Let's get this straight

Not all automated CRM is created equal

For call centers, one of the greatest organizational expenses is contact center staff. In some cases, call centers can reduce costs by not employing agents at all -- and management teams have looked to automated technologies to fill the gap.

This trend has led to the rise of technologies that minimize human involvement, such as

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IVRs (interactive voice response), self-service and, in the not-so-distant future, virtual representatives. But what are the differences between these kinds of automated CRM? When does self-service become IVR, and when does IVR become a virtual representative? Let's get this straight.

A fully automated contact center isn't as far-fetched as it might sound; many companies already use IVRs to route calls, take payments or answer simple or frequently asked questions. Over the course of the past few years, companies have transitioned away from keypad-based IVRs to voice analytics-based systems.

Few organizations claim to use virtual representatives -- a term that should be reserved for fully automated artificial intelligence (AI) -- which handle nearly all customer inquiries. The few who do often use IVRs in addition.

For more on CRM automation

How CRM automation is redefining sales roles

Automated CRM helps reduce missed appointments

Also, don't confuse virtual representatives with virtual contact centers. While these two expressions sound similar, they are very different things. To make matters even more confusing, some CRM professionals do use the term "virtual representative" to mean the human employees of a virtual contact center, but more frequently and in this article, the word is used to indicate AI "representatives."

While many see virtue in virtual representative technology, the consensus is that it isn't ready for prime time. According to Mark Gaydos, a freelance technology marketing executive, "Even Watson makes errors on Jeopardy."

Joe Alwan, vice president and general manager of Avoke Analytics, agreed. "We are still quite far from the dream of contacting customer service and not being able to tell if we are interacting with a human or a computer," he said. AI can handle simple requests, but it can't ask probing questions or empathize.

While some customer service functions are well-suited to automation, some are not. Sales departments or high-touch environments (a funeral home, for example) do not do well with IVRs, much less an entirely automated AI system. IVRs still can't interact with customers to interest them in a new product -- yet, anyway.

Will they ever?

It's more likely that we'll see improvements in self-service before we see major advances in virtual representatives, Alwan said. Customers generally access self-service CRM -- which can minimize the contact center payroll -- online, allowing them to view account information, an FAQ or forums and online communities where they discuss issues with other customers and get support through them.

The benefits of this approach go beyond saving money on staffing; younger consumers are comfortable accessing information online and many prefer self-service methods. It's faster and less frustrating than sitting on hold to talk to a representative or using an IVR.

Most companies still take an integrated approach: IVR for customers who reach for the phone and have simple questions, a self-service portal or an FAQ for customers who prefer self-service and customer service agents for more complicated issues that need a human touch.

In the near term, Alwan predicted, this pattern is unlikely to change. "When self-service fails and customers have to reach out to customer service, they'll be interacting with a human for years to come, even if they have to struggle through an IVR first,” he said.

So, let's get this straight:  Self-service employs the least effort on the part of the organization. A company can simply set up a portal and make only minor tweaks as needed. Most customers will at least try to use it for basic service. An IVR is an interactive database that can handle simple requests and determine where to route calls. Virtual representatives are still a nascent technology and, until AI technology reaches a level where robots can emote, the need for human agents won't go away.

This was first published in December 2013

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