Look to the past to design the future call centre
While there is some debate about who said: “Never make predictions, especially about the future”, the words certainly hold a cautionary lesson. That being said, Abraham Lincoln is often quoted as saying: “The most reliable way of predicting the future is to create it.”
The future of the contact centre is being designed now, with advances in cloud computing exponentially changing what’s possible. A recent white paper called The State of Contact Centre Technology, drafted by CCW, found that 52% of companies feel their contact centre technology stands them in good stead for the continued prevalence of remote and hybrid working, however more than a fifth feel unprepared for growth in self-service and agent-led digital interactions.
This creates a useful snapshot of the types of conversations happening, but ignoring a fundamental truth about humans makes any discussion about technology somewhat irrelevant. Despite the pandemic, despite the fourth industrial revolution, despite digitisation and despite artificial intelligence (AI), humans don’t change.
Humans want a personalized experience and we want to engage on channels and at times that suit us. Understanding these core truths enables businesses to use the abundance of technology at our disposal to prepare for a future we’d be foolish to predict, but wise to make happen.
One often hears utopian or dystopian tales about a future driven by technology - the good or bad depends on who’s making the predictions. Perhaps the most sober cautionary tale for businesses is: beware automating to the point that the human touch is lost altogether. Remember, we, as humans, need that human touch.
What does this mean?
It doesn’t mean that a customer must speak to a human all the time, it means that as we embrace more and more technology, we must make sure that when the chips are down, a customer must get access to a human at the touch of a button, and that the experience is designed with human nature in mind.
In other words, there are base products out there, enhancements and integrations with third-party platforms and astounding technologies, but when a human needs a human, it must be seamless, and then that human must know enough about the customer’s context to resolve the call in the first instance.
To be fair, South Africa navigates challenges one may not find in other markets, and the cloud has gone a long way towards mitigating the risks and enabling businesses. For example, socio-economic unrest or load shedding could bring an on-premises server to its knees, whereas in the cloud, the user merely needs a laptop with battery life and connectivity.
Beyond this, remote and hybrid working environments would be far more complicated if it weren’t for the cloud. To run a contact centre in a distributed work environment, a business needs to take care of two things: it must give the agent the tools to work remotely, and it must give supervisors and managers the tools to track agent productivity.
These are fundamentals, but the South African market is waking up to the fact that contact centres need to enhance customer experience. In truth, while there are outliers, in this market we are probably lagging some markets by about two to three years, as an average. While everyone understands the importance of an omnichannel strategy, many organisations are not there yet - instead they are running variations of a multi-channel strategy.
What does this mean, and why the differentiation?
True omnichannel requires interacting with third-party systems. For example, the adoption of channels such as WhatsApp has been great, but to unleash the true power of omnichannel, the platform’s API needs to make seamless integration a reality - remember, people think that by default you have all the options available in a contact centre that you would from your smartphone, but this is not the case. How is the platform designed to enable this type of integration?
Think about people in your wider circle: younger people prefer WhatsApp, older people may prefer sms or emails. The oldest among us, generally, prefer making voice phone calls. All these people are customers and they all need the freedom to engage where they are comfortable. The youngest among us, Generation Z, prefer self-service functions. Businesses know this, which is why we’ve seen increased uptake in blended voice, email, WhatsApp and web chat.
Perhaps one of the most important shifts in contact centres is the move from insight-led reporting. Dashboards today make old reports archaic - today managers want actionable insights. They don’t just want to be told things. They need a dashboard that can tell them something, and then what to do about it. They need to know how to replicate a positive outcome and how to avoid a negative outcome. They must also know when it is likely to happen again. All these actionable insights need to be visualised simply and relevant to each business’s unique context and circumstances.
Perhaps the most exciting, certainly from an automation perspective, is the increased role AI is playing in contact centres. In 2022 it is safe to say that while people still talk about bots, that ship, of pre-determined queries and pre-designed outcomes, has sailed. Today we have the option of integrating third-party systems and bringing this to the front line to engage better with customers. AI brings a host of capabilities, including natural language processing, voice authentication where voice biometrics can pull up a full customer profile and supporting third-party information, while voice emotion analysis can assist with a host of functions such as resolution and sales - these all build context on the customer without him or her having to do a thing.
How does this play out in the real world?
Imagine knowing that a service in a particular area is down. Usually this would result in a deluge of calls, with all customers asking the same thing. Using AI, the contact centre can resolve issues for customers before they ask by sending out automated, geolocated messages, complete with an embedded link if the customer still wishes to engage with a human. Similarly, automated prompts could remind a customer to settle their bill or make payment arrangements with a seamlessly integrated third-party payment portal before the customer can gain access to further functionality.
Limited only by imagination, the contact centre of the future is designed for efficiency and effectiveness. We are, as Lincoln said many years ago, already making this future a reality using technology at our disposal. This will continue with more and more advancement and the ability to layer specialised integrations.
The key here is not to get carried away with technology for technology’s sake. Yes, in no time we will be able to prompt customers to engage before they even think to engage, but there must be a plan. A partner should engage a client and work through and analyse their business, methodically finding the business case for automation and other value-adds: how will it improve customer experience, how will it improve internal efficiency and how is it likely to affect the bottom line?
Perhaps the best quote to keep in mind when planning the contact centre of the future is: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Humans will always be humans and need to be delighted while having their problems solved. A business, whether on-site, remote or in a hybrid-working environment, needs to put in place the most effective and efficient unified communications platform that has the ability to integrate with a plethora of cloud-based applications and third party systems. This is the future.
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