Analyst insight

Call centers: Enabling a previously-impossible customer experience via the cloud, from Sheila McGee-Smith


  • Sheila McGee-Smith
    Sheila McGee-Smith
  • Mar 11, 2020
TLDR

Communication styles have changed in the age of the smartphone. And yet, in only a few cases are those changes reflected in how companies enable customer service representatives to interact with customers.

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I left business school in the early 1980s when two technologies under development for decades were about to become mainstream. 

The first was the cell phone. Before 1973, mobile telephony was limited to phones installed in cars and other vehicles — devices that weighed a couple of pounds, delivered about 30 minutes of talk time, and took 10 hours to re-charge. 

Being the daughter of a life-long Western Electric manager, I read with some skepticism articles in the company magazine discussing cellular technology that would eventually mean everyone would have a mobile phone in their pocket. The promise was of pocket-sized phones that would transparently know where you were—anywhere in the world. 

The other technology was personal computing. In both college and business school, I used punch cards to feed data into mainframe computers to perform statistical analysis for research projects. 

Even after I took my first job at AT&T in 1981, the typewriter was only beginning to give way to word processing systems. I was more than ready for the fulfillment of Bill Gates’ goal: “Microsoft was founded with a vision of a computer on every desk and in every home.”

Before these and many other technologies hit the proverbial "hockey stick growth" phase, there were decades of research and development, technology breakthroughs, and early adopter success and failure.  

Apply this concept to customer-driven, omnichannel customer experience solutions, and most would agree that we are not even approaching the 10 percent adoption mark, where the hope of mass adoption will occur.

The good news is that one doesn’t need a great imagination to picture what the ideal customer experience could look like. If we look at the very best available today and add the necessary elements of affordability and positive business outcomes, we already have the seeds of what the hockey stick of customer experience will deliver. 

The barrier to true omnichannel customer engagement

As I was writing this, a headline in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye: “The Phone Call Isn’t Dead. It’s Evolving.”

It reports that according to research published by MRI-Simmons in 2012, 94 percent of survey respondents had used their mobile phones to have a voice call in the prior week. By spring 2019, talking had fallen to the least popular communication method, behind texting, email, posting to social media, and using chat applications. Just 45 percent of respondents reported having made a voice call with their mobile phones in the prior week. 

Communication styles have changed in the age of the smartphone. And yet, in only a few cases are those changes reflected in how companies enable customer service representatives to interact with customers. 

The technologies to enable contact center agents to simultaneously talk, text, message, and/or video with a customer exist today. The benefits seem so clear to those of us who use multiple media channels simultaneously or in rapid succession to complete our personal interactions.

Unfortunately, companies believe they are supporting their customers’ media channel needs by having some agents handling inbound calls, others doing email, and another group responding to web chats. At most companies, a different department entirely—marketing—is responding to social media queries. 

I believe the significant barrier to implementation is operational. It echoes past barriers to work-at-home agent programs: though the technology was available, companies balked, unsure they could get the same results with contact center agents they couldn't see.

Persistent conversations: An equally critical part of customer engagement

Related to, but not the same as omnichannel conversations, is the notion of being able to create an ongoing dialog with a company. There may be an hour, a day, or even longer between interactions, depending on the issue to be resolved.

A concierge service pilot enacted by a major credit card company in 2015 highlights the advantages of persistent conversations. A cardmember starts a messaging interaction, e.g., "I want to send flowers to my wife." After a few clarifying interactions, the concierge agent works on the back end, fulfills the request, and sends the cardmember a confirmation.

The pilot was designed to handle asynchronous requests, a category man concierge requests fall into; a customer asks for theatre tickets, and the concierge agent comes back—usually after several minutes—with several options. This might lead to another round of refining the request and waiting for new possibilities. The card member eventually makes a choice, messages the agent, and the transaction can be completed.

The credit card company reported that instead of waiting on the line or on hold for what could be 30 minutes to an hour, this kind of messaging solution meant the customer could more easily complete other tasks while waiting for the concierge to do theirs.

Any company deploying a persistent communications solution should understand that it comes with an implied contract with its customers. Companies must set up procedures to accurately track conversations over a longer period than they have in the past—from minutes for a voice call or chat to hours, perhaps even days. Technically, this is not difficult to do, but it requires a change in mindset—and likely operational procedures.

Expert services to uplevel customer support

My 92-year-old father-in-law and I both own the same brand desktop computer. 

I have been a loyal customer of this vendor for almost 30 years. My father-in-law is also a long-time customer, more than 20 years. When either of us calls for technical support, we are treated absolutely the same by the company’s contact center routing system. And yet, we are very different users.

In a perfect world, the computer company would know that I have already done “tier 1” support myself, and most of tier 2. I am running a small business, and the use of technology is integral to that business. I have a higher-level issue and need a more sophisticated technician. 

They would also know that my father-in-law uses his computer to read emails and newspapers… and that's about it. Most of his questions can be handled by tier 1 support.

Technologies to make my life easier and create more streamlined interactions for the computer company’s agents have existed for years, perhaps decades. This company's customer relationship management (CRM) software has a record of me and all my past purchases. But it stores information that helps the company, not necessarily the consumer

And when it comes to choosing a resource to support me, they don’t even use the information they have stored.

Interaction routing to agents or other technical support personnel could quickly be based on the technical proficiency of the caller, gleaned in previous interactions. But first companies would have to capture that data and make the decision to route based on it.

Cloud as the ultimate enabler

Twenty years ago, even five years ago, each of the solutions described above might cost a company more than a million dollars and over a year to implement. And they would take a team of internal information technology executives or still more dollars for systems integrators.

Cloud-based contact center and CRM applications, with open application programming interfaces, have dramatically reduced the cost, time, and technical proficiency required to deploy infinitely better customer care

Read the three key factors shaping the future of cloud-based contact centers

What in the past was only available to Fortune or Global 100 companies is now within the budget of companies, nonprofits, and organizations with even less than 100 employees

Envisioning a dramatically better customer experience is not difficult. It is as simple as every company committing to delivering to its customers an experience equal to the best they have personally ever had delivered to them.  

Why is cloud the ultimate enabler? Because implementing great, personalized customer experience solutions in the past required a major upfront cost, with months perhaps more than a year before a return on investment. It was tough for customer care professionals to make the financial case to executives with too many demands on scarce funding dollars. The cloud enables a time to value that makes the decision to serve customers with the best technology available a virtual no-brainer.

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Sheila McGee-Smith

Sheila McGee-Smith

Sheila McGee-Smith, the founder and principal analyst at McGee-Smith Analytics, is a leading communications industry analyst and strategic consultant with a proven track record in new product development, competitive assessment, market research, and sales strategies for communications solutions and services.