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The five most hyped contact centre technologies

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3rd Aug 2009
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Contact centre analysts are always predicting the 'next best thing' but the technologies don't always work out quite as planned. Keith Pearce takes a look at the most hyped and how they fit with today's contact centre. 

There is always a 'next big thing' in the contact centre industry. Of the many that we have seen in the past 10 years or so, some have gone on to be very big – such as workforce management, analytics and skills-based routing. Others have not met expectations and some have morphed into something else entirely.

In fact, most innovations have eventually had some effect or other on the industry. Looking at some of those phenomena that have morphed from their original design and become useful in a different way than first anticipated. This can help us better understand the next big thing and re-establish our faith in approaches that may have not worked in the past simply because we weren't doing the right things with the technology.

GPS, for example has had a fruitful life beyond it's original design. It is most widely known not for its Government and military uses, but for its incarnation behind a small screen on car dashboards up and down the country.

1. Outsourcing Customer Service
Going offshore was the thing to do as recently as five years ago because it provided a low-cost service for the business. Technology developments in the area of internet protocol (IP) particularly enabled organisations to seek out cheaper options for their contact centre in the far corners of the globe.

However, a number of high profile incidents involving offshore sites have turned public opinion against foreign agents. With customers threatening to churn if they cannot be provided with a more localised service, the cost benefits of offshoring suddenly became irrelevant. The emphasis has now shifted back to customer service being fundamental to the business, especially in times of economic crisis.

The developments in IP technology now enable far greater integration between different, previously disparate, sites. This enables one set of process, standards and targets to be rolled out across every customer service touchpoint – which increases the quality of every interaction. This new 'federated' model for outsourcing has replaced the traditional outsourcing modus operandi: an outsourced site is now very much seen as an extension of the business, rather than a third party. This new model of outsourcing generates high levels of customer service, secures additional capacity and maintains a lower cost of ownership.

2. Video Calling
Five years ago, many customer service commentators and futurists predicted that our interaction preference would be for video calling. With the ability to see the agent, customers would develop a stronger bond with the organisation. The benefits would pass the other way as well: if agents can see the customer, the visual interaction could help direct minor product repairs or make a better judgement of whether to dispatch an engineer to the customer, for example.

Has anyone successfully implemented video technology? Yes, there are examples of successful deployments, but they are not widespread. Customers often do not have the capability to conduct video calls and many simply do not want to – giving a stranger a window into your home doesn't appeal to a large number of customers. In addition, instructional videos are often available on a company's website and supplant the need for video in the contact centre.

However, the innovation of adding a visual element to customer contact has not disappeared, it has simply changed focus and is now quickly becoming a highly useful and well-utilised tool in the realm of visual IVRs [interactive voice repsonse]. Interaction from a Mobile 3G device, also referred to as the visual IVR, enables customers to take visual prompts, instead of voice prompts which makes the experience quicker and more user-friendly.

Visual IVR is already proving to be very popular in many countries – most notably where 3G calls are the same price as standard telephone conversations – as they dramatically simplify the automated experience. Whereas a traditional touchtone IVR reads a list of options, prompting the caller to push a button, a visual IVR simply displays that same list of options and the customer can easily and quickly pick the one they need.

Visual IVR has the ability to revolutionise the contact centre – but not in the way initially thought of for video calling. Visual IVRs enable customers to process more information in a shorter space of time and by doing so can significantly reduce the time that a customer needs to be on the phone to achieve the same goal.

3. Click-To-Call
Click-to-call is a technology first founded to escalate sales enquiries to a contact centre to be converted by an agent. As it turns out, most consumers prefer to stay within the channel they chose from the outset, so forcing customers into other channels – for example through compulsory click-to-call – derails them from the service channel they opted for, and results in higher abandonment rates.

Most contact centres have become more adept at matching service levels across their different channels, which allows them to actually deliver more personalised customer communication. Customer service managers now have authority and control over all channels, and have access to a single view across them. The service challenge within a multi-channel environment is that a customer can run into natural boundaries within the channel – which gives them a need to escalate the enquiry. If they decide to call the contact centre, having run into problems on the website, then they would have to start from the beginning again.

Click-to-call now provides a valuable service tool. It is not a pro-active sales tool, but rather a service option that provides an avenue for a customer to go down instead of facing a dead end. Multi-channel service environments do not focus on simply providing many different types of media, but the ability to manage a single interaction seamlessly across multiple channels, in line with what the customer wants to do. Click-to-call places the customer from the web into a universal, virtual queue in the contact centre. The transaction's history is popped up onto the agent desktop, standardising high service levels across all media channels.

4. Homeworking
Agents working from their own living rooms were at one time set to revolutionise the effectiveness of the workforce. Many potential employees need highly flexible schedules – for example to fit around the school run – and the homeworking revolution was set to bring these people into the business so that their expertise could be used while still enabling them to work the hours that they wanted to.

IP technology was the enabler, allowing these employees – wherever they were based – to easily log in and out of the central system. However, more complex administrative and managerial issues surrounding employees working from home full-time have meant that homeworking did not become the phenomenon that many thought it would.

But that same IP technology that drove the hype around homeworking has, in fact, enabled a dramatic shift in the nature of contact centre operations. Rather than have workers at home logging in, an organisation can integrate all of its different business units into a single customer service operation. This opens up the expertise of branch and back-office employees to the customer service team. Enterprise-wide customer service has become a reality enabling an organisation to optimise the use of its resources.

5. The (r)evolution of IVR and Speech
There have been countless new developments in automated services. Every one brings something new to the customer service table but still there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Touchtone systems are very simple to understand and use, however, they are starting to become increasingly complex and do not suit organisations that have a wide range of different departments or interaction types. Speech solutions on the other hand are  developing quickly – their accuracy is increasingly high and they can dramatically simplify complex customer service operations. However, many customers do need to be taught how to use them and if accuracy is low, they can be highly frustrating for customers.

Speech solutions are more effective in a wide range of situations than their touchtone predecessors, however, DTMF [duel tone multi-frequency] systems still have a very important place in the customer service operation, especially where entering long pin numbers is concerned, for example.

Neither of these technologies has flopped particularly, though both have received some negative press because of poor design and deployment. And both technologies do a similar job as was intended, so why do they have a place in this list? The reason is that they were both individually touted as the solution to resourcing problems and would be a simple one-stop-shop for automating customer service. This clearly hasn't happened. Both systems have their own benefits, but also their drawbacks and the modern solution for automated service is combining the available solutions into a single, well-designed and personal approach.

The way that the best contact centres are using automation now is as a multi-faceted approach, and as part of other core customer service functions, such as routing. .

Speech recognition software can be used for identification and verification (ID&V) at the beginning of a call, to inform the routing engine as to how best direct the call. If that call routing sends the customer into an automated system, the caller can be presented with the most appropriate solution. For example, for utility providers, if the caller simply needs to enter a gas meter reading , this can be dealt with through a touchtone system. If the caller needs to find the nearest high street shop, in the case of retailers, they can go through a speech recognition engine. There are many ways to approach automation, the most effective is to take the best from all of them.

Keith Pearce is marketing director at Genesys.

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