Product manager GCI
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Why the future of the contact centre is proactive customer service

16th Apr 2018
Product manager GCI
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Proactive customer service

Contact centres have long existed as 'reactive' support functions for customers and the brands they're communicating with.

But as consumer behaviour evolves, are expectations shifting towards more proactive support from brands? If so, what can contact centres do to make the switch? GCI's Andy Leatherland explains.  

To move forwards you have to look back; or so the maxim goes. And in the case of call and contact centres – in order to understand where the future lies, it’s important to understand the past. 

The term ‘call centre’ first entered the Oxford English dictionary in 1983. Although the first operation is largely attributed to the Birmingham Press and Mail in the 1960s, it was the rapid growth of decentralised toll-free numbers in the US during the 1980s which really gave rise to the growth in the industry.         

For consumers this started to break the psychology between a service provider needing to be in a fixed location near to them – a process that is complete today whereby our providers and the people working for them can be based anywhere across the globe.       

Whilst using the phone to contact our chosen brands was a step forward in communication terms, it perpetuated a level of frustration while consumers waited in a long queue for their call to be answered; also being entirely reactionary and entirely driven by a single channel.          

Then came the technology flood: computers, mobile phones and the internet, giving everybody access to a wealth of information and knowledge never seen before. The stratospheric growth in social media, ecommerce and smartphones instilled a culture of ‘everything now’ and of course, these days, people expect everything to be at their fingertips with instant gratification. Our expectations of brands continue to get higher, and we are far less forgiving than ever before.

The omnichannel conundrum

So where are we today? 1.5 billion consumers have Apple and Android devices. Their new capabilities, like Apple Continuity and Google Now (which preserve context and blend experiences across devices and channels) dramatically raise the bar for digital customer experience.

Namely, this means that when interacting with businesses, consumers now expect the same types of experiences their smart devices and apps deliver to be available when interacting with a contact centre – it should be seamless and joined up, no matter what the channel.

Getting to this vision is easier said than done. “Omnichannel” has been widely heralded by every vendor as the ultimate panacea for disjointed or broken customer journeys. But omnichannel necessitates an organisational change primarily – no matter what any vendor will tell you – to make it work.  This means bringing together the right cross-departmental and cross-functional teams from customer care, IT, marketing, and possibly even third-party services.

Contact centre designers and managers must deal with the complexities of changing business processes, integrating the disparate back-end systems, and consolidating infrastructure requirements without any interruption to service.

Omnichannel can be difficult to get right because customer journeys can straddle many different channels and devices. According to Frost and Sullivan, 90% of customers use three channels to resolve an issue or conduct a transaction in customer service – voice, email, and web chat/social media. A further complication is that customers are increasingly prone to switching channels – particularly if they’re frustrated.

Consumers now expect the same types of experiences their smart devices and apps deliver to be available when interacting with a contact centre

Forrester research reveals 85% of customers that can’t accomplish what they need on a website will cross channels to phone, mobile app, web chat, social media, or email, with 70% seeking live agent assistance.

Even when websites are optimised there will be a slew of customers that will cross channels and devices in a single journey for a variety of different reasons, including wanting to talk or chat with a live agent, using different devices, time constraints; or simply through personal preference. Tracking of the customer across these channels is surprisingly uncommon amongst brands.

Virtual agents and proactive service

Whilst tracking channels is vital, it’s equally important to resolve queries first time, or even better, get to the point where the organisation is proactively pre-empting an issue and contacting the customer before they contact them.

The use of virtual agents is growing (and will continue to grow), but right now, most organisations are using them to reduce web chat and call volume – justifiably, given that reductions can be upwards of 30%.  

Yet, this is to miss the longer-term future of this technology for contact centres. The opportunity for enterprises to deploy proactive chat based on predicting the customer’s intent is growing. This means offering chat at the right moment (related to the device and journey) when a customer needs assistance.

How could this work in practice? Many customers will choose social media as their first port of call to talk negatively about a brand. Yet it’s not always easy to track these conversations. On an official Facebook or Twitter account it should be easier, but frequently conversations on social media are less structured and harder to find. Here it’s possible for artificial intelligence (AI) to not just do the searching to find these conversations but also automate the first response.

Typically, this means acknowledging the issue and diverting customers to a private channel. Chatbots are en vogue and may have their critics, but done well can facilitate this and even dive into some of the specifics before then handing over to a human assistant to do the rest. This approach not only makes the customer feel more valued, it can also prevent brand damage or a conversation going ‘viral’ at the first attempt. It is proactive customer service in its clearest form.

This could reap huge dividends if an issue affecting several customers is identified. According to research conducted by Sabio and the Customer Contact Association some 25% of customer interactions handled by UK contact centres are either unnecessary or avoidable, costing the ‘typical’ UK contact centre some £6.75m a year. Even if just a small percentage of these calls can be averted then the investment in AI technologies such as virtual agents and chatbots will pay for itself many times over – not including the associated benefits from customer retention, of course. 

Just as we look back at the introduction of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology into the call centre during the 1980s and 90s and can track its long and continuous journey to acceptance among consumers, so we can also expect artificial intelligence and proactive customer service to take time to evolve, as both consumers and businesses alike get to grips with the benefits.  

But make no mistakes, proactively supporting customers through deep insight and prediction is set to be a key battleground for brands, and the role of artificial intelligence will be symbiotic to success.             

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