In 2018, 8.8 percent of all retail sales globally, totaling more than US$2 trillion, were made online, according to the Global Online Retail Spending report. As the total number of online purchases continues to grow, a compelling case can be made that e-commerce customers expect to receive support that is as good as or even better than those who purchase the very same products in a store.
In person, it is very easy to verify the proper set-up and operation. A return or exchange is immediate, thereby ensuring any outstanding issues can be solved on-premises and in person. Contrast this experience with one involving a product delivered to a home or business. Without the agent being able to see the problem, the customer is forced to “paint a picture” with the proverbial 1,000-word description.
The challenge with e-commerce, therefore, is to find a way to deliver customer support with a personal touch and effectiveness similar to the in-store experience. To be sure, customer support via contact centers has improved over time, but legitimate complaints remain far too common.
Confusing interactive voice response (IVR) navigation regularly leads to multiple transfers before a customer reaches an agent who can resolve the issue. The need to repeat details over and over again while being passed around annoys customers and adds to agent workloads.
Then, just when the customer is finally going to be transferred to the right agent, the call gets dropped. Such experiences are frustrating at best and infuriating at worst, and they serve to undermine brand loyalty.
This article examines some advances being made — now and over the foreseeable future — in contact center operations. These advances not only improve customer satisfaction, but also enhance the productivity and job satisfaction of agents.
Customer Service Is Increasingly Data-Driven
The wealth of data available in customer relationship management (CRM) and other systems now makes it possible to elevate support experiences, strengthen brand appreciation, increase customer lifetime value (CLV), and help foster positive social media reach and impact. These and other improvements hold the potential to turn the contact center from being a cost center to becoming a strategic asset for building the brand in competitive markets.
The purpose-built customer support platforms enabling these improvements provide two significant advances that together make it possible to resolve issues better and faster than ever before. The first is the ability to tap the wealth of data currently available about customers, products, common questions, agent expertise, contact center activity and more. The second advance involves leveraging the data being provided by smart devices, especially smartphones.
Making pertinent data available during every customer support session should be considered the minimum capability needed to deliver effective, efficient and positive support experiences to customers.
The data should be presented to the agent in a meaningful and secure way at the very beginning of the call to ensure the fastest possible resolution. Done well, this data-driven approach eliminates the need to ask customers to repeat or re-enter information the company already has, and helps route each call to an agent who is able to resolve the issue quickly and efficiently.
Getting calls routed to the right queue the first time is enabled when the customer support platform is connected to external data sources to access customer profile or segmentation information stored in the CRM. This connection works two ways, of course, enabling the CRM to be updated with new information made available during the support call. These insights also give supervisors the visibility they need to optimize overall contact center operations.
Customer Support Platforms in the Cloud
The cloud makes it easy for organizations of any size to take advantage of state-of-the-art technologies, including Contact Center as a Service (CCaaS) solutions. For smaller organizations, the cloud provides a complete solution (hardware, software and support), thereby eliminating the need to hire and retain a staff of experts. For large organizations, the cloud’s virtually unlimited scalability is a significant advantage.
Cloud-based services are versatile, scalable and cost-effective, and easily can be updated to make new and enhanced capabilities available regularly. CCaaS offerings have all the advantages of the cloud, in general, and because they are purpose-built for the cloud, it’s easier to integrate them with other business systems and data sources.
For example, the CRM system could provide a customer’s purchase history and previous experiences with support. Or, an interface to a knowledge base could display a list of likely problems to customers, along with how to evaluate and resolve them.
Most of the cloud customer support platforms offer built-in interfaces or “connectors” that integrate with popular CRM, workforce management and other systems. However, even those commercial or custom applications that lack a pre-built connector can be integrated using published application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs).
Smartphone-Enabled Customer Support
The second advance in customer support platforms is the ability to harness the full power and potential of the smartphone. Smartphones have revolutionized the conversational experience with their multimedia capabilities, and they continue to offer an evolving range of technical abilities and functionality.
Rather than force customers to use their smartphones just as phones, customer support platforms have made it possible to tap the phones’ other capabilities for sharing photos, video and texts to create a much richer and more streamlined support experience in many situations.
Such multimedia communications effectively turn the smartphone into the equivalent of a powerful customer service portal. Leveraging the smartphone’s ability to provide actionable data quickly and easily results in an enhanced conversational experience where customers no longer feel their time and effort is being wasted.
The potential is so great that some companies have integrated customer support capabilities into their existing mobile apps. From within the app, the customer could initiate a support session, and the app automatically would upload useful information to the customer support platform, where it would be made available to the agent.
The many sources of information include the app’s status, any user data available to the app, the most recent user actions in the app, diagnostic test results, device ID, operating system version, and the user’s location (via GPS). The app also could make it easy to access the smartphone’s many features and functions, including verifying the user’s identity with a fingerprint or facial scan.
Getting More Data From More Devices
With the cloud now extending into homes via devices like Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod, users have an additional way to communicate, make purchases — and yes, handle support needs.
As these devices become more pervasive, companies will be motivated to consider enhancing their customer support capabilities with concierge communications. Voice communications will be fairly seamless, because voice is a native function of the device. However, the session could be made multimedia by incorporating the smartphone into the call to take advantage of its texting, imaging, video, user authentication and other functions.
The Internet of Things (IoT) has created even more opportunities to enhance the conversational experience. Many such devices gather data in real-time and make it available for historical or forensic purposes. Continuous monitoring makes it possible to detect a problem, issue an alert, and — as part of a proactive customer support offering — automatically initiate a session with the contact center. Imagine just how satisfied a customer would be when receiving a notification to fix a problem that the customer didn’t yet know had occurred.
Context-Awareness Maximizes Customer Service Satisfaction and Agent Productivity
Establishing an accurate and actionable context for all customer support sessions is a proven way to deliver a satisfactory contact center experience every time. Awareness of the customer’s context — for example, recent purchase and delivery history; previous product experiences; changes in user profile status, such as a new home address, known failure of a connected device, and more — puts the agent in a better position to anticipate and address the customer’s situation quickly and satisfactorily.
By contrast, the lack of meaningful context is the root cause of the all-too-common and particularly annoying complaints customers have about contact centers: needing to respond to too many questions about the current problem or situation, whether by navigating multiple levels of menu options or by talking with agents.
The objective of providing context is to make it easy for customers to get their issues resolved as quickly as possible. In many other interactions with companies, technological advances have simplified the way customers sign in or sign up, purchase goods or services, get information, or complete other actions.
Consider, for example, the ability to complete a purchase with a single click. With such user-friendliness now so familiar, customers may wonder why interactions with contact centers remain so cumbersome and frustrating.
Following are some examples of how the context provided by customer support platforms makes it easier for customers.
By reviewing each caller’s product purchase history and identifying any undelivered products, the customer immediately could be presented with an option to get shipping status. Or, the caller could be presented with a list of recent purchases to select the one with the problem, and then be presented with a list of common problems for that product.
If there were no self-service option available for the particular issue, the call then would be routed to an agent who could answer with something like this: “Hi John, I see you recently purchased a widget. Is that what you’re calling about? I’m sorry you’re having a problem setting it up. Let me help you with that.”
Proactive interactions put resolutions on a fast track, resulting in positive contact center experiences that increase customer satisfaction and brand loyalty. Making actionable contexts available to agents from the start eliminates the need for customers to explain their situation over and over again. With better insight into the customer’s situation and preferences, providing actionable contexts for agents can enhance and personalize the customer experience.
Resolving issues quickly on the first call has another advantage: It substantially increases agent productivity. A customer support platform can do even more to optimize overall contact center operations.
For example, a dashboard that provides supervisors with a real-time view of current call volume and agent activity affords opportunities to make adjustments during peak periods to avoid serious problems. Or, information about each agent’s performance, combined with recordings of actual calls, provides an opportunity for targeted coaching. It is worth noting that more productive agents often have higher levels of job satisfaction, which helps reduce turnover.
‘Intelligent Automation’ Will Further Enhance Contact Center Effectiveness
The potential for improvements in customer service with deep learning (DL), machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies currently is limited only by the imagination. While these terms increasingly are tossed around, often without a clear view of how they will be applied, the ultimate goal of each is what could be called “intelligent automation.”
In addition to improving contact center effectiveness, mainly through providing better context, these technologies present opportunities for improving self-service support options by more intelligently applying automation to guide users to the fastest-possible resolution to common problems.
Such improvements in automated support services minimize the need for agents to deal with mundane matters, freeing them to focus on the more challenging issues, VIP customers, and strategic scenarios where a personal touch is often necessary.
Successful use of intelligent automation can empower customers to handle common tasks themselves, more quickly and efficiently. For example, being directed to the correct self-service option, which provides easy-to-follow instructions, can delight just as much, if not more, than a similar experience with an agent.
Combining the power of the smartphone with the potential of intelligent automation affords virtually unlimited opportunities for enhancing contact center interactions. Some examples:
- Using a combination of natural language processing and AI to automatically present the most appropriate knowledge base information to agents during a live session;
- Using AI pattern matching to identify and offer the most likely solutions to active inquiries in real time;
- Increasing the use of self-service by directing callers to easy ways to complete common transactions on their smartphones, such as changing contact information or tracking a shipment;
- Using DL in the background during all customer interactions to extend self-service range and accuracy;
- Automatically integrating the use of texting, videos, images or other smartphone functions;
- Continuing the conversation using a live chat on the website where the customer and agent can interact simultaneously on their respective browsers.
ML and AI pattern matching also can be used to fine-tune customer segmentation, including updating probabilities of a specific customer encountering a particular problem. This form of intelligent automation can be used either for enhancing context to present more meaningful options during inbound sessions, or for proactive initiation of outbound notifications with directions to a convenient self-serve solution.
Eventually, intelligent automation will go beyond the chatbot to create what could be called the “artificial agent.” For example, a flight gets canceled, and all passengers receive calls offering them a choice of options for booking another flight.
Most may want to choose a self-serve option where they are presented with a list of available flights on their smartphone’s browser. Others may need to speak with an artificial or actual agent because they are currently driving to the airport. Either way, combining the intelligent automation of a customer support platform with the power of a smartphone makes for a promising future for contact centers.
Continuing to treat the contact center as a cost center is costing companies money. Using a customer support platform that improves the effectiveness of contact centers pays for itself — and more — in two ways. The first is through an increase in customer satisfaction and brand loyalty, which lead to reduced customer churn and higher customer lifetime values. The second is through cost reductions via increased agent productivity, the potential to minimize call transfers, and the economies of scale afforded by Contact Center as a Service offerings.
These and other potential improvements have motivated more companies to transform their contact centers from a cost center to a strategic asset capable of creating a competitive advantage.
For those companies unwilling to make this change at this time, consider this: As companies begin to leverage customer data to enhance and streamline the support experience, customers will start to expect it, and they will become increasingly frustrated with companies that don’t take advantage of the data they have.
Get started by evaluating current contact center operations to uncover areas for improvement. The assessment should look for gaps in existing processes and determine how best to close those gaps, either with existing practices and technologies or new ones. While doing so, evaluate all current systems for how capable and extensible they are, and investigate available options for making enhancements.
For example, can your existing systems effectively utilize available data to provide meaningful context, or leverage the feature-rich power of smartphones? If not, your current systems are limiting your ability to deliver world-class customer support. Finally, estimate how the various improvements might increase customer satisfaction — and revenue.
At a minimum, identify at least one aspect of the customer support experience you can improve now, along with one area of agent workload you can reduce. You might be surprised at just how easy it is to begin adopting a data-driven, contextual approach to customer support.