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The mixed blessings of contact center automation

In contact centers, using automated voice technology to route customers can add efficiency, but human customer service is still key.

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Modernization in today's contact centers

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When they have a service issue, most consumers have been on the receiving end of an infuriating contact center experience.

You dial a 1-800 number and get an automated system. You say your name, type in your account number and provide the last four digits of your Social Security number. You wait 20 minutes, and when an agent finally picks up, what does he or she want to know? Your name and account number.

Automation technology, like interactive voice response (IVR), virtual agents and automatic call distributors, was created to eliminate such frustrations. It would streamline the customer experience and at the same time improve contact center efficiency. It's a win-win situation, right? That's the theory, of course, but it's hardly always the case in practice.

Contact center executives and analysts say technology isn't everything when it comes to providing the best customer experience through automation. The key is to strike a balance between user-friendly technology, the human element and best practices, such as employee training and proper staffing.

When you start treating [customer experience] like a cost, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Josh Liptonvice president of technology, SpareFoot

"Automation is a good thing if it's used properly," said David Smith, chief operating officer at Camino Information Services, an IT company in Spring, Texas. "Automation for automation's sake is futile. Know what you want to do with it. Don't let technology create problems for you."

Josh Lipton, vice president of technology at Austin, Texas, company SpareFoot, which connects consumers with self-storage facilities, cautions against using contact center automation as a cost-saving measure. When companies start making decisions solely for the sake of efficiency, those decisions may be at odds with what customers want, he said.

"When you start treating [customer experience] like a cost, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Lipton, who leads SpareFoot's contact center operation. "Technology is not a silver bullet. It's like a lead bullet. It can be used, but it's not the thing that solves the problem."

Humans vs. computers

When Jim Grace became operations manager of a First Gibraltar Bank contact center 23 years ago, the Texas regional bank was investing in a new technology: an automatic call distributor, or ACD, to answer and route incoming calls.

"At that time, that was about as state of the art as you could get," said Grace, who has led contact centers for Bank of America and USA Mobility Inc. Now he works as a consultant for Indianapolis-based Interactive Intelligence, which sells contact center technology.

In today's customer-oriented world, automation is the norm. Customers have come to expect navigating through an automated system to check the status of an order, ask questions about a bill or seek technical support. They're used to features like email support, Web chat and virtual agents.

But being accustomed to automation doesn't mean that customers always prefer it. Contact center executives say that sometimes a human touch, not a computer, is the best way to resolve an issue.

Automation is ideal, Grace said, when customers want to complete a simple transaction like checking their credit card balance or the status of an order. But for higher-level issues, automation is problematic. It doesn't work for troubleshooting a problem, he said. "When you get into a software problem or bug, for example, you need a human. You can't solve that through an automated means," he said.

According to Smith, it all comes down to whether a customer's issue is simple or complex. People don't need a human being to reset a password, but they do need one when they have a question about a procedure.

Because of this, some industries lend themselves to more automation than others. In banking or financial institutions, where many interactions are simple transactions, automation has success. When Grace worked for the bank, he said, some 85% of contact center interactions were resolved through automation.

For companies like SpareFoot, automation is not as effective. Most of the time when customers call, Lipton said, they're seeking more detailed information about a storage facility or reservation. Those inquiries require talking to a person.

Automated features -- then and now

Contact centers still rely heavily on ACDs to route calls and IVR systems to collect customer information, complete self-service transactions and more, but customers have other options now.

There are Web chat features and virtual agents. With Web chat, customers communicate online in real time with a live contact center agent. With virtual agents, they're communicating with a computer powered by artificial intelligence -- like the iPhone's Siri – that's capable of understanding and answering questions.

Smith said virtual agents can be less frustrating for customers than IVRs because they are capable of more complex interaction. Rather than pushing buttons as prompted or speaking in one-word answers, a virtual agent tries to understand what a customer is saying and route him or her to the proper specialist, said Smith, who was an assistant contact center manager at Verizon when the company rolled out virtual agents.

Choose contact center software that incorporates user-friendly automation.

According to Grace, Web chat has not taken off the way companies expected because the interactions tend to take longer than phone calls. But email support continues to see tremendous growth, he said.

One of the newest advancements in automation, Grace said, is the ability for customers to choose an agent based on their qualifications. This so-called matching allows customers to go online to find an agent whose skills best match their needs and request to speak to them directly.

Callback features are also growing in popularity, Grace said. Rather than waiting on hold, customers can choose to have the next available agent call them back. Despite the prevalence of IVRs, some companies are moving away from them entirely or at least trying to avoid them when possible.

Mike McMillan, a contact center executive in Minnesota, said there's been a generational shift. Despite being tech-savvy, Millennials prefer speaking to a person. They still want the ability to self-service, but they want access to a human when self-service isn't enough.

"IVR is a dated tool," said McMillan, director of sales at The Connection, which provides U.S.-based contact center outsourcing. "They want to know that it's Mike speaking to them, not Target automation."

McMillan pointed out that Discover Financial Services recently eliminated IVR for customers who carry the Discover It rewards card. When a customer contacts the credit card company, he or she is routed to a live agent who lives within five states of the caller, he said.

SpareFoot's Lipton said his company is moving away from relying on ACD and IVR. If an agent is not already on a call, customer calls are routed directly to a person, skipping the IVR system entirely.

"If an agent is free, we don't waste time on a menu," he said. "They probably want to talk to someone because they've dialed the phone."

Even if the call has to be routed to the IVR, SpareFoot uses technology that provides the agent who answers with detailed information about the customer, including which storage facilities the customer viewed on the company's website. This speeds up the call, he said, and keeps customers from repeating information they've already provided.

"We just want to create the best possible experience," he said. "Our brand is our customer experience and our customer experience is our brand. You can't separate the two."

Despite anecdotal evidence that consumers want more human interaction, some research suggests contact centers are continuing to move in the opposite direction. According to market research outfit Gartner Inc., by 2020 customers will manage 85% of their relationships with the companies they do business with without interacting with a human.

Choosing the right technology

Not every company can eliminate IVR and other automated features. Nor would they want to. An airline contact center with 2,000 agents can't manage every interaction personally, Grace said.

The key is to choose contact center software that incorporates user-friendly automation. Grace suggests keeping the menu simple and always giving callers the option to be transferred to a live agent.

"Our opinion is that customers as a whole are not necessarily opposed to simple IVR," he said. "People are not opposed to touching a couple of buttons, but what happens if you touch eight buttons and still don't get what you want?"

Smith agreed that ease of use is crucial when it comes to automation. "It must be intuitive," he said. "Does it provide value in the engagement?"

Often, that convenience comes at an additional cost, Lipton said. SpareFoot's technology to provide contact center employees with detailed customer information required an additional investment, he said, but sometimes that's necessary to offer the highest-quality customer experience.

"Some automation may be what you want, but look for technical solutions that deliver the experience you want as a customer," he said. "How can I help make that entire customer experience as frictionless as possible?"

McMillan said contact center technology needs to be portable, versatile and accessible -- even enjoyable.

"You have to be able to create a solution that [customers] can interact with. They have to be able to touch it, taste it, feel it. It has to be fun. It has to have cool graphics. It has to be able to work on any device," he said. "If the cool factor is not there, I don't want to buy it."

Reducing customer frustration

But having the right technology goes only so far.

McMillian said automation should be reserved for issues or transactions that are easy to solve.

"There's still something about that personal connection," he said. "In my opinion, the demand of customers is to get back to the basics."

According to Smith, when a customer has reached the frustration point with automation, the solution is to enlist a human who can solve the problem. "It comes down to employee training at that point," he said. "If the customer is just livid, you have to have an employee who can talk them off the ledge."

Grace stressed the importance of understanding your inbound call volume and making sure your staffing level is appropriate.

Despite the convenience of features like automatic callback and estimated wait times, those features can also cause contact centers to be sloppy about their scheduling, Grace said. He recommends setting up those features so they kick in only when call volume is extremely high.

"I like to see companies use them in times of anomalies, not in the course of normal business," he said. "There's no replacement for the right people at the right time."

Next Steps

Are there benefits to using demographics in contact center agent routing?

This was last published in May 2014

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