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Trends and developments in customer contact technology

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8th Dec 2008
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Customer contact technology has developed rapidly in recent years as the customer has become increasingly sophisticated. Richard Snow examines the latest trends and developments in this customer interaction technology - and finds some surprising results.

By Richard Snow, Ventana Research

Call centres were originally developed to be the single point where incoming calls were dealt with efficiently by a specially trained group of agents. Initial implementations were therefore heavily dominated by call-handling technology such as:

  • Automatic call distributors (ACD) to route calls to different extensions computer telephony integration (CTI) that integrated telephony and the computer so customer information could be displayed on the computer screen of the person handling the call.
  • Call routing software that worked in conjunction with the ACD to more intelligently route calls based on the availability of agents.
  • Interactive voice response (IVR) technology to help identify the caller, their issue and so where they should be best routed.

But a great deal has changed since then with centres metamorphosing into 'contact centres' that handle multiple forms of communication – emails, white mail, faxes – all of which require even more technology:

  • New networking technology using VoIP.
  • Unified desktop software to help agents resolve interactions.
  • Knowledge bases to provide easy access to information.
  • Search engines to grab data from almost anywhere and present in useable forms.
  • Voice and video-enabled IVR that not only tries to identify the customer but also provides a measure of self-service.
  • The web which is being integrated into the center to support instant messaging and self-service.

This list seems never ending with new developments appearing every month and, as such, it is worth examining the latest developments in customer contact technology, circa 2008. Benchmark research by Ventana Research provides the basis for this insight into what companies are using - and indicates some surprisingly low adoption of some of these technologies and even lower use of some of their more advanced features.

Communication infrastructure

It is clear from our research that VoIP has become the de facto choice for companies’ network infrastructure, both across the enterprise and in the contact centre. Penetration rates have increased over the last 18 months, with 59% of responding companies having a mixed TDM or VoIP enterprise network and 36% having a VoIP-enabled contact centre (up 6% from 18 months ago). Rather surprisingly, however, the majority have implemented VoIP purely to save on the internal and external costs of communicating and there is little evidence yet that companies are taking advantage of the more advanced features of VoIP.

"Text messaging seems to becoming very popular as a channel to provide customers with real-time status information (i.e. "Your delivery will be with you in 30 minutes") and permission-based marketing."

As for channels of communication, almost 100% support telephone and email, while 81% support internet, 80% fax, and 77% white mail. There is evidence that the adoption of instant messaging (21%), text messaging (18%) and video (10%) is on the increase, with IM and text messaging showing the highest predicted growth rates over the next 24 months.

Text messaging seems to becoming very popular as a channel to provide customers with real-time status information (i.e. "Your delivery will be with you in 30 minutes") and permission-based marketing. Another interesting development is automated responses to email, where the technology has moved beyond simple replies acknowledging the receipt of an e-mail to automated, or at least partially automated, personalised responses using natural language recognition.

Routing

Routing has always been one of the core technologies in a contact centre, either using an ACD or specialist software. It was therefore disappointing to find in our research that although routing is quite widely deployed, the majority of companies only partially make use of the functionality available today. The most common uses are to route calls to the next available agent, route depending on the dialled number, or route to an agent group. Far fewer have linked their system to external databases so they can route on skilled agent availability, type of call or caller.

Given this scenario, it is hard to see when some of the more up-to-date capabilities will be adopted. There is much talk about the virtualisation of contact centres but the results show that load balancing between multiple sites is the most common use. There is evidence that some companies have gone one-step further and use their software to route to knowledge, mobile and home-workers outside the main centre, but as yet volumes are very low.

There is also a lot of talk about unified communications, which should use more of the features of VoIP, routing and collaboration to ensure interactions get to the right person regardless of where they sit in the enterprise. However, our results for the use of VoIP and routing suggest that widespread use of UC is still some way off.

The agent desktop

There is no doubt that the agent desktop is the cause of considerable inefficiencies in the contact centre. Research shows that in addition to support applications such as soft phone, email, workflow, performance dashboards etc., on average agents have to access three to four business applications such as CRM, ERP, billing and knowledge management. This creates inefficiencies accessing systems and navigating between them. Yet the same research shows that less than a third of companies have deployed what we term a 'smart desktop'. These can now support:

  • Single sign-on that allows user-defined access to multiple applications.
  • Hide complex application access behind an easy to use user interface.
  • Mirror interaction handling processes on the desktop instead of agents having to learn which applications to access at different points in the interaction.
  • Rules-based decision making that pushes information to agents and recommends next best action.
  • Natural language based search to recover customer information from all available sources.

Each of these not only increases the efficiency of agents but can lead to more effect handling of interactions, and so to more satisfied customers and more business.

The web

The majority of companies now have a website. What surprised us was the relatively low percentages that use it to support self-service (52%) and to transact business (44%). Worse still, for those that attempt to transact business, only 38% bother to measure what percent of customers that initiate a transaction actually complete successfully. This, along with the fact that only 44% of respondents said their customer were satisfied with their websites, indicates that companies have quite a lot of work to do to improve their web-site.

Developments that should help are analytics tools that not only report on basic website usage but actually track what visitors did, and natural language-based tools that allow companies to build sites that are far more intuitive to use.

Customer feedback management

With an ever-increasing focus on managing the customer experience, one of the fastest growing uses of technology is customer feedback management. These build on executing surveys to gather feedback from customers on their experience when contacting a company. Our research shows that 82% of companies solicit customer feedback in one way or another, with the two most popular methods being listening to calls during the quality monitoring process and sending out surveys to customers via email, both of which are used by 41% of companies. Only 13% of companies have taken the step of automating the quality monitoring processes using speech analytics tools, but we anticipate this will be one of the fastest growing areas as the products become more effective.

Contact centre/customer performance management

As we look across the results of several research projects, they suggest that the area where companies are the least mature is in the use of performance management to measure and improve their contact centres and the management of customer relationships in general. The top metric in the contact centre steadfastly remains the average handling time for calls. And, despite it being talked about for years now, only 38% of companies told us they have a single view of their customers.

The vast majority still use the same old metrics: customer satisfaction (50%) compared to only 24% using first call resolution rates. Only 10% measure lifetime value of customers and even less, 7%, use net promoter scores. The most frequently cited reason is the lack of products that can produce more business-focussed metrics, which we find astounding. Over the last two years, this has probably been one of the fastest growing markets with a whole host of potential solutions, ranging from:

  • Enterprise BI vendors that have preconfigured versions of their products focussed on customer performance management.
  • Products that can produce real-time reports and analysis on contact center performance.
  • Products that can extract data from any number of different data sources and produce cross-function reports and analysis.
  • Products that can analyse recorded calls and text-based interactions.
  • Tools that can predict customer behaviours based on past interactions and outcomes.

In our latest research into customer experience management, we categorised companies into one of four levels of maturity – from the lowest tactical level to advanced, strategic and innovative. The results placed 43% of companies at the tactical level, 26% at the advanced level, 19% at the strategic level and 12% at the innovative level. By analysing the results from a people, process, information and technology perspective, we found that the what is holding companies back is their use of technology, with 57% at the tactical level.

In highly competitive markets where customer retention takes precedent over finding new customers, we believe that managing the customer experience will be a major differentiator, so we recommend companies review the technology now available and see how it can help them advance to a higher level of maturity.

Richard Snow is VP and research director for customer and contact centre performance management at Ventana Research.

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  • Replies (1)

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    By michaels
    01st Sep 2009 05:40

    Yeah its true that customers has now become more sophisticated and very well-versed. Therefore, they did a great job but introducing this. In my opinion companies should hire Trianz  because they are expert in this field and can also satisfy their customer very wel

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