the focal point of live service will gradually shift away from walking customers through a series of steps in a business process and more toward satisfying the emotional needs and aspects of the customer-vendor relationship.

Emotional needs include affirmation, acknowledgment, empathy, validation, safety and feedback. In the future, customers will rely more on emotional support from live service to affirm their decision to continue doing business with you. People need to vent anger, express joy and feel reciprocated as a part of any relationship. The relationship with a company is no different.

To continue spending money, trust is necessary and this naturally comes from the positive and negative exchanges of human interactions. When a company cannot adequately fulfill these higher-level needs, customers will switch loyalty to another brand that can. This vision marks the shift from agent to associate and from representative to advisor.

The Space Between

Contact centers continually improve the self-service process and technology on one side and implement performance management and better training on the other. Both customer service strategies are getting better, but the connection between them remains broken. A significant gap exists in the linkage between the two worlds of self-service and live service. One world is impersonal and automated, the other is emotional and collaborative, and some consumers fall into a customer service gap when they attempt to pass between worlds.

The symptoms of this technical hitch include customers being disconnected, placed on hold, or asked to repeat account information. Each customer interaction that falls into this gap costs the organization money, causes frustration and threatens customer loyalty. The operational cost is attributed to increased call handle times, which lowers productivity. In addition, there is an increased expense associated with subsequent call attempts by customers who originally abandoned the call and who now have to repeat the process all over again.

The customer frustration comes from a lack of forethought by organizations that view self-service and live service as two separate and distinct strategies, and that neglect to put assurances in place for customers who wish to safely travel from one customer service strategy to the other.

To keep customers on track and prevent them from falling into a customer service gap in the business process, companies need to make sure that customers move smoothly (and safely) from self-service to live service for the optimal customer experience. A simple first step is to implement technology that gives customers the option to make the move, and perhaps announces the estimated wait time, which is proven to reduce caller anxiety.

A further step, one that could truly differentiate a company from its competition, is to implement virtual queuing technology, which allows callers to receive a callback in the same amount of time that they would have waited on hold, without losing their place in line. This allows your customers to do other things instead of waiting on hold until a contact center agent is available. It proves you know that their time is valuable.

Adding this layer between self-service and live service to the overall customer service strategy can help consumers trust that the company cares about them as people (and not just about their money). The stronger the relationships you have with customers, the more likely they will be loyal to your organization, and the more sales you will make. Additionally, it’s a viable alternative to staffing for peak levels — a task that contact center managers know is practically impossible.

Kevin Sjodin is CEO of Virtual Hold Technology.

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