Customer service is shifting. From the way customers choose to speak to brands, through to their expectations in how quickly a response is required, contact centres are having to react to new challenges at an unprecedented rate of change. For me however, the most interesting revolution being faced at the moment is the growth in use of bots.
I’ve written before about how bots work, and how businesses can get started with them, so I want to take this chance to explain the part I believe they play in the customer care department. Bots are going to produce a seismic shift in how contact centres handle both their inbound and their outbound messages – and the organisations that make the most of this now will reap the rewards in the future.
Why are bots needed?
Simply put, customers prioritise speed of response over personalisation when engaging with a brand’s customer service team. Research from Salesforce found that while 73% of UK customers were influenced by personalised customer care, 81% were more influenced by receiving an immediate response to their query. This has been a struggle for contact centres since they first became part of an organisation’s structure – how to deal with more customers faster than ever before.
Recently however, apps like Facebook Messenger have reinforced this expectation – for example brands can only get the ‘fast responder’ status if they respond to 90% of customer queries, and do so within 15 minutes of them being posted. That’s not an easy achievement, especially considering the sheer volume of customer queries some brands experience.
In response to increasing demands, it’s AI-powered chatbots and data amalgamation which brands are turning to, to resolve issues and resolve queries quickly.
Greater use of chatbots will lead to an increase in proactive customer service
As part of our quest to understand the changing world of customer service, we researched changing trends in how businesses are dealing with customers. discovered that more than half of customers contact retailers to ask simple questions such as “Where is my order?”, or to ask about returns and refunds.
The honest truth is that the majority of these questions can be answered by automation almost instantly. You just don’t need to waste your customer service team on mundane tasks like searching for an order number, matching it to a tracking code, and giving that information to the customer. A bot can do it faster and with less chance of error. Of course, given we’ve seen above that customers want fast responses above everything, that means a better customer experience.
People are beginning to use bots for their instantaneous responses of course, and Messenger bots especially are starting to become readily available in the market. Often forgotten though, is the human benefit of a bot teammate: it frees up time to proactively add value in delivering a great customer experience. With bots handling the repetitive, mundane tasks, humans can spend the time actively looking for opportunities to improve things for customers, or to spend more time answering more complex queries, or resolving problems that need a human touch.
An example when bots can make a big difference: German retailer Tec Instore found that employees were spending too much time answering the same questions from customers. It introduced a bot that was used by more than 1500 customers and had an 80% success rate in its first month. In that month, it received 10,000 messages (1000 of them were customers saying ‘thank you’). Just think how much time they saved for their human operators to spend on the queries which needed the clarity and empathy that human contact provides. Bots don’t just take work away from your team, they give your agents the resource they need most to provide expert service to your customers: time.
Managing peak times
Another important consideration is that automation, including bots, can also help take the pressure off customer service teams during peak trading periods.
Our research showed that interactions with digital customer service spiked by up to 28% in November 2017, and again between the 5th and 9th of January as families wait until after the holidays (and perhaps for relatives to be a bit further away again) to send back the less appreciated presents. Seasonality has always been a challenge in customer service, but new technologies focusing on automation are giving contact centres a more efficient solution than ever before.
For example, return and refund issues were customer’s primary concern in January (making up 27% of queries), but general questions about orders was also popular at 22%. In the face of specific, process-based queries (which refund and return issues often are), the ability to use bots – or other automation – to take the onus away from lengthy human driven conversations allows those 22% of general queries to receive their due care and attention.
Similarly, retail and delivery businesses especially are under strain over Christmas. And often, so are their customers. It’s not just human operators who benefit from quicker response times driven by automation; a faster resolution also removes the stress of waiting from the customer. Using automation over peak periods doesn’t just make you more efficient, it can have a real increase in your customer sentiment.
At the end of the day, bot or human, the ability to answer a query well relies on how good the data is you have on that customer, and that means having the right technology to manage it. We know customers hate having to contact multiple agents over different platforms, repeating the problem to each one – and when you’re answering with automation the risk of coming across insincere (or worse, lacking in care) increases.
Customers increasingly don’t think in terms of channels and platforms. They research, purchase and follow-up using the device and channel that’s most convenient for them at the time. This means no matter how neatly you create your infrastructure, all your agents, bot and human, are going to speak to customer touching an infinite number of stages in the customer journey.
Put simply, data needs to be collected across channels and platforms, then presented in one place for the agent or automated assistant to be able to give the customer the help they need. Given the number of ways customers interact with brands though, this is a significant challenge.
Webchat, for example, is increasing in popularity for customer queries. Our research shows that for some brands, up to 60% of all customer enquiries are now made over webchat. This increased when it came to more transactional queries (such as changing a delivery address), with 94% of more functional enquiries are made over webchat or instant messenger apps. Given the current focus of bots within Facebook Messenger, this highlights the challenge both providers and brands will need to get to grips with, and soon; automation isn’t a Messenger phenomenon. Customers are not going to change the way they want to contact businesses, instead they want the same speed of responses however they choose to get in touch.
If this response isn’t available on webchat though, they might turn to social media (Twitter in particular) pretty quickly. Or they might send an email for a more complex query, and shortly afterwards open a chat on Facebook Messenger. Our research showed an increase in customers moving between channels - making an omnichannel approach essential for businesses. Technology needs to aggregate the data from customers across all channels, to give a complete view of the customer’s conversation.
It’s worth remembering that bad customer service has been estimated to cost UK businesses £37bn per year in lost custom (with retailers and transport companies suffering the most).
Automation is all about creating efficiency and adding value. That doesn’t necessarily mean cutting costs (although we’ve seen the average cost per contact reduce with our clients at Gnatta). It means improving resolution times, freeing up customer agents to sort out complex issues, and improving the customer experience, which in turn will increase revenue. It means reversing the issue of poor customer service caused by the stresses on time and quality from increasing contact frequency.
Automating routine tasks is absolutely possible (and affordable) now. There’s no reason not to do it. Moving to more sophisticated artificial intelligence solutions will take more time, but I believe we’re moving inexorably in that direction. Gartner predicts that more than 10% of IT hires in customer service roles will spend most of their time writing scripts for bot interactions by 2019. 2019. As in next year.
Time to move
As natural language processing improves, and more businesses adopt solutions driven by artificial intelligence, organisations will find it easier to communicate with customers no matter what channel – or combination of channels – their customers use. From proactive conversations creating customer purchases, to connecting conversations across multiple channels for full customer insight, technology is revolutionising the way contact centres operate.
Great customer service will always need humans. The right technology can make their jobs a whole lot easier. The bots have arrived, they’re here to stay, and they’re going to change the way you speak to your customers. It’s time to get ready.
About Jack Barmby
Jack Barmby is the founder and CEO of Gnatta, a customer communication platform that enables companies such as ASOS and AO, to talk to their customers over any system or channel. Gnatta pulls together all the various systems and channels a company uses to communicate with customers, connecting the data from those systems to provide everything a company needs to have informed and intelligent conversations with them.