Customer service: What research tells us about the future of phone support

The phone is dead
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There has been enormous growth in customer use of social media and chat for service queries. So what is the future for phones? Is there a future at all?

Contact centres were renamed from “call” centres because no-one picks up the phone now…right? It’s all about chat, or social media.

Indeed, those are the sexy channels that have gobbled up a lot of attention and investment in the contact centre industry recently. Chat, in particular, has experienced enormous growth in usage amongst customers. Our ‘Chat, Tap, Talk’ research shows a 20% growth in customer preference for chat as a contact channel in just two years.

However, despite chatting and tapping, customers are still showing a strong preference for talking – the phone isn’t going away any time soon. When people are in trouble, they pick up the phone; when they get lost online, they pick up the phone. New channels don’t replace old ones, they supplement them.

Does phone support appeal to the youth?

The phone is not a growth channel, but it isn’t declining by as much as you may expect. Our research showed that 84% of customers had called a contact centre in the last 12 months — only a 2% decline since we last did the research two years ago.

This is because the phone is highly accessible to all and good at handling both complex and emotive stuff. This is evidenced by average call handle times going up in many industries (especially financial services) by as much as 40%. Customers may not necessarily want to call — no one leaps out of bed in the morning saying “yippee, I have to ring a contact centre today” — but making a phone call remains the top choice for customer service in the majority of countries we surveyed. 

84% of customers had called a contact centre in the last 12 months

Of course, some say that younger customers don’t use the phone. There is very little evidence that this is true. Although 83% of those aged 55 and above believed that the phone number should be clearly available on every web page or app, 77% of those aged 16-34 also thought that this was important. It is true that many younger customers try digital channels first. However, if digital doesn’t resolve their problem, or they are anxious, angry or frustrated, they will use the phone channel as an escalation point.

This means that expectations of the phone channel are high. But many are being left distinctly underwhelmed by the experience. Frequently customers are calling because digital channels have failed — 85% of customers report issues with apps, 92% with websites — so being told to go to these whilst on-hold can add insult to injury. Once they do get through they expect contact centre advisors to be more knowledgeable, flexible and empathetic than the digital tools. 

Yet 61% of customers report that they have known more about the product or service than the advisor (up from 56% in 2015) and 70% say that they have been put on hold as advisors don’t know what to say. Customers also say that they’d like to be able to email or message the agent they have spoken to and frequently can’t.

Addressing this requires taking a 360-degree view of the customer and their journey so that the issue can be resolved first time. This is not easy, as many of us with the scars of CRM programmes past can testify.

What role will voice assistants play?

New technologies can also promote the use of older channels. For instance, there is some early evidence that the rise of voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Cortana could increase rather than decrease voice traffic into the contact centre — if you start off using voice, why would you switch channels when voice assistants hit a dead end? Could voice assistants become a new, hyperintelligent form of IVR front-end for the contact centre?

In every market we surveyed, eight out of ten customers said large organisations should always offer different channels to meet their needs. One path will not suit all.  Digital channels are great for the simple stuff and, as long as they are quick and easy to use, customers like them. But the phone works well for urgent and complex queries. Investment strategies need to reflect this. It is tempting to push customers to “cheaper” digital channels, but you also need to bear in mind that this may still result in a call for help (at additional cost).

In every market we surveyed, eight out of ten customers said large organisations should always offer different channels to meet their needs

The first challenge is to integrate traditional talk-based phone contact with digital type-based services in a way that lets customers choose their own route. However, don’t get too carried away with the “sexy” new channels and forget that the phone is likely to play an important part in the overall customer experience both now and into the future.  

About Nicola Millard

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29th May 2018 08:48

Hi Nicola - this research really demonstrates that every new channel just adds to the customer experience ecosystem - you will always have people that want to use the phone, particularly when it comes to talking to a human, but they want them to have the answers to their queries. Our own research backs this up - it found that 75% of consumers complained that agents didn’t have the right information to respond to their questions.

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