New technology means new value from contact centers

The rumor: Advanced chatbots and virtual agents will make contact centers irrelevant.

The reality: Humans (and the contact centers they work in) will be more important than ever.

There’s no question that what contact centers do is changing. Our research shows that as early as 2015, digital channels—web- and app-based digital self-service, email, and web-chat— already accounted for 30 percent of all customer-care interactions. Many of the simple, transactional activities that once kept service agents busy are now routinely completed by customers online. And those customers aren’t being forced into the self-service route, they actually prefer it.

It’s equally true that over the coming years, the rate of automation is set to accelerate. New technologies, including natural-language-processing (NLP) systems, internet bots, and artificial-intelligence tools, will increase the range and complexity of care tasks that can be handled by machines, and will feel more “natural” for customers, too. Already, digital-native companies seamlessly mix chatbots and human-enabled chat seamlessly, so that customers often can’t tell whether it’s they’re interacting with a machine or a human. Most of the time it’s both, as machines take over important parts of the dialogue, such as clarifying the customer’s intent or finishing the conversation (a task that can be surprisingly awkward even for people who know each other).

Does this spell the end for the customer contact center? Far from it. Customers still want to be able to interact with a real person when they need help with difficult or high-value tasks. Research shows that more than 50 percent of customers want to interact with a human in case of a crisis, or when they need a solution to a problem with a product or service. Skilled human agents are still the best guides for customers trying to navigate complex or highly customized product and service offerings.

Those types of interactions are critical. They can be the decisive touch points that determine the customer’s perception of a company, and whether they stick with the company in the future. Moreover, these live interactions provide irreplaceable switch-sell and up-sell opportunities that might otherwise be lost. But a majority of the customer-care executives we surveyed say they don’t have enough agents with the right skills for engaging in these complex conversations.

And that’s only part of the task facing customer-care organizations. In the near future, we expect that about 75 percent of customers will routinely use multiple channels to contact companies under an omnichannel model. They will expect a consistent experience across all of those channels, with the ability to switch seamlessly between them. The demands placed on customer service staff will therefore rise even higher, as they work with new tools and technologies while also spending more of their time dealing with complex, high-value tasks. That means new engagement models to design for businesses, new skills to teach current staff, and new solutions to evaluate as a gold rush brings more technology players into the market.

Building contact centers that fulfill these demands will be a multi-faceted challenge. Companies will need to map and understand their customers’ omni-channel journeys, so they can identify the support requirements at each stage, then determine how they should be fulfilled. Providing the best customer experience while keeping costs under control will call for a blend of human and machine intelligence. Bots may identify customer requirements and resolve easy tasks before human agents take over, for example, while artificial-intelligence systems will provide real-time coaching and support for customer-care personnel. Advanced customer-segmentation and analytics techniques will help companies to build tailored product and services that boost customer satisfaction and increase revenues.

Achieving all of these goals will mean changing in three dimensions at once.

  • First, contact centers need to further increase operational effectiveness, using omnichannel and digital techniques to increase efficiency while cutting costs.
  • The second task is to enable high-quality, customer-centric experiences across all critical journeys and channels, improving customer experience and perception.
  • Third, and arguably the most important in the long run, is to develop a plan for building agents’ skills and capabilities.

For those organizations that successfully meet these challenges, the contact center of the future will shift from a cost to a powerful new source of value. It might even become the catalyst for a wholesale customer-experience transformation.

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